Emma D. Amuti
University of Delaware


This study explores black occupations in Wilmington, Delaware and the impact of European immigration on the mobility of black workers in the city at three specific times in the city's history: 1850, 1880, and 1910. The geographic location of Wilmington and the ratio of its black and white immigrant populations during the mid- 19th to early 20th centuries offer a unique opportunity to assess occupational mobility and labor competition between the two groups. Wilmington's demographic composition differed from other northern cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, in that free blacks formed a significant proportion of its unskilled, low-wage labor force during the 19th century. The high percentage of free blacks in Wilmington was due, in part, to the voluntary manumissions of slaves by the Quakers.

During the 19th century, the percentage of free blacks in Wilmington fluctuated: 17 percent in (1845), 10.5 percent (1860), and 15 percent (1880). The immigrant population fluctuated similarly, from 18.9 percent (1860) to 13 percent (1880). Throughout the early and mid-19th century, free, black workers dominated the unskilled, low-wage labor market in Wilmington. Federal Censuses and Wilmington business directories prior to 1850 show that European immigrants did not initially displace black workers. During this period, black workers competed alongside European immigrants and were occasionally employed in skilled occupations. But, by 1880, the large number of immigrant workers with declining job skills, began challenging black workers for employment in occupations considered traditionally black. Black workers began to experience a series of displacements, or "evictions," from certain occupations and industries.

Wilmington: An Overview of the Economy

Wilmington, a manufacturing city 27 miles south of Philadelphia, was from 1850 to 1910, the only city in an otherwise rural state (Hoffecker, 1974b). The city is situated between two rivers, the Brandywine and the Christina and was dominated by industrial manufacturing from its early days. The Brandywine, with its many falls, provided water power as early as 1740 for the flour and grist mills along its banks. "Shipbuilding and cooperage, closely linked to the milling and shipping business, became important to the town's economy" (Hoffecker, 1974, p. 7).

By 1800, a number of mills, including several flour and cotton mills, had been established along the Brandywine (Heite, 1988). The extent of flour manufacturing in the region was noted by James Tilton who found that, "Delaware had the largest and most perfect manufacturing of flour, within a like space of ground, known in the world" (Tilton cited in Reed, 1947, p. 421). During the early part of the 19th century, industrial production continued to be essential to Wilmington's economy. The vigor of the economy could be seen in the profusion of factories and shops in the city.

Wilmington's long history of industrialization, ready sources of skilled and semi- skilled labor as well as its nearness to the natural resources of coal and iron ore facilitated the city to become the headquarters for a variety of other industries during the first half of the 19th century (Hoffecker, 1974b). By 1850, the city of Wilmington had, "several cotton mills, a match factory and a fertilizer plant . . . ." The most significant industries in Wilmington's economy from 1840 to 1880, in terms of both employment and investment, were in shipbuilding, railroad car construction, foundry work, leather tanning, and carriage making (Hoffecker, 1974, p. 19). Peripheral industries such as leather tanning and carriage making later developed into important industries (Schreuder, 1988; Hoffecker, 1974b).

Industrial activity, which had been focused on industries along the Brandywine River during the early part of the 19th century shifted to the Christina River toward the end of that century. The Christina River, with its relatively deep harbor, became the center of shipbuilding and metal working industries as a number of internationally known companies had established their headquarters in and around it by 1860. (1)

Companies continued to be attracted to the Wilmington area and numerous products appeared in the national and international market which were made there during the late nineteenth century. Among them were, "machine tools; sashes, doors, blinds; commercial fertilizers; newel posts; morocco-making machinery; candy and cracker manufacturer; . . . the making of twine; the famous Diamond Matches; all kinds of engines, boilers, steam-pumps, and brass castings" (Hancock, 1947, p. 428).

The importance of a particular industry to a city's economy is often reflected in the number of workers employed in that industry. Table 1 illustrates the rise and decline of Wilmington's industries over a 40 year span. The table is particularly illustrative of the rise of two of Wilmington's most important industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: leather tanning and car manufacture. In 1860, leather tanning and car manufacture occupied fourth and 10th places with respect to the number of workers employed. By 1880, both leather tanning and car manufacture began to employ significant proportions of Wilmington's labor force, with leather tanning employing the second-highest number of workers in the city followed by car manufacturing. The number of workers for both industries continued to increase significantly in the next two decades. By 1900, car manufacturing, which had employed only 14.2 percent of workforce in 1880, employed more than 28 percent of Wilmington's working population, a percentage greater than any other single industry in the city.

Table 1

Ten Leading Industries by Number of Workers in
Wilmington, Delaware for 1860, 1880, and 1900

Industry1860Industry 1880Industry1900
Cotton Goods1,109 Shipbuilding1,454Cars 2,897
Shipbuilding558Leather 914Leather2,454
Carriages523Cars 860Foundries2,009
Leather384Foundries 779Iron & Steel1,327
Machines325 Iron & Steel610 Hosiery470
Boots & Shoes307 Cotton Goods469 Carpentry199
Car Wheels200Carriages 384Bakeries160
Iron & Steel193Brickmaking 234Carriages176
Cooperage170Paper/Printing230 Shipbuilding176
Cars100Carpentry 105Printing162
Totals3,9396,039 10,030

Source: Hoffecker, Carol. (1974) Wilmington, Delaware. Appendix, p. 167; U.S. Census, 1860, Manufactures, pp. 53-54; Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Statistics of Manufacturers, Vol. 2 pp. 444-451; Twelfth Census of the United States, 1910, Statistics of Manufacturers, Vol. 8, pp. 112- 113.

Skilled workers were an essential element of the economy in Wilmington since colonial times. An abundant supply of skilled labor associated with the metal working and shipbuilding industries, as well as machinists, foundry men, millwrights, and others was within easy reach of the city (Hoffecker, 1974b). Nearly all of the major companies operating in Wilmington during the mid- to late-19th century required a predominantly skilled labor force; yet only one or two firms were diversified enough to employ unskilled workers.

By the late 1890s, Wilmington began to experience a gradual decline in many of its established industrial firms. Succumbing to the "merger and acquisition mania" sweeping through America, several industries in Wilmington were either merged or acquired by other companies. Drexel and Company bought Jessup and Moore in 1901, and Bethlehem Steel Company bought Harlan and Hollingsworth in 1902 (Hancock, 1947). Several leather firms were consolidated after the Depression of 1893 (Hancock, 1947, p. 430).

Yet by 1910, Wilmington began to experience new growth in its industrial sector. The number of firms increased as did the number of persons employed in the manufacturing sector. Capital investment in manufacturing rose steadily. The number of establishments decreased from 262 in 1899 to 245 in 1904. By 1909, it rose again to nearly the same level as in 1899. The number of persons employed in the manufacturing sector and capital invested in manufacturing underwent similar changes. By 1904, the number of workers employed in manufacturing had fallen by four percent, while the total dollars invested in manufacturing rose by 25 percent. The number of workers employed in manufacturing rebounded slightly in 1909, as the total capital invested continued to grow significantl.

The presence of free blacks in Delaware during the late 19th- and early 20th centuries has been documented by numerous historians (Munroe, 1957; Hiller, 1965; Livesay, 1968; Hancock, 1968; Dean, 1970; Hoffecker, 1974). A number of historians have specifically focused upon the occupations of Wilmington blacks during this same period (Pizor, 1969; Heite, 1988; Catts, 1988), while others documented the economic decline of blacks in Wilmington after the Civil War (Munroe, 1957; Livesay, 1968; Hancock, 1968).

Catts (1988), in his study of slaves, free blacks, and French Negroes in colonial Wilmington, notes that although slaves were most often employed in domestic household work, they were employed by their masters in other non-agricultural pursuits, and may have even been selected by their masters for their skills and adaptability. Black slaves filled jobs in northern cities ranging from "merchants' and shopkeepers' helpers to blacksmiths, coopers, teamsters, and draymen" (Catts, 1988, p. 41). Even though the majority of their jobs were classified as manual labor, there were a number of blacks working as craftsmen and artisans, makers, sea captains, oystermen and watermen (Catts, 1988). Pizor (1969) states that blacks were employed, up to the Civil War, in a number of skilled occupations. Among the occupations represented in the 1845 directory were ship's engineers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, tanners, and cordwainers. The greater majority of black workers were employed as general laborers, but several black skilled workers were listed in the 1845 Wilmington business directory. From 1860 to 1880, black workers continued to be employed in such low-wage occupations as general laborers, hostlers, draymen, hackmen, and livery workers. Even by 1890, when black workers began, "entering new areas of employment and getting more of a foothold in jobs that had formerly employed only a few of their race, the majority of them were still employed as low-wage general laborers" (Pizor, 1969, p. 4).

Livesay sums up the economic status of Delaware's black population, saying that,

throughout the period from the end of the Civil War to the Second World War, the Negro was totally excluded from all white collar jobs, and his share of skilled and semi-skilled positions decreased. . .the significant majority of Delaware Negroes was locked in a rigid employment pattern kept static by discriminatory hiring policies in public and private employment, segregated labor unions, and a wretched school system (Livesay, 1968, p. 102).

Disenfranchisement, Union Exclusion and the Black Worker in Delaware

Two avenues of economic and social mobility were open to blacks in 19th century Wilmington: politics and education. These two avenues were closed when Delaware's pro-Southern Democratic Party gained control of the Legislature in the 1870s. Hoffecker's work (1974a) on blacks in late 19th century Wilmington clearly cites political exclusion as the reason for their lack of economic mobility. The Assessment and Collection Laws of 1873, enacted by the Delaware Legislature, restricted black eligibility to vote. With no effective political organization to protect their interests or sufficient black political leadership to organize them, gains made by blacks during the early part of the 19th century were eliminated.

Livesay, like Hoffecker (1974b), relates black socioeconomic decline in Delaware during the latter half of the 19th century to the political atmosphere in the state following the Civil War. The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the threat of potential black voters registering as rival Republicans, prompted Delaware's pro- Southern Democratic Party to enact a series of laws which would effectively negate the black vote. As enacted, the Assessment and Collection Laws of 1873 was a means of assessing property and establishing voter eligibility. There was no specific terminology in the law which advocated the disenfranchisement of black voters, but due to the manner in which the laws were interpreted, most of the black population and many other white Republicans were not able to vote.

The operation of the Assessment and Collection Laws was very different from its original intent. Under the provisions of the assessment act, assessors and poll tax collectors were required to sit for a period of one to three days in a public place in their respective districts for the purpose of collecting taxes, adding to or correcting assessment lists. First, the selection of a public place was left to the discretion of collectors and assessors, who often selected places as far from black residential areas as possible. Assessors and collectors would often absent themselves from this public place without notice and were noted for employing various delaying tactics in the assessment and collection of taxes owed by black property owners. One of the provisions of the law made it mandatory for property owners to appear before the assessor with an affidavit confirming identity sworn by another property owner in the county. Black property owners, in particular, found securing an affidavit confirming their identity difficult for it was rare for blacks to own property in the late 19th century. Even when a black property owner managed to have his affidavit accepted by the assessor, his name could still be omitted from the tax lists. Some assessors were careless, either conveniently forgetting to enter the name or entering it in the wrong assessment record, so when a black property owner subsequently appeared before the tax collector to pay his tax, it was refused on the grounds that the property owner had not been properly assessed or was recorded as delinquent and was struck from voter registration lists. Black property owners were also omitted from tax lists because of the illiterate assessors and collectors. Names written on the assessor's list were often misspelled, and the wrong or misspelled names placed on the receipt. In these instances, the tax collector refused to accept the assessment, believing the receipt to be fraudulent. The practice of eliminating names of property owners from voter registration lists was rife from about 1870 to 1900 when the Democratic Party controlled politics in Delaware. Thus, an assessor or collector with Democratic sympathies was often able to drop most black taxpayers and many white Republicans from the tax and voter registration lists without serious repercussion.

The remedy provided by the law, applying to Levy Court to have one's name added to the tax lists, was of little use. Members of the Levy Court, particularly those with Democratic party loyalties, would refuse to hear assessment appeal cases and members of the Court, "would find numerous duties to perform and adjourn unexpectedly" (Hiller, 1965, p. 60). Subsequently, black property owners, dropped from the assessment lists, found themselves disenfranchised with no legal recourse.

Another factor in the decline of black social and economic progress during this period was the policy of legislated discrimination. Various statutes and resolutions enacted during the 19th century in Delaware limited the social and economic progress of the black population. As early as 1811, the entry of free blacks into Delaware was prohibited; free blacks from Maryland were allowed to come into the state but reside in only New Castle and Kent counties. To control the flow of black labor out of the state during the agricultural harvesting seasons, the state legislature in 1845 enacted a supplement to the 1811 law, which made free blacks leaving Delaware for a period longer than 60 days ineligible to reenter the state. Delaware laws also proscribed who might serve as master to an apprentice. A law enacted in 1861 forbade black youths from seeking apprenticeships with black artisans; they could only apprentice themselves to white artisans. The law further distinguished the master/apprentice relationship requiring black apprentices to serve in the capacity as servants as well as apprentices. The rejection by the General Assembly of the Fourteenth Amendment, granting universal suffrage to blacks, led to a series of revisions in the assessment and collection laws which were designed to further disenfranchise black voters.

A number of factors can be attributed to the decline in black social and economic status in late-19th century Wilmington, but one factor--limited union participation--greatly influenced the numbers of black workers entering industrial employment. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, union membership was the primary means of securing industrial employment. Immigrants were participants in the unionization movement, but most black workers were barred or were forced to form their own unions. Many national unions adopted policies that discriminated against blacks seeking union membership and entry into union-sponsored apprentice programs.

This exclusion and segregation by the unions initiated a vicious cycle of under- employment for black workers. Without union representation, black workers lacked the leverage to force employers to accede to their labor demands. Black workers settled for whatever jobs were available to them, usually unskilled, low-wage, low-status jobs. Labor unions, composed of members of skilled trades, considered the masses of black unskilled laborers as competitors willing to undercut their wages and thus were not interested in extending them union membership. This cycle was so effective in retarding black occupational mobility that by 1910, most black workers were employed in two sectors: in the professional sector in occupations such as doctors and clergymen (catering primarily to the black population) and in the domestic and personal services sector in occupations such as laborers and servants. The continued arrival of similarly skilled or unskilled immigrant groups during the late-19th and early-20th centuries limited the numbers of blacks entering the skilled and semi-skilled occupations and this persisted until the cessation of European immigration in 1924. Thus these factors--limiting black access to unions which was the initial step to industrial employment as well as specific discriminatory laws--shaped the economic and social opportunities available to Delaware's black population until well into the 20th century.

Employment Comparisons: 1845, 1850, 1880, and 1910

Wilmington: 1845

The Wilmington Directory for 1845 establishes a baseline for constructing Wilmington's antebellum occupational structure. The directory contained two sections. In the first section, white workers were listed alphabetically and included within the listing is a street address and an occupational title. Black workers were listed separately in the second section entitled, "Colored Inhabitants," which included street addresses and occupations. The limitations of the directory data did not permit the determination of nativity of those in the directory.

The 1845 Wilmington Directory listed occupations for 1,703 persons (276 black and 1,427 white workers). These occupations are grouped into six broad industrial sectors: agriculture, personal service, manufacturing (representing craft/trade occupations), professional services, trade, and transportation. Fifty-seven percent of the black workers listed in the directory were employed in personal service occupations as general laborers, while the remainder worked as porters, waiters, and barbers. In the manufacturing sector, blacks were employed in various jobs, among them brick makers, cordwainers, potters, coopers, and blacksmiths. Black workers in the professional service occupations were represented by two individuals: a teacher and an engineer. By contrast, white workers were employed in all six sectors but the largest percentages were employed in manufacturing, professional, and trade industries.

Wilmington: 1850

An analysis of data from the 1850 Wilmington Census reveals distinctive changes in the economy as well as in occupational classifications. Craft occupations such as cooperage, milling (flour and grist milling), basketmaking, tailoring, and candlemaking, which were reminiscent of Wilmington's pre-industrialization period, were losing importance. Occupational titles in the 1850 data set also clearly identified future industries in Wilmington and revealed a growing class of iron founders and workers, machinists, molders, shipbuilders, and workers employed in the leather tanning industry.

Occupational data for 1850 was obtained for 995 heads of household (400 blacks and 595 immigrants). Each household head was assigned to one of five broad occupational classes. Occupations within the agricultural sector were nonexistent in the city of Wilmington by 1850 and were not included in the analysis.

Compared with other groups, black workers in Wilmington were employed primarily in the domestic and personal services sector. In fact, black general laborers continued to be the largest group among the domestic and personal service workers. Only Irish immigrants were employed in the domestic and personal services sector in comparable numbers. According to the 1850 data set, blacks were not employed in professional service occupations. The three remaining sectors, manufacturing, trade and transportation, employed limited numbers of blacks workers (2 percent and 7 percent each for trade and transportation, respectively).

By contrast, Wilmington's European immigrant population was an occupationally diverse group. Three ethnic groups formed the major immigrant population in 1850: Irish, English, and German. Because Irish immigrants were the dominant ethnic group in Wilmington, their appearance throughout the occupational structure is not surprising. Wilmington's Irish-born population was employed at all occupational levels but were of greatest concentration in the domestic and personal services sector as low-wage, general laborers. In addition, Irish immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the craft/trade, retail, and manufacturing occupations.

Similarly, immigrants from Britain, Scotland, and Wales were employed throughout all sectors and at all occupational levels but were of greatest concentration in three sectors: manufacturing, transportation industries, and in the professional services as clerks and teachers.

Immigrants from Germany and German-speaking areas were employed in small numbers throughout all sectors but were particularly concentrated in the craft occupations in the manufacturing and trade sectors. Table 2 shows the number and percentage by industrial sector for Irish, English, and Germans immigrants and blacks living in Wilmington in 1850.

Wilmington: 1880

Although the number of black workers in the labor force increased, their occupational distribution in 1880 remained the same as it had been in 1850. The 1880 Wilmington Census data set contains 1,929 head of households (590 black and 1,339 immigrant) representing approximately 10 percent of the city's labor force.

Major gains were made by black workers in only one sector: domestic and personal services. In addition, black workers within the domestic and personal services sector began to diversify. In 1850, the majority of black workers employed in the domestic and personal services industry were general laborers, but by 1880, a number of additional occupational choices appeared in the data set: hod carriers, servants, day workers, coachmen, cooks, and washwomen.

Black workers in the manufacturing, mining, and mechanical sector experienced a similar stagnation. Although the number of blacks employed in the manufacturing sector increased, they were still employed at the lowest unskilled levels within that sector (i.e., foundry and rolling mill workers). Numerical gains in the number of black workers employed in the transportation and trade sectors were made between 1850 and 1880 (from 14 to 44 percent), but like the manufacturing sector, the gains were at the lowest levels within these sectors (drivers, workers, carters, hostlers, liverymen, peddlers, hucksters, and dealers). In the transportation sector, black workers were employed as teamsters, and one was employed as a barge captain. By 1880, only six black heads of household reported employment in the agriculture sector. Unlike in 1850, blacks were slowly moving into professional occupations, appearing in the 1880 data set in various clergy positions (minister, preacher, and sexton). The remaining professionals were engineers and teachers.

Table 2

Industrial Concentration of Selected Ethnic Groups*
by Number and Percentage, Wilmington, 1850

EthnicBlack% Total Irish% TotalEngland % TotalGerman% Total
Manufacturing36472178 49102287621
Personal Srvcs.53628954209 39214112
Prof. Srvcs.390027 69718410
Trade413725 61820410
Transportation15277 4753427
Group Totals995400446 14197

Sources: Seventh Census of the United States: Manuscript Schedules for Wilmington, Delaware, 1850; Classification of industries adapted from Olzak (1992), pp. 292-294; Figures given include only heads of household. Percentages reflect only proportion of selected ethnic groups in labor force. Employment in the agricultural sector was negligible in Wilmington by 1850. Agricultural-related occupations were omitted from the table.

Although much of Wilmington's total population growth resulted from natural increase and internal regional migration between 1850 and 1880, Federal census statistics indicate that over 5,600 immigrants were living in the city in 1880. Three ethnic groups continued to dominate the immigrant population of Wilmington. Irish immigrants were again the largest ethnic group in Wilmington in 1880, as they were in 1850. The growth of the Irish immigrant was impressive, as Irish heads of household accounted for 58 percent of all immigrants in Wilmington. Immigrants from England were second, representing 17 percent of the total immigrant heads of household. German immigrants formed the third largest immigrant ethnic group in Wilmington, representing five percent of Wilmington's immigrant population. Other ethnic groups appeared in the 1880 Census for the first time. Among these new ethnic groups were immigrants from Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.

Distinct ethnic employment concentrations were seen in 1880. The Irish, as the largest immigrant group, were distributed throughout Wilmington's occupational structure but were the largest ethnic group employed in manufacturing and personal services industries. In the trade industries, the Irish were the largest proportion of that sector, with 43 percent of their number employed in various retail occupations. More than 25 percent of Irish tradesmen were engaged in either tavern or hotel keeping. Tavern- and saloon-keepers were the largest single occupational category within the trade sector. Irish immigrants were employed in other retail occupations, forming more than 48 percent of all dealers, hucksters, grocers, and peddlers within that category.

English immigrants who were distributed throughout the occupational strata in 1850, were, by 1880, heavily concentrated in manufacturing occupations. Occupations within the trade industry were second only to manufacturing in the number of English immigrants employed as butchers, grocers, merchants, and dealers of various and sundry items. A small number of English immigrants were employed in the transportation sector as conductors, railroad engineers; as managers and repairmen in the telegraph industry; and, in the maritime construction industry, as ship carpenters and builders. In professional service occupations, English immigrants were employed in the public service positions as county collectors, engineers, and policemen.

Wilmington's small German-speaking population was employed in various craft occupations in the manufacturing sector. Three sectors--personal services, professional services, and transportation--employed few German immigrants. A number of immigrants from German-held and German-speaking areas of Europe appeared in the 1880 census. For the most part, these immigrants were employed in the same type of craft occupations as immigrants from Germany, but immigrants from Baden, Prussia, and Wurtemberg worked in a variety of occupations in the personal services industry.

The small number of immigrants from France, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland were employed in a variety of occupations in the manufacturing sector. Immigrants from Italy and Poland were the exceptions. Italian immigrants concentrated in the trade industry, and the single Polish immigrant recorded in the 1880 data set was employed in the personal services industry.

Wilmington: 1910

Wilmington's industrial workplace was transformed between 1880 and 1910. The national tendency towards merger and consolidation, industrial concentration, and bureaucratization of businesses was evident in Wilmington by the end of the century. These changes profoundly affected the size and nature of the city's occupational structure.

The 1910 Wilmington Census data set shows a greater diversity of occupational titles than the 1880 Wilmington Census. Several occupational titles shifted sector classifications, and other occupational titles, which were in the 1880 data set, disappeared completely. A large part of the reshuffling of occupational titles was due to the reclassification efforts by the Census Bureau.

The 1910 Wilmington Census contained 7,465 heads of households (2,012 blacks and 5,453 white immigrants) for whom data was collected concerning nativity, age, marital status, occupation, employment status, and level of literacy. The analysis of the 1910 Wilmington data shows that black workers continued to lag behind immigrants in occupational mobility. Numerical gains were made in all sectors, but, as in 1880, the greatest gains were in the lower status occupations of the unskilled/menial service sector. Black workers were employed most often in two sectors: as high white-collar professionals and as blue-collar semi-skilled workers. The two lowest categories, semi-skilled/service workers and unskilled/menial service workers, contain almost equal numbers of immigrants and black workers.

White immigrants, by contrast, were employed throughout the occupational strata and were no less than 90 percent of high white-collar and low white-collar occupations. The single exception was among high white-collar professional occupations where white immigrants were more than 75 percent.

Literacy Among Blacks in Delaware, 1850-1910

Another factor which might explain differing rates of socioeconomic progress and occupational achievement among ethnic and racial groups are literacy rates. Literacy and occupational achievement are linked in the immigrant community, where higher levels of literacy generally confer a higher occupational status. As early as 1844, nearly 200 black schools were established throughout the United States through the assistance of benevolent associations, religious organizations, cultural clubs, and literary societies. The common goal of these schools was to provide education and training to all who desired it. The response to the establishment of these schools promoting literacy among the black population was overwhelming, and the evidence could be observed in the rising number of persons employed as teachers in black communities. Smith (1972) estimated that approximately 24,000 blacks were employed as teachers in the southern states by the time of the 1890 Federal Census.

Migration into northern, urban areas sharpened the desire for education and occupational opportunity among the black population. Census data show that by 1910, approximately 72 percent of the Delaware's black population between the ages of six and nine were attending school, compared to 75 percent for native-born whites and 65 percent for foreign-born whites. Even greater, were the number of black children between the ages of 15 and 20 attending school. Twenty-five percent of black children between the ages of 15 and 20 attended school, compared to less than 4 percent of foreign-born whites of the same age range. Black school attendance figures for both age groups were much closer to native-born white rates than to foreign-born school attendance rates (Hoffecker, 1974b, p. 90). In Wilmington, census data indicates an increase in black literacy from 41 percent in 1850 to over 74 percent by 1910 (see Table 3). These high literacy rates were achieved despite increasing prejudice and legal restrictions that undermined educational efforts in Delaware.

The higher literacy rate, however, did not benefit black workers. In fact, higher literacy levels among Wilmington's black population from 1850 to 1910 seemed to have had a minimal effect on upward occupational mobility.

For certain occupations, literacy was an absolute requirement. For example, all black professionals (e.g., physicians, clergy, and engineers) in Wilmington were literate as well as the majority of black merchants and dealers. The exception to this correlation between literacy and higher occupation status was in the personal services sector. Part of the failure to link literacy and occupation in this sector may have been the sheer size of the domestic and personal services sector. But how does one explain that the occupational sector with the greatest number of workers, the majority of whom had average-to-high literacy rates were also employed in occupations which held the lowest status and the least occupational mobility? The literacy rates for 1910, when compared to 1850 and 1880, indicate an increase of black workers in all sectors, yet the largest group of literate black individuals were still employed in the personal services sector.

Even when nativity was compared to occupation and literacy levels, native black laborers formed the largest proportion of all black literate laborers. Table 3 shows levels of literacy for black heads of household in Wilmington from Federal Manuscript Census Schedules for 1850, 1880, and 1910. Table 4 takes into consideration the segmentation and diversification of the labor force by 1910 and shows the distribution of literate blacks ranked by skill and status.

Table 3

Black Literacy Levels by Number and Percentage
for Heads of Household in Wilmington, Delaware 1850, 1880, and 1910

Census YearTotal Number of Blacks in Data SetNumber of Literate BlacksPercentage of Literate Blacks

Source: Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; Tenth Census of the United States, 1880; and Thirteenth Census of the United States, Manuscript Census Schedules for Wilmington, Delaware. Only heads of households were included in the data set.

Table 4

Black Literacy by Industry Sector and as a Percentage of
Total Black Population, Wilmington, Delaware, 1910

Industry SectorTotal Group Number LiteratePercentage of Total Literate
High White-Collar
Major Proprietors432967.4
Low White-Collar
Clerks & Salesmen1818100.0
Petty Proprietors605490.0

Source: Thirteenth Census of the United States, Manuscript Census Schedules for Wilmington, Delaware, 1910. Only heads of households were included in black literacy data set.


This study explored black occupations in Wilmington, Delaware and the impact European immigration had on the mobility of the native black workers in the city at three specific times in the city's history: 1850, 1880, and 1910. Based on available data from Wilmington business directories and Federal Manuscript Censuses, it was determined that before 1850, black workers in Wilmington were employed alongside native whites and European immigrants in a number of skilled occupations. But, after 1850, black workers, despite their nativity and high literacy rates, were at a severe disadvantage when competing with European immigrants for industrial employment. In most cases, black occupational choices in Wilmington, relative to that of immigrant workers, remained constant and, in some cases, were in a total decline.

Between 1850 and 1910, a period during which Northern industrial cities were transformed by massive industrial expansion, which stimulated an equally massive migration of European immigrants, black workers were systematically denied the opportunity to participate in America's industrial expansion. Black workers, resident in America long before European immigration began, should have been able to partake of their share of occupational opportunity. Instead, their occupational history after the Civil War was marked by the establishment of job ceilings and evictions from numerous industries.

The decline in black occupational opportunity was partly due to competition with European immigrants after 1880. European immigrants, at the outset of the study period, were competitors with Blacks in the skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled occupations, but through discrimination and a series of legal restrictions imposed on blacks, these immigrants experienced greater upward mobility than blacks.

Numerous legal restrictions affected black workers in ways which diminished their economic and political power. In Delaware, the legislature restricted the rights of free blacks to migrate in and out of the state, to assemble for religious and political activities, and even regulated the process of binding apprentices with regards to free blacks. During the late-19th century, the reign of the Democratic party over Delaware politics seriously retarded black socioeconomic and occupational progress. In particular, the adoption of poll tax legislation in 1873 by a mostly Democratic legislature further disenfranchised black voters. The misinterpretation of the Assessment and Collection Laws of 1873 gave undue authority to local tax assessors and collectors and worked to the disadvantage of black property owners and taxpayers. The actions of the assessors and collectors, in an attempt to prevent blacks and some white Republicans from registering to vote, effectively made it difficult to have their names included on eligible voter lists. Thus disenfranchised, blacks were not able to exercise considerable political power.

Membership in a craft or trade union, the traditional avenue of entry for most native-born whites and immigrants into skilled trades and industrial employment, was not extended to black workers. A number of unions adopted white-only charters or included clauses in their charters that made racial identity a condition of membership. Thus barred from joining these unions, and often forced to form all black unions, black workers were effectively shut off from accessing the traditional avenues to industrial employment. Apprenticeship programs, the means by which industrial knowledge and training was acquired during the late- 19th and early-20th centuries, were not available to the majority of black workers.

For Wilmington's black population, education was a means of lifting them out of the lowest occupational levels. Young (1947) notes the phenomenal growth of Delaware's black educational system during the late-19th century. Hoffecker (1974b) indicates that black children attended school in greater percentages when compared to foreign-born whites. Despite literacy rates exceeding immigrant literacy rates, black occupational choices remained stable or in many cases declined.

The effects of these legal and societal restrictions were so pervasive that by 1910, the majority of Wilmington's black workers were employed in two categories: as professionals in high white-collar occupations catering to a black clientele and as unskilled laborers in blue-collar occupations. The greatest tragedy of this situation is that had all things been equal, black workers would have been better off. Black workers, residing in Wilmington before and during its period of industrial expansion should have been in line to receive their "piece of the pie" alongside European immigrants.


(1) Notable companies such as Harlan & Hollingsworth, Pusey & Jones, the Lobdell Car Wheel Company, and Jackson & Sharp were representative of the railroad car and iron merchant ship construction companies that had established a presence in Wilmington by the middle of the 19th century (Hoffecker, 1974b).

(2) Catts lists an assortment of trades and skilled occupations practiced by black artisans in colonial Wilmington: shoemakers, tanners, barbers, carters, blacksmiths, and coopers. The maritime industry was the largest employer of slaves and free blacks in many Northern colonial seaport towns. In Wilmington, Blacks worked in Wilmington's maritime industry as ropemakers.

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