Delaware’s first civil rights leader (video)

Peter Spencer lends his name to a prominent public plaza in downtown Wilmington, but his legacy goes far beyond that.

Peter Spencer plaza sits just across French St. from the downtown Wilmington headquarters for city, county and state government. A few years ago, protesters spent weeks living at the plaza, which served as the base of operations for the Delaware branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Long before the space was a place for government workers to take a break or for protesters to get some exposure for their cause, Spencer Plaza was home to Wilmington’s Mother African Union Church. The church was founded in 1813 by Peter Spencer.

“He was the first civil rights leader in the nation,” Rev. Dr. Lawrence Livingston said. Livingston is the current pastor of the church founded by Spencer. In 1969 the church was moved from its original location to make way for the city’s urban renewal efforts. It’s now located on N. Franklin St. in Wilmington.

Spencer was born into slavery in Maryland, but was set free when his master died. He then moved to Wilmington and got involved in the church. Livingston says Spencer’s message was both religious and political. Preaching the “good news” in those days meant different things depending on your race.

“Good news for whites meant that things stay the way they are and that’s fine and dandy, but for African Americans, in the midst of slavery, good news is not that we keep things the way they are, but good news is for us to be able to be free of this bondage that we’re living in and free of this bondage that African Americans were in at that time.”

Starting a church may not seem like a revolutionary idea, but consider that in 1813 it was illegal for five or more African Americans to gather without supervision. Spencer broke the law to establish the first incorporated African American church in Wilmington.

And Spencer didn’t stop there. In 1814 he challenged the racial status quo when his church led massive gatherings of African Americans at an event called the August Quarterly. “I just can’t get my mind around how in the 1800’s, that he also convinced slaveholders, people that held men and women captive, to allow some of them to go free for the weekend, to come to Wilmington,” Livingston said.

And “go free” they would. The spiritual celebration had another, highly secret purpose. “People would come to Wilmington and plan future escapes,” Livingston said. Those escapes would be pulled off with the help of another hometown hero: Quaker Thomas Garrett.

“Thomas Garrett was one of the preeminent leading lights or officials, if you will – conductor, station master, you know you pick the term you want to use on the Underground Railroad,” said retired Delaware state archivist Russ McCabe.

Garrett also worked with Harriet Tubman to help slaves escape through Wilmington on the Underground Railroad. The city was dubbed “Freedom Land” by some of those escapees.

Peter Spencer died in 1843 at the age of 61. He’s buried with his wife Annes at the site of his original church and the plaza that shares his name. His legacy is also on display at the church’s new location.

“The Peter Spencer hallway is kind of our effort to kind of chronicle the history of African Americans here in the nation,” Livingston said. The corridor inside the church is a mini museum, documenting Spencer’s contributions to the civil rights movement long before slavery was abolished. It highlights how the African American church launched many other leaders in the fight for equality.

“When we go back 200 years, Peter Spencer was at the center of building this kind of community and religious or spiritual solidarity,” Livingston said. “It’s not a coincidence that the churches were in the center of that.”

Spencer went on to establish 31 churches and several schools. His legacy still lives on in the August Quarterly festival, which still draws big crowds to Wilmington every summer.

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