New ways to tell Delaware’s African American history

From a soon to be established African American Heritage Center to new resources being made available online, Delaware’s African American history is becoming more accessible. 

The du Pont name is intertwined in so much of Delaware’s history, that it’s hard to find a chapter that is not influenced by Delaware’s most famous family.  That’s certainly the case when it comes to history of education in the First State , especially for African Americans.  And as Black History month gets underway, there is now a debate raging in Wilmington about the best way to share the stories of Delaware’s African Americans… but historians say the focus should be on the moving stories of the past that have made Delaware what it is today.

PS duPont and Schools

In the early 1900’s Pierre S. du Pont was appalled by the state of education for African American children in Delaware, so he decided to do something about it.  “He found out in Delawarein the 19-teens, is that African Americans often did not get past sixth grade,” says the Hagley Museum and Library’s Roger Horowitz.  “To him, this was going to hold back all of Delaware.”

To solve the problem, du Pont funded the construction of 89 schools for African Americans throughout the state, at a cost of more than $6million out of his own pocket.   The story of those schools and its graduates was the subject of a documentary produced by the Hagley Museum and Library.  

The documentary, called A Separate Place, became a part of history itself, capturing interviews and insight from a who’s-who of prominent Delaware African Americans who attended or worked at du Pont schools like Reverend Maurice J. Moyer, Littelton Mitchell, and artist Edward Loper.  In the documentary, Loper says, “Black people didn’t have a chance in the world of getting anywhere to do anything or be anybody.  The only way you could do it- we were told- was to become educated.”

The documentary has been used in dozens of schools statewide.  “We felt that one of the best uses of this film was going to be in the school system,” Horowitz says.   “That was going to be the way it was going to have a real enduring legacy.”  In an effort to build on that legacy, the film is available for free download from Hagley’s website

African American Heritage Center

African American history will soon have a new home in Wilmington with the African American Heritage Center soon to be established by the Delaware Historical Society (DHS).  DHS board chair Ann Canby says, “I think we want to really delve into the history of African Americans in Delaware, what they’ve done, what they’ve come from and some of the struggles that have happened and help everybody understand it.  This is really for everyone.”

 Last Month, Wilmington Mayor James Baker announced one million dollars in funding for the center at the Historical Society.  “They have a tremendous collection on African Americans in Delaware, and they have the skill, they have the facilities.”

DHS Chief Executive Scott Loehr says the center will have a state-wide focus.  “We’ll be scouring Delaware from Wilmington to Seaford, engaging with African Americans. Engaging with whites, engaging with others, making sure that the stories that are told are accurate and that people can come here and say I see myself, I was a part of this process, I’m a part of this center.”

Controversy

But not everyone thinks the Historical Society is the best place to tell the history of African Americans in Delaware.  Harmon Carey leads the Afro American Historical Society and thinks the heritage center should be located at the Allied Kidd Building on Clifford Brown Walk.  It’s located near other African American historical landmarks like Howard High School.

This district has been designated by the City of Wilmington as African American Heritage Zone. So we believe that having the Heritage Center in African American Heritage Zone just makes a lot of sense,” Carey says.

But it’s not just the location, Carey doesn’t think the predominantly white Delaware Historical Society should be telling the story of African Americans.  I don’t think the Jewish Community will let the Germans open up a heritage center at Thacile or Auschwitz. So one ethnic group can’t tell the story of another, and that’s what will happen if the Mayor has his way.”  He questions the Historical Society’s ability to tell the emotional stories behind the facts.  “It’s almost as if they are trying to rewrite history to cleanse it, to ‘white-wash it’ if you will.”

Josh Martin, an African American on the Heritage Center’s advisory board disagrees with Carey.  Martin was mentored by the first African American to be admitted to the Delaware bar, Lewis Redding.  He says, “It is unfortunate that that negative veneer has been placed on this initiative but let’s be clear, this story is going to be told by African Americans but as I said before, it’s going to be integrated into the history of Delaware.”

Mayor Baker says separating the history of African Americans from the history of other racial groups is the exact opposite thing that should happen.  “To me, we should be not segregated from the history of America, we should be integrated as we kept fighting for in the 60’s and the 70’s and now all of a sudden, we get to this  point and everybody says we should segregate, for what reason?”

Old Town Hall

The plans call for using part of Old Town Hall on Market Street to house exhibits for the Center.  But that doesn’t sit well with some either.  Carey says, “Old Town Hall is where runaway slaves were jailed, were brutalized, were held for trial, and were later returned to slavery. We don’t think that’s a magnificent place.”

But Loehr says the building’s history, can play the role of both villain and hero in African American history.  “Yes, there were slaves that were held in the basement, but at the same time, Delaware’s abolish society was meeting upstairs and discussing… freedom of slaves.”  He says that’s also where the state’s first African American council member was sworn in.

Carey says he’s trying to get Wilmington City Council to overturn Mayor Baker’s decision to fund the Heritage Center at the Historical Society, but that would appear to be an uphill battle.

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