Civil War Profiles: African-American in the post-Civil War era: "Free at Last!"

In Readings in Delaware History, Carol E. Hoffecker described the attitude of white Delawareans towards the state’s black population during the latter half of the 19th century, “... Delaware did not abandon slavery until forced to do so by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution … [and] few of the state’s whites were willing to grant equal rights to blacks.”

Reviewing the period following the Civil War, Harold C. Livesay concluded that “Delaware blacks are still seeking equality in housing, education, and employment ….” Livesay wrote that the place of blacks in Delaware society was determined by the social and political split between the northern and southern parts of the state.

The residents of urban Wilmington had little in common with the rural residents to the south. They allied themselves with the more industrial Pennsylvania, while Kent and Sussex counties were oriented toward the Southern life style as practiced in Maryland and Virginia.

Politically the Republican Party drew much of its strength from the northern part of the state, but the areas to the South were predominantly Democratic. This dichotomy is reflected in the population of New Castle County supporting the freedom of slaves by operating the Underground Railroad, while the lower counties worked to defeat any attempts to abolish the institution of slavery.

In the journal, “Delaware History,” Harold B. Hancock quoted an investigative report on the civil rights of blacks, “The civil authorities of the lower part of Delaware … accord them no rights ….” Governor Gove Saulsbury declared in his inaugural address in June, 1865, that “the true position of the Negro was as a subordinate race excluded from all political and social privileges.”

The Democratic majorities in the 1866 Delaware General Assembly passed a resolution that “all attempts to elevate the negro to the social or political equality of the white man is the result either of an unwise and wicked fanaticism or a blind and perverse infidelity ….” As a result, the Democrats rejected the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution that bestowed rights on African-Americans.

A Republican from Wilmington, Benjamin Nields, testified to the U.S. House of Representatives that “the majority of the people in Kent and Sussex Counties are decidedly opposed to Negro suffrage, Negro education, and Negro political and civil equality.”

John H. Gauger describes the fallout of the Democratic and Republican positions in an issue of Delaware History, “The [Civil] War and the Reconstruction of the seceded states furnished Delaware Democrats with an overwhelming effective platform.” This led to “almost a quarter century (1865-1883) … [in which] the Democrats enjoyed enormous success in Delaware.”

Ironically, even though the state was economically tied to Pennsylvania and despite its disapproval of secession from the Union prior to the Civil War, Delaware became a part of the “solid South” and a convert to states rights. Given this political atmosphere, the State of Delaware would not ratify the three key amendments that bestowed rights on African-Americans until 1901.

Nonetheless, the Fifteenth Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, was approved nationally in 1870, and permitted Republicans in Delaware to count on an additional 4,500 votes from the black population. Despite this, the Democrats declared themselves to be the white man’s party, and continued to hold the governorship, the representative to Congress, and both houses of the legislature.

By 1872, the Republicans made some headway in loosening the Democratic stranglehold on power with the election of Leander F. Riddle to the state senate. He promised the “reform of all abuses … and the removal of all social evils.” The Democrats, however, undermined laws on voting rights by passing an act that imposed poll-taxes and refusing to place blacks on the assessment list.

The limitations on the rights of African-Americans continued in 1875 with the passage of a law restricting them from hotels, restaurants, theaters and transportation facilities. These “black codes” would stay on the books until the early 1960’s. This situation was not rectified until Rev. Martin Luther King led marches and sit-ins in the South that motivated the Federal government to act.

King organized the March on Washington, D.C. in 1963 when, in his now famous “I Have a Dream!” speech, his rhetoric soared, “… when we allow freedom to ring,” we will be “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

New laws, especially the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and strict enforcement brought about changes throughout the “solid South,” including Delaware. It had required an entire century to insure the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments implemented Abraham Lincoln’s promise of equality set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at