After peace was restored and slavery abolished in the United States in 1865, the desire of Delaware’s African-Americans for a brighter future went mostly unrealized. The Democratic Party’s control over the political process in the First State ensured discrimination against blacks would continue and become codified.
The Southern-leaning and mostly Democratic counties of Kent and Sussex dominated the state legislature, thereby preventing New Castle County, with its Northern orientation and Republican politics, from bringing about needed change in race relations.
The Democratic majority in the capital of Dover demonstrated their political preferences for the future of Delaware by refusing to ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution. All three of these amendments granted privileges and enhanced the livelihood of blacks in America.
Since Delaware had chosen at the outset of hostilities between the states in 1861 to remain as part of the North, rather than joining its fellow slave states in forming the Southern Confederacy, it was not subject to the various Reconstruction Acts that the U.S. Congress passed during the post-war period.
Harold C. Livesay wrote in “Readings in Delaware History” (edited by Carol E. Hoffecker, University of Delaware Press, 1973) that the state legislature passed laws known as “black codes” that maintained segregation, restricted voting rights, prevented holding public office or serving on juries, and limited employment to menial occupations.
Nevertheless, living conditions for African-Americans were an improvement over slavery. One of the most important rights for blacks was the ability to own property. They could also seek redress for damages in court, freely move about the state, marry anyone of the same race and seek employment elsewhere if a job was unsatisfactory.
Additional progress for blacks, however, would be limited over future decades. A primary reason was that representation apportionment in the legislature favored rural downstate counties, rather than the more urban New Castle County. Democratic Party leaders parlayed constituents’ opposition toward equality into election victories by featuring racial bigotry.
Harold B. Hancock, writing about the status of blacks during the first decade following the Civil War, noted that a mixed racial group met in Wilmington to petition the U.S. Congress to investigate political conditions in the state (Delaware History, 1968-1969).
The resultant hearings before the House Judiciary Committee revealed “the majority of the people in Kent and Sussex counties are decidedly opposed to Negro suffrage, Negro education, and Negro political and civil equality.”
This antipathy in the lower counties led to black schoolhouses being burned, teachers being assaulted and, in Kent County, a lynching took place. Looking at the situation from a strictly political point of view, Benjamin Nields of Wilmington optimistically testified to the committee that “the enfranchisement of the Negro would guarantee a majority for the Republican Party.”
Confronted with the strenuous opposition of the white population to the advancement of colored people, black ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church unilaterally served as missionaries by building churches and other black educational and political institutions.
Ronald L. Lewis, writing in Delaware History (Spring-Summer, 1981), featured the Rev. T.G. Steward who, after ministering to ex-slaves in South Carolina and Georgia in the immediate post-war years, received appointment to Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., in 1872.
With the black population left to their own devices regarding education of their children, Steward championed Republican candidates in state elections, with the anticipation that blacks’ fortunes would improve if Republicans could gain power. When Republicans were unsuccessful at the polls, Steward turned to a different concept.
In December 1872, Steward called for a convention of Afro-Delawareans to meet in Dover to address three issues plaguing the black population: education, legal rights and employment. White Republicans opposed an independent black convention, yet Steward brushed aside their concerns in favor of black unification.
Steward eventually accepted appointment to serve small rural congregations in Sussex County, including Milford, Milton, Slaughter Neck, Georgetown and Lewes. The assignment was politically motivated by the state Republican establishment, which believed the assertive Steward could rally the downstate blacks to the Republican cause. That expectation would soon prove unattainable, given that this portion of lower Delaware was totally “lost” to the Democrats.
Despite sustained efforts of the Republican Party and leaders in the black community, the lives of African-Americans in Delaware would improve lethargically over the next century. Separation of the races sustained over hundreds of years would prove painfully difficult to eradicate.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.