Free African Americans had a long and important history in Delaware before the Civil War. Although openly discriminated against, free people of color, as individuals and in groups, actively expressed their opinions on contemporary issues. They petitioned the state demanding action on abolition, emigration, and education. They sought religious freedom and fairness in labor practices. Their voices spoke passionately about their sense of justice, independence, and desire for equality. When the white majority responded to their growing numbers by passing harsh, restrictive legislation, free blacks throughout the state nonetheless found ways of creating economically and socially viable families and communities. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Wilmington's free blacks developed into the largest African American community in the state and eagerly accepted a leadership role in the struggle for equal rights.
Early on, the number of free blacks in the state grew representing the vast majority of Delaware's African American population and a significant portion of the total state population. By 1790, Kent County registered 2,570 free African Americans, compared to New Castle's 639, and Sussex's, 600. During the early 1800s, opposition to slavery led slaveholders to increase the numbers of those who were given their freedom. As a result of that trend, half of the black population or 13.5 percent of the total state population of 1,800 consisted of free blacks. By 1810, Delaware supported a larger proportion of free people in its African American population (76 percent) than New York (63 percent) or New Jersey (42 percent). By the 1830s, population shifts led to the largest African American population settling in New Castle County. In the 1840s and 1850s, Wilmington, bolstered by migration from the southern counties, sustained a free African American population that numbered over 2,000 inhabitants. Increasingly more blacks became free, not so much from having been freed as from being born free, of free parents. Sussex alone retained a comparatively large population of slaves; the numbers in Kent and New Castle County decreased. By 1840, Wilmington held only 15 slaves; by 1850, none. By the eve of the Civil War, free blacks represented 92 percent of the total African American population and 18 percent of the total state population. Only 1,798 slaves remained in the state in 1860, while freed blacks numbered nearly 20,000.
As the size of the free African American population grew, Delaware's legislature enacted increasingly harsh legislation to restrict their political and economic progress. These laws typified those of slave states in the Upper South where free outnumbered non-free blacks. In these states, fears developed among the white majority that the growing presence of free blacks would cause problems. William Yates, an African American minister who visited the state in the late 1830s, described this situation as the "mark of the beast," (i.e., the mockery of freedom that burdened Delaware's African American populace). "They are truly neither slaves nor free; being subjected to the disabilities and disadvantages of both conditions; and enjoying few of the benefits of either."
Of course, even free African Americans risked the threat of being grabbed by slave catchers, or arrested, because, although they were free, they were thought to be slaves. One of the most notorious of the slave catchers was Patty Cannon. She lived four miles west of Seaford, on the Sussex border with Maryland. The presence of such gangs meant that free African Americans lived in a constant state of fear that they or members of their families would be sold into slavery. The kidnappers found that taking free blacks had far fewer consequences than seizing those who were slaves.
In this period before the Civil War, legislators passed a range of acts designed to prevent African Americans from achieving equality. For example, free blacks, although they paid taxes, could neither vote nor testify in a courtroom against whites. There were few schools available for their children. In 1821, the state passed a law that denied state aid for the education of free blacks. In 1826, a law was passed requiring free African Americans to carry identity papers at all times signed by an authorized white person. A few years later, a law was passed denying them the right to bear arms, although in 1835, that law was amended to allow for annual registration. As of 1839, only free African Americans could be sold if convicted of a crime. In 1845, they were banned from buying or selling alcohol.
The Delaware legislature also passed laws that restricted the size of gatherings of free blacks as well as their movement in and out of state. As of 1832, it was illegal for more than 12 free blacks to hold a meeting past 10 p.m. in winter without three respectable whites present. A series of laws minimized the amount of time blacks could spend away from Delaware. An act in 1811 reduced the time away from two years to six months; in 1849, to 60 days; and in 1863, to five days. Only sailors and watermen were exempted. By 1849 it was illegal to be unemployed while poor, and the state held the power to sell anyone judged such into servitude. The law also allowed authorities to bind out only African American children. The presence of such legislation made life extremely difficult for free African Americans.
The attitude of the majority population toward free blacks is also revealed in unsuccessful legislation. In 1792 and 1852, attempts were made to prohibit free blacks from buying land. The attempts failed, although they received substantial support in the legislature. So too, did endeavors by abolitionists in 1832, 1837, and 1851 to repeal earlier laws which that the sale of Delaware's slaves out of state. Abolitionists had also introduced legislation to abolish slavery, hoping they would succeed because Delaware was one of the few slave states in which the legislature was not dominated by slaveholders. They failed. The closest the state came to passing abolition was in 1847 when the Delaware House of Representatives voted for an act to abolish slavery--the Senate vetoed the act.
Understanding why a majority of whites in Delaware backed or at least did not oppose such legislation is a complex matter. There were whites like Thomas Garrett, a Quaker, who opposed slavery and was active in the abolitionist movement. From the post-Revolutionary period on, private owners in Delaware had freed 76 percent of the slave population. In 1840, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that color was not a presumption of slavery--a very progressive position for that time. Yet, it seems the case that many felt that blacks were inferior and only useful as laborers or family servants and not social equals. These political, economic, and social obstacles to equality did not go unchallenged. Free blacks actively used the existing legal system to fight for their rights and sometimes went outside of it. The free black population understood the oppressive nature of slavery and supported the abolition movement in a number of ways. Some chose to sign petitions advocating abolition, which circulated during the first half of the century. Abraham Dores, a well-respected Wilmington barber who died in 1825, felt seriously enough about the movement to will $100 to the local abolition society. Solomon Bayley, a former Kent County slave, traveled to Wilmington to cooperate with abolitionists who published his dramatic story in which he passionately portrayed his road to freedom. An 1849 petition from Kent County reveals that African Americans were also well aware that much of the discrimination against them was based on color: "We are free men yet we are gilty of a Skin A thing That was not in our power to controle yeat it was the will of him who made us To be his accountable creation."
African Americans petitioned various levels of government on a variety of issues. When necessary, they even used the courts. Numerous individuals addressed the topics of personal freedom and economic discrimination in their appeals. To explain his thinking about using the legal avenues open to him, Solomon Bayley wrote: "I thought where the law made liberty the right of any man, he could not be wrong in trying to recover it." He threatened to take his master to court for transporting his family out of state and immediately selling them on arrival in Virginia. His firm stance led to an out-of-court settlement and an arrangement to buy his freedom over time. Bayley later purchased the freedom of his wife, Thamar, and his children, (Spence, Margaret, and Leah). Many others, when their masters violated the law, successfully petitioned the courts to achieve what was rightfully theirs. In one such case, Noah Burton contested a former employer's claim that because he was illiterate, he could not have kept accurate accounts over a three year period of what he was owed and, therefore, should not be paid. The court, however, accepted the validity of Burton's "notched stick" evidence on which he recorded dates, type of work, and amount of money owed by different cuts on the stick. As a result, Burton won his case.
The presence of free African Americans in the state was so feared that in the 1820s an African colonization effort was begun, which proposed sending thousands of free blacks to Liberia. In Wilmington, an organization called the Union Colonization Society called for the removal of "free negroes and mulattoes" as essential for the state's white inhabitants. The state legislature supported the statement. But, there was tremendous opposition from some segments of the free black population. In the late 1820s, according to one Sussex County farmer, the free blacks and most of the slaves in Dagsboro Hundred, opposed it. In 1831, Wilmington's Abraham Shadd, a shoemaker, William S. Thomas, a former teacher, and Peter Spencer, a minister, crafted one of the most telling statements about black thought on the subject. The proclamation openly declared that free blacks belonged in the United States and with proper support could become productive citizens:
Africa is neither our nation or home. . . . That our degraded condition . . . cannot be bettered by removing the most exemplary individuals of color amongst us. . . . Our highest moral ambition should be to acquire for our children a liberal education, give them mechanical trades, and thus fit and prepare them for useful and responsible citizens.
Shadd, nearly 20 years later, moved part of his family to Canada. Among them was his daughter, Mary Ann, a teacher who became an even more adamant proponent of integration and the first black woman to edit a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. She eventually returned to the U.S. where she became involved in the women's movement.
Education was yet another area where free blacks pressed for equality. As early as 1801, the editor of the Mirror of the Times boasted about the civility of the city's free black population but bemoaned the regrettable lack of educational opportunities for them. In succeeding decades, some African American parents sent their children to schools backed with funding from Quaker and other religious groups. But, many others were not as fortunate. As members of Wilmington's Quaker-based African School Society explained in a 1843 petition to the state:
There are several hundred of colored children in this City, who, being excluded from the benefit of our free Schools, remain in great measure dependent on charity for the means of obtaining the first rudiments of education, or they must otherwise grow up neglected and debased, forming a noxious mass in the midst of our population.
Others in the African American community refused to leave their hopes solely in the hands of educational reformers such as the African School Society. Instead, they taught their children themselves or petitioned public authorities for relief. For example, in October 1846, Wilmington's City Council minutes contain a request by William Saunders, a barber, and other African American residents who asked, "for an appropriation for the education of their children...." The following summer, Daniel Baily and other ministers of the different congregations of color in this city submitted a similar demand.
Unfortunately, the decade of the 1850s brought harsher not less restrictive legislation. The severity of the 1850 laws including those that specified the time that free African Americans would spend away from Delaware, not surprisingly, drew the organized attention of many throughout the state. Wilmington's free blacks were particularly active. In 1853, larger in number and stronger in voice, the city's African American community spoke out as evidenced by the 221 signatures from Wilmington and New Castle County attached to a petition condemning the new legislation. Among the city signees, in addition to the names of many laborers, are those of barbers such as Benjamin Sharper, John Gray, Jesse Jones, blacksmith Michael Sterling, minister Moses Chippey, tailor Robert Graves, members of the Underground Railroad, mason Comegys Munson, and brickmaker, Henry Craig, Jr. According to an earlier petition they asked:
to exempt free people of collar in perticular to establish our freedom which we have occasion to pass or Travel from This State to any other as for instance... to the city of Phila[delphia]... By Steem boat or Stage, we have been exceedingly anoyd And put to very considerable inconvenience and eaven compeled to Leave the boat and thereby entirely defeated from accomplishing our just and lawful business because we have not a certificate from some White person.... This we believe to be a great grievance &nd unjust.... We pay our Taxes Every year for support of government. Then why may we not be permited to pass our travel from This State to any other in pursuit of our just and Lawful business.
Undoubtedly, the most dramatic way in which Delaware's free African Americans exercised their sense of justice, and the one which continues to capture public attention today, is their role on the Underground Railroad. The secret nature of this daring enterprise makes it unlikely that historians will ever be able to determine with any exactness how many of Delaware's black population--free and unfree--were active participants or for that matter fled from the area. Yet more than enough evidence exists to argue that the support of the African American community throughout the state was essential to its success. Lewes, Camden, Frederica, Dover, Blackbird, Middletown, St. George's, Odessa, New Castle, and Wilmington are among those places that functioned as stations along the escape route. Quakers, especially Wilmington's Thomas Garrett, and outsiders such as Harriet Tubman are deservedly credited with operating or using the Railroad. Many others risked their own freedom and safety. Most of the African American names we know are from the Wilmington area "conductorsÓ--Comegys Munson, mason, Henry Craig, brickmaker, Severn Johnson, oysterman, Jane Morris, the 50-year-old woman who worked in Garrett's household, and Joseph Walker, originally from the West Indies, a laborer. Among those who also deserve attention was Joe Finney of Kent County who was part of an organized network of small craft that operated in small inlets near Little Creek and may have carried away dozens of runaways to freedom. These free black men and women built the groundwork for their late antebellum successors such as Samuel D. Burris, a school teacher near Camden, and William Brinkley who also operated in the southern counties. Nor should the focus on individual efforts deflect our attention from those made by larger groups such as church members who sometimes sang songs such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" or "Go Down Moses" to alert an entire congregation to the movement of fugitives. Although most runaways came from out of state, Delaware's slaves also fled from servitude. After all, according to African American William Still, who ran a station in Pennsylvania and knew many of Delaware's covert operatives, the First State's free and unfree African Americans were "wide awake to escape." Newspapers ranging from the Mirror of the Times to the Delaware Gazette and the Delaware State Journal contain ads about runaway slaves from Delaware. Although advertisements suggest that some headed for local destinations, it is probable that a number of them successfully fled north. For example, information continues to surface about escapees such as the Delawarean named Mott who, once out of the state, established himself as a minister in New Jersey. In the 1840 and 1850 federal censuses, the Reverend Mott listed New Jersey as his birthplace. Only after the Civil War did he feel secure enough to admit the truth. There are also a few complicating instances of runaways from other states who, once in Delaware, remained there with new identities, employment, and lives until discovered by the authorities.
In the struggle to achieve greater recognition for their claims against injustice, Wilmington's free black population also extended its links to neighboring Philadelphia to participate in regional and national activities such as the Methodist Conference, or the Anti-Slavery Society, or the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Color. Wilmingtonians interacted with those who had Delawarean connections such as Samuel Cornish. Born free in Delaware, Cornish moved to Philadelphia and then to New York; he eventually became a Presbyterian minister and the editor of the first black paper in the United States, The Freeman. Unfortunately, segregationist practices supplemented religious observances. For example, not many blacks became Quakers, and although the Methodists accepted larger numbers, in churches or at camp meetings, free and unfree African Americans were relegated to stands, pews, or balconies in the back during services.
Despite living in a state of poverty or semi-poverty, free African Americans found ways to survive and build a future for themselves and their families as they became an essential aspect of the economic growth of the state. Although the majority population could not grasp the preference of many free blacks to select when, where, for whom, and for how long they would toil, whites admitted that without the contributions of blacks, the Delaware economy would not have prospered. In both rural areas and Wilmington, most free African Americans found work as laborers. On occasion, they also agreed to work on grand projects such as the building of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Although the percentage of skilled workers in Wilmington declined from 14 percent in 1814 to six percent in 1860, many of its black inhabitants followed the city's tradition of skilled African Americans (see Table I). For example, in the 18th century, Gabriel Jackson, a free black, was the only man to build a brig on the Brandywine. By the 1850s, families such as the Sterling's boasted a father and son as blacksmiths. Michael Sterling's shop on East Fourth Street supported a family of five in a home on Walnut Street. In 1850, at the age of 62, he held real estate valued at $2,000; by 1860, it had grown to $3,000. The life of Robert Graves, a signer of the 1853 petition, exhibits upward mobility. He began as a waterman in 1845 but five years later was a shopkeeper with real estate valued at $650. By 1860, Graves by then a 40-year-old with a tailor shop, owned real estate valued at $4,000. Calep Milbourn, one of Delaware's few African American cabinetmakers, made a living fashioning items which appear in inventories of African American inhabitants--bedsteads, bureaus, tables, and chairs. He also made something that they all needed sooner or later: coffins.
By 1850, almost five percent of the city's free African Americans held real estate in Wilmington, with a total value of $42,596. The range for individuals ran from $100 to $6,000. Amelia Shadd (75) owned $6,000 followed by widow Elizabeth Eves (80) and the blacksmith Michael Spencer with $2,000 each. Grocer Absalom Williams was next in line with $1,400. Most laborers fell into the $200 to $300 range. Ten years later, Wilmington's African Americans held real estate worth $66,925 and personal worth of $27,375. Most of the city's free blacks lived in frame houses, although by mid-century, city laws required new buildings of brick. Although not many inventories from African Americans have survived, the following inventories found in the Delaware State Archives offer some idea of the level of material culture in their community:
|1 tinplate stove||$ 3.00|
|1 horse cart||$ 6.00|
|1 old poplar table||$ .50|
|1 old bureau||$ 1.00|
|1 bedstead, bed, bedding||$ 5.00|
|8 old windsor chairs||$ 2.00|
|1 grind stone & hangings||$1.50|
|1 looking glass||$ .25|
|1 shovel||$ .25|
|Clock, looking glass & pictures||$ 4.25|
|3 tables, 1 settee, 12 chairs & stand||$ 8.95|
|3 feather beds, 2 pair bedsteads & bedding||$18.50|
|A lot of dishes & ware||$ 3.52|
|Rocking chair, and a lot of old chairs||$ 1.25|
|3 bushels of shells & water vases||$ 1.50|
|Waring [sic] clothes & bureau latch||$12.00|
|A lot of old carpet & old rags||$ 2.00|
|Saws, old iron||$ 3.00|
African Americans in both the city and in southern communities apparently took advantage of maritime opportunities. In Wilmington, jobs held by free blacks included a bargeman, boatman, fishermen, seaman, stevedore, waterman (to which we can add master of a vessel), and an unspecified activity related to oysters. African Americans near places such as the Indian River or Assawoman Bay in Sussex County, employed canoes, bateaux, "saltwater rowboats," and simple handnets to catch migratory fish such as herring and shad, or they dug for oysters and raked for clams. The 1860 Census includes a group of 67 free African American sailors in Milford, Milton, Lewes, Seaford, and Laurel. Such an interest in maritime jobs may help to explain why Milton was an exception to the general rule that skilled African Americans declined in number during the first half of the century. In 1850, 10 percent of the town's free black population was skilled; in 1860, 22 percent were.
Newspapers contain enough notices about fatal accidents involving Wilmington's inhabitants to conclude there were definite dangers associated with water-related occupations. An 1825 issue of the Delaware Gazette describes the death of Allen Anderson who, while setting sail on a trip from Philadelphia to Wilmington, fell overboard and drowned. In 1848, the Blue Hen's Chicken noted deaths by drowning of John Gordon, a hand on a pilot boat, and, in a separate incident, John Pindergrass, a cook on board a cutter, who mysteriously disappeared from his vessel and was later found floating in the Christiana River. African American sailors who ventured away from Delaware waters also assumed political risks. In 1848, Jesse Mode, captain of an all black crew out of Wilmington, ventured to Swan Creek in Maryland to pick up a load of logs for a Pennsylvania buyer. Because Maryland law required at least one white man on board a vessel manned by blacks, Mode and his crew endured arrest, imprisonment and a fine. Only the intercession of Thomas Garrett secured their release.
Unlike those in rural agricultural areas, African American women in towns and cities generally took domestic jobs. Nonetheless, the 1845 Wilmington Directory lists only two women with occupations (wool picker and washerwoman) and over 40 widows. It is likely that many of the latter worked as domestic servants or took in washing or sewing. Free, black Wilmington women certainly had a tradition of finding their economic niche. In the 18th century, Mrs. Betty Jackson gained renown for her tea parties, which she held for the city's elite on a platform in a willow tree that could be reached from the second-floor balcony of her home. Her sons, Gabriel Jackson and Jeremiah Shad prospered as a boatbuilder and as a butcher. There is also Aunt Sally Shadd, whom some claim introduced Delaware and the nation to ice cream, and Mrs. Green, who ran a Wilmington boarding house and the anonymous sellers of cakes and other foodstuffs who patronized passengers at railroad stops. By 1859, three African American women operated a dry goods shop, "Brown & Hartley," out of their home on East Third Street.
Many of Wilmington's free African American population came from the southern counties where most employment was linked to agriculture. Around 1860, about 10 percent in Kent and Sussex were tenant farmers; most of the remainder were temporary farm laborers who worked on the growing and harvesting of crops such as corn, wheat, and foodstuffs. Tenant farmers might work one or two fields, have a garden for personal use, a pasture for a cow, and possibly a woodlot; they raised little or no surplus. In unique environments such as the Cypress Swamp in Sussex, free blacks took jobs related to the timber industry such as cutting down trees, driving yokes of oxen, and reworking logs into lumber and shingles. Those who did not have land might own oxen, which they could rent out for cultivating fields, hauling wood and bark, or moving buildings. Court records of Noah Burton's, "notched stick account," illustrate the types of activities he undertook to earn a living:
|1 day working in garden; self||$ .75|
|Work by self and boy||$ .50|
|Getting hay on marsh||$5.00|
|1 day going after oxen||$ .75|
|3 days work of boy, at 25||$ .25|
|3 stacks of hay at $2 00||$ 6.00|
|2 days going after hay; self and boy||$1.75|
|1-1/2 days hauling drift from sea shore||$ .75|
|1 day's work on cape||$ .75|
|1/2 of an ox hide||$1.40|
|Hire of oxen||$4.00|
|1 day's work of self and Jacob Wessels||$1.50|
Some free African Americans left Delaware to seek opportunities elsewhere. In the late 18th and early 19th century, former slaves such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen went to Philadelphia for religious reasons; Solomon and Thamar Bayley of Kent County relocated to Liberia to settle there as farmers. Peter Laws of Smyrna went to Haiti to pursue economic ventures. Members of the Shadd family left the city in the 1830s for Pennsylvania. Then in the 1850s, went to Canada to seek political freedom. Among the more interesting emigrants is William Spencer Anderson, son of Wilmington brickmaker, Daniel B. Anderson. In 1852, 20-year-old William, then a barber from Burlington, New Jersey, left for Africa as an emigrant. In Liberia, he joined a relative, J. M. Richardson of New York, who owned a farm on the St. Paul's River and traded with the local Africans. When his uncle drowned, Anderson inherited his plantation. William decided not to engage in trading and instead concentrated on growing sugar. In the early 1860s, he returned to Wilmington to exhibit some of his products and to bring his sister, Harriet, who had taught briefly at the Female African School, her husband Gerald Rollins, and their son back to Liberia. By 1869, Anderson's involvement in politics gained him a seat in the Liberian House of Representatives and an appointment as Speaker of the House. As a government officer, he headed up an exploration of the interior to develop new commercial outlets with indigenous Africans and later became a member of a loan-negotiation team in London. Unfortunately, one year after visiting his parents in Wilmington in 1871, on his return to Liberia, Anderson died of a gunshot wound in Liberia caused by a rival sugar planter and political opponent.
Most free African Americans, especially in the southern counties, however, found it difficult to leave their impoverished setting. Although a few received something akin to "freedom dues" when manumitted, even tenant farming kept them at a subsistence level. In rural areas, most free blacks lived in one room houses 15 feet wide and 18 feet long, with a shingle roof, brick chimney, two windows, and a pine floor. They normally owned cooking utensils, some hand tools, and perhaps some furniture, which consisted of pine beds, tables, chests, stools, or chairs. A few, according to one long-time Sussex County resident, were able to make a comfortable living from their work and gained the respect of the white populace. Even fewer were true success stories.
Although they could not become doctors and lawyers, some African Americans found other ways to accumulate significant amounts of material wealth. Among the latter are tenant farmers such as the Francisco brothers, who in the late 18th and early 19th century built up their livestock herds in Kent County to earn nearly $10,000, which they used to move to Ohio. Levin Thompson, of Sussex County, displayed a great deal of creativity and business acumen while earning his fortune. By the time of his death in 1816, Levin was among the top five percent of assessed property owners there. By then, he was wealthy enough to loan money to his white counterparts for interest. Born to a family of Maryland, free blacks, Thompson started with a farm of 200 acres, which he expanded into the ownership of 428 acres of farmland near Laurel and 135 acres of cypress timberland in Dagsboro Hundred. He also owned a gristmill and sawmill on Trussum Pond as well as woolen cloth spinning wheels and looms. Thompson provided housing near his mills for 30 free blacks. The inventory from Thompson's estate includes a carriage, an old walnut table, Windsor chairs, a decanter set with tumblers, and some silver items.
On a less prosperous but noteworthy level were those whose efforts earned them livings comparable to artisans in the majority population. For example, Absalom Gibbs, a mechanic who built a significant number of homes in Camden, in 1835 held property in Murderkill Hundred worth $1,115. Elisha Prettyman, a carpenter in Milton, supported a family of five. By 1860, he owned $2,000 in real estate and another $500 in personal property.
The presence of such individuals facilitated economic development throughout the state. Outside of Wilmington, villages such as Leipsic supported only two or three families of African American laborers and a few free blacks who worked as domestics for local families. But, elsewhere, a few individuals emerged whose entrepreneurship, creativity, or longevity had a substantial impact. For example, members of the Boyer family continuously inhabited Polktown, a part of Delaware City, from the 1820s onward. Charleytown, near what became Townsend, received its name after a free African American, Charles Loyd. In Sussex County, Jake "Jigger" Bell, referred to some as the state's first black developer, owned land near current day Lewes. He created "Belltown" by selling lots to fellow African Americans and also donated a plot to the church.
Meanwhile, Wilmington's African American population continued to grow steadily. By 1850, it supported the largest urbanized African American community in the state. Because of the greater availability of jobs in the city when compared to the countryside, women usually outnumbered men by a few hundred persons.
Even though in the two decades prior to the Civil War, one cannot identify a specific section of Wilmington as being inhabited exclusively by African Americans, they solidified their presence in areas known as "Bull Hill," "Whiskey Bridge," part of "Love Lane," and "Hedgeville."
Wilmington's free blacks proved to be very socially active. One way we know this is through news items appearing in the Blue Hen's Chicken, a Wilmington newspaper. Francis Vincent, its editor, was interested in including a variety of information on the free African American community prior to the Civil War. Vincent's reporting gives us a window of the important institutions, economic activities and forms of discrimination faced by its members. The Blue Hen's Chicken mentions a number of mid-century social organizations. For example, three temperance unions attracted 200 members; the Masonic Lodge, 50; the Odd Fellows Lodge, 40; and, a secret society called the "Queer Fellows," an undetermined number. Other lodges in which African Americans participated included Unity 711, Covenant No. 876; Phoenix No. 894; Good Samaritan of Pennsylvania; Star of Bethlehem 897, and the Grand Chapter. All these groups used the large brick building at the southeast corner of Sixth and Walnut Streets as a meeting place. The Chicken also contains a vivid description of the October parade held to dedicate the Odd Fellows' Hall, which reveals a strong connection to free blacks in Philadelphia:
Dedication of the Colored Odd Fellows' Hall in Wilmington.--On Friday last., 6th, inst., a large number of colored Odd Fellows, from Pennsylvania, met those of our city to dedicate a large new brick Hall, just erected at the S. E. Corner of Sixth and Walnut streets. They paraded through the different streets of our city, to the number of several hundred, extending (two abreast) upwards of two squares, with a fine band of music, banners and all the imagination of the order. They were all shades of color, from the darkest African to the lightest mulatto. They were much admired for their good conduct, and very civilly and kindly treated by our citizens.
Wilmington's African American barbers, who provided a service and a political rallying point for the free black citizens, also offered a social outlet. For example, on one occasion the barbers sponsored a trip with a band to Penns Grove, New Jersey.
It is also obvious that the free African American community in Wilmington valued the family as a social institution. Although difficult to maintain under slavery because owners determined the fate of their property, unfree blacks did what they could to develop a sense of family, which included extended kinfolk. Increased manumissions benefitted African Americans, but even then, many families that had been split up during slavery, were never reconstituted or were delayed from doing so by conditional manumission terms. Once freed at least they could marry, chose their own name, and named their own children, all of which allowed for the development of nuclear families and extended families. An 1839 visitor from the Colored American to Wilmington commented that, "a large number of families live in their own houses and upon their own grounds." In the 1850s, Wilmington had a higher percentage of two parent African American households than rural areas in which female households represented a greater percentage of the population. In the city, even when parents came from neighboring states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Maryland, their children usually were born in Delaware. Many named children after themselves, and many families had at least one older parent living with them. There were also a number of children of single women living in white households. Although that circumstance may have weakened family ties, it may have also expanded a family's earning power. While creating an environment for the growth of families, many African Americans realized that legislative backing in the form of the legal right to own property and the exercise of rights to defend it also offered them some security.
Perhaps the strongest, most visible and most viable social institution of the Wilmington African American community was the church. The emergence of an independent black church movement involved not only some of Delaware's better- known African Americans such as Richard Allen, Peter Spencer, and Absalom Jones, but also involved less recognized figures such as Isaac and Betsey Carter near Odessa or Solomon Bayley of Kent County. As these people moved toward religious independence, they exhibited passion, enthusiasm, energy, and organizational skills, which, in turn, helped to develop an inner spirituality and the courage to voice concerns about injustice.
Free and unfree African Americans gravitated toward Methodism more than any other religion. During the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries, Methodists offered more integrated services (e.g., although neither allowed blacks to speak from the pulpit or be ordained, free blacks had permission to hold class meetings on main floor). Some such as the Carters, opened homes to members from both races, but more commonly, all black services were held in their own homes or outdoors. Bayley took his preaching skills to Liberia when he emigrated.
In the 1790s, two former slaves, Richard Allen of Kent County and later Absalom Jones of Sussex, created all black congregations in Philadelphia. By 1816, Allen cut all ties with white Methodism and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which by 1843, branched out to include 31 congregations in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Jones's congregation retained links with the Protestant Episcopal Church and its white domination.
Meanwhile, events in Wilmington created yet another independent African American church. Peter Spencer, another former slave, led a dramatic challenge to the local Methodists after they banished blacks to the balcony. He created a new all black congregation, Ezion Geber, still under the direction of a white pastor. When the pastor ignored the wishes of the congregation and the Board in 1813, Spencer broke away altogether to create the African Union Church, the branches of which remained oriented to communities in New Castle County.
As a result of natural growth and disagreements within the Wilmington religious community, by early 1850s African Americans in Wilmington had a choice among five independent churches. By the end of the Civil War, eight such churches had been formed. One enduring feature of their religion is manifested in what became known as the "Big Quarterly" or "August Quarterly". This annual folk festival, created in Wilmington by Peter Spencer, ostensibly commemorated the founding of the above-mentioned Union Church. Although it too was effected by internal bickering, especially in the 1850s, the Quarterly turned into a rallying point for thousands of free and unfree inhabitants and visitors from the Delmarva Peninsula. During this festivity, Wilmington attracted visitors from Maryland, Virginia, and lower Delaware as well as from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Offshoots were held in places that ranged from Glasgow to Delaware City. Participants attended the Quarterly for personal religious reasons or to participate in the general conference of the congregation. Social activities that ranged from family reunions to arranging a marriage or to enjoy the music, good food, and excitement attracted participants. When Peter Spencer died in 1843, the Quart erly also served as a means of acknowledging his leadership.
In spite of their active defense of rights and vigorous social activity, African Americans in Wilmington still encountered difficulties common in an urban environment. By far, consumption was the greatest killer of free blacks followed by pneumonia. In 1849, when cholera struck the city, 22 African Americans, almost one-third of the dead, succumbed to that disease. Included among the victims were 70-year-old Nathan Brown, Henry Miller, and James Ricketts as well as 95-year-old Esther Howell.
Crimes of the day, sometimes linked to racism, featured drunkenness, fighting, spousal abuse, burglary, and theft. For example, the Wilmington constabulary was accused of being excessive in its enforcement of runaway laws. Some violent incidents where drunken whites beat up individuals such as Comegys Munson or got into a scrape with James Hinson and "old man" Veazey, can be attributed to racial differences. So, too, were the situations where young white "bucks" and "dandies" harassed African American women by following them home and verbally assaulting them. But, others are not as easy to categorize. For example, in 1848 the Blue Hen's Chicken reported four separate incidents in which white mobs destroyed housing inhabited by free blacks. Although it is likely that racism contributed to such violence, the fact that the houses were also used by both whites and blacks for illegal activities such as prostitution must be considered. Certainly such activity could escalate racial violence, as noted by the editor who admonished the authorities to do something or, "none of the houses inhabited by colored people will be safe." Nor is it certain that the destruction of African American builders Henry Wilson's and Nathaniel Robinson's newly erected housing was racially motivated. There were, however, accusations that free blacks caused some of the fires that burned down white-owned property.
There are also instances of black-on-black violence linked to drinking, abuse of spouses, and fighting. Sydney Caldwell, a woman, was angry enough to take out an ad in the Blue Hen's Chicken to accuse a black man of attacking her. Some free blacks remained cognizant of the potential harm that misbehavior meant for their community. For example, in 1848 and 1849, the Chicken published a series of anonymous, "By Gumbo," letters to the editor, which were critical of the poor behavior of some of his fellow African Americans. In 1849, one individual, who identified herself as, "A BLACK FEMALE," responded and chastised him about his generalizations and lack of respect for those in the free African American community who behaved properly and castigated him for writing articles, "beneath the dignity of a gentleman."
Despite their unique situation that exposed them to political, economic, and social discrimination, free blacks played an important role in the development of Delaware. Many who had been slaves enjoyed their new status of freemen but found that harsh laws restricted their advancement. Nonetheless, historical evidence reveals not only how loudly their voices and actions opposed such obstacles but the many accomplishments achieved by them. Notable among these efforts was Wilmington's free African American community. By the antebellum period the city's free blacks had built not only the largest African American community in the state but also a very active leadership role in the fight against inequality. Wilmington's free blacks took advantage of the town's diversified economy and opportunities to organize political and social groups to address issues such as abolition of slavery, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and equal treatment before the law. Although some chose to leave the state to seek success elsewhere, many remained to build families, churches, and participate in social activities, which fostered community growth. In this milieu, many free blacks, despite impoverished conditions, achieved a modest amount of material wealth--and a few, outright success.
Delaware State Archives:
Manumissions, Kent County
Probate, Wills and Inventories
Historical Society of Delaware:
Female African School Society Papers
Blue Hen's Chicken
Mirror of the Times
Books and Articles
Lewis V. Baldwin, "Festivity and Celebration: A Profile of Wilmington's Big Quarterly," Delaware History, v. XIX (1981), pp. 197-211.
Solomon Bayley, A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave in the State of Delaware, North America, London, 1825.
Peter T. Dalleo, "'Thrifty and intelligent, moral and religious' Wilmington's Free African American Community," Delaware History (accepted for publication).
Harold Hancock, "Not Quite Men: The Free Negroes in Delaware in 1830s," Civil War History, v. 17 (December 1968), pp. 320-31.
______________, "Mary Ann Shadd: Negro Editor, Educator, and Lawyer," Delaware History,v. XV (1978), pp. 187-95.
______________, "William Yates's Letter of 1837: Slavery and Colored People in Delaware," Delaware History, v. 14 (April 1971), pp. 205-10.
Samuel Harrington, Reports in the Superior Court and Court of Errors and Appeals, Wilmington, Delaware, 1901, p. 288-89.
Bernard Herman, The Stolen House, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1992.
Paula Thompson, "Harriet Tubman, Thomas Garrett and the Underground Railroad," Delaware History, v. (XXII), pp. 1-21.
William H. Williams, Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865, Scholarly Resources, Wilmington, Delaware, 1996.
Wilmington Directory, 1845, 1857, 1859, Wilmington, Delaware.
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Last Updated: June 27, 1997
Last Updated: June 27, 1997