This summer I’m working as a research assistant for Dr. Sheree Brown, Head Curator for the Center of African American Heritage at the Delaware History Museum. Currently, the museum is under renovation as are their two permanent core exhibitions: one on general Delaware history, and the other on Delaware’s African American history. In particular, the Center for African American Heritage Collection’s exhibition will draw on several key themes exploring the variety of African American experiences in the state from the colonial era to the present.
I have completed several projects for the exhibition, working extensively with the collections at DHS. One of my most challenging tasks involves gathering material for our exhibition’s section on Reconstruction (1865-1876). Reconstruction in Delaware was markedly different from Reconstruction in the Deep South. As early as 1776, Delaware banned the importation of slaves, which led to a sharp decrease in the state’s slave population. At the outbreak of the Civil War, fewer than 1,800 slaves resided in Delaware while the free black population numbered nearly 20,000. Ultimately, concerns over the steadily growing free black population prompted the passage of increasingly restrictive black codes throughout the nineteenth century. In 1862, the Delaware General Assembly struck down Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation plan to free slaves by one vote. Three years later, the state rejected ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment to abolish slavery.
Examining Reconstruction in Delaware poses a significant challenge because there is little scholarly work on the topic. To date, J. Thomas Scharf’s History of Delaware (Philadelphia, 1888) and Henry C. Conrad’s History of Delaware (Wilmington, DE, 1908) provide the most comprehensive accounts of the period. Harold Hancock’s 1948 chapter in Delaware: A History of the First State also adds nuance to our understanding of politics in the post-Civil War period. Yet, this scholarship tends to focus on political history and pays little attention to the issue of race. In the 1950s and 1960s several historians took up the issue examining African American history between the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I. Again their work pays little attention to the period immediately following the Civil War focusing more intently on the early twentieth century.
Why then is there so little work on this crucial period of Delaware’s African American history? It’s partly an issue of sources. The Freedmen’s Bureau records are a logical starting point for research on the subject, yet, the Bureau had a relatively limited impact in Delaware providing minimal financial support to African American schools. Moreover, the shared operation of the Bureau between Maryland, Delaware, and later Washington D.C. creates a paper trail that is tricky to follow. Looking through these records provides evidence of the regional branches focus on regions other than Delaware. One of the most valuable resources on the topic are the records of the Delaware Association for the Education and Moral Improvement of Colored People housed at the Delaware Historical Society. This collection contains the manuscript books maintained by this association for a nearly forty-year period.
In 1866, the Delaware Association was founded to support African American schools throughout the state. The Delaware Association made quick progress and established thirty-two schools between 1867 and 1876. Members included both African Americans and whites hiring both African American and white teachers to staff its schools. The organization closely monitored the progress of the schools, keeping track of attendance, curriculum, and finances. Despite these efforts, the Delaware Association faced numerous challenges to its efforts to improve opportunities for African American education.
|Image of a financial statement for the Delaware Association. These records document income and expenditures for the association's schools.|
Among these challenges included incidents of violence at African American schools particularly those located in Kent and Sussex counties. Throughout the spring and summer of 1867, the association received a steady stream of letters from both black and white teachers reporting assaults at their schools. In early April, Mary Douglass, a teacher at Laurel, provided the association with a report of an attack upon herself and a fellow teacher. Nearly a month later Sarah Evans, teacher at Georgetown, reported the repetition of assaults upon herself and requested an alternative placement for the upcoming school year. The executive board later denied her request for relocation.
|A press release reporting of assaults on teachers at the Delaware Association's school in Georgetown.|
Financial troubles continued to plague the Delaware Association, which maintained its schools largely through private donations and tuition-generated income. The Freedmen’s Bureau briefly provided financial assistance to the association’s schools between 1867 and 1868, but after that, its financial support waned. In the winter of 1868, General O.O. Howard of the Freedmen’s Bureau pledged $5,000 in support of the construction of a high school for African Americans in Wilmington. The following October, Howard made a trip to Wilmington to announce his backing of African American education in the state.
Shortly after Howard’s visit, however, the Bureau’s support of the Delaware Association schools decreased as it shifted its attention southward. Correspondence between Freedmen’s Bureau officials and the Delaware Association reveals the unstable relationship between the two organizations. Meeting records from the winter of 1869 document a series of exchanges between association trustees and Freedmen’s Bureau officials following up on the Bureau’s promised financial pledges. By the end of the winter, their total financial assistance was significantly less than the amount previously promised forcing the Delaware Association to look elsewhere for support.
|Finance Committee report documenting an exchange between Delaware Association trustees and Freedmen's Bureau official, General H. Day.|
Although the Freedmen’s Bureau’s partnership with the Delaware Association was brief, the organization continued to thrive, establishing thirty-nine African American schools in the state. The association set the foundation for later efforts to transition towards state supported black schools in Delaware. In 1875, a law passed by the Delaware General Assembly began taxing African Americans to support their schools. Although this income proved insufficient, the Delaware Association provided additional financial support while lobbying for increased state aid to black schools. Ultimately, the organization’s efforts marked the first steps in establishing state-supported African American education in Delaware.
- National Archives and Records Management, Records of the Field Office for the States of Maryland and Delaware, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872. The records for Maryland and Delaware have been digitized and are available through FamilySearch.
- Delaware Association for the Education and Moral Improvement of Colored People Collection, 1866-1909. Delaware Historical Society, Wilmington, DE.
- Delaware: A History of the First State. Edited by Henry Clay Reed. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1947.
- Conrad, Henry C. History of Delaware. Wilmington, DE: 1909.
- Hancock, Harold. "Reconstruction in Delaware," in Radicalism, Racism, and Realignment: The Border States during Reconstruction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969.
- Livesay, Harold. "Delaware Negroes, 1865-1915." Delaware History 13 (October 1968): 87-123.
- Munroe, John. "The Negro in Delaware." South Atlantic Quarterly 56 (Autumn 1957): 428-444.
- Scharf, Thomas J. History of Delaware, 1609-1888. Philadelphia: L.J. Richards and Co., 1908.
By Anna Lacy, M.A. Student, Department of History