Civil War Profiles: A post-war lynching in Delaware

Date Published: 
May 23, 2014

The end of the Civil War did not bring a complete halt to the massive loss of life that took place during four years of conflict. Animosity between the races frequently led to unbridled mob rule and lynching of African-Americans, as well as whites who sympathized with their plight.

The Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Ala., compiled statistics by state from 1882 through 1968, showing 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites died in this horrific manner. Mississippi and Texas led all other states, with the lynching of 539 blacks and 141 whites, respectively. Although lynching predominantly occurred in former Confederate states, they took place in those that had stayed loyal to the Union as well (see http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingsstate.html).

Among the loyal states, the Tuskegee report lists only one lynching in Delaware — that of a black man in Wilmington in 1903. In a more recent study in the Winter-Spring 2014 issue of Delaware History, however, Yohuru Williams identifies lynchings during an earlier period, including a black Union army veteran named William “Obie” Evans.

Evans, born in what is now West Virginia, served in the 30th United States Colored Troops during and immediately following the Civil War. He remained on garrison duty with his unit in North Carolina during Reconstruction, until December 1865.

Having as yet not received the $300 separation-from-service bounty promised him upon enlistment in the Union army, Evans — along with many other black veterans — scrambled to obtain employment to make ends meet. Evans, who evidently had come to the Baltimore area, decided in the spring of 1867 to seek work in the Leipsic community just north of Dover.

The racial climate in Delaware had not improved significantly since the U.S. Congress adopted the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865, officially ending slavery in this country. Delaware adamantly refused to ratify the amendment.

Harold Bell Hancock points out in “Delaware during the Civil War” that Gov. Gove Saulsbury denounced the end of slavery. He asserted “the true position of the Negro was as a subordinate race.” Yohuru Williams quoted the governor’s belief the amendment was “unnecessary, unwise, unjustifiable and dangerous … [because] sale of [blacks] into slavery, as a punishment for crime … was the surest preventive against the repetition.”

It was in this toxic political atmosphere that Obie Evans arrived in Delaware and contracted for work during the duration of the peach harvest with a white farmer named William Collins, himself a Union war veteran. Reluctantly, Evans agreed to put up his bounty payment papers as collateral for a loan from Collins to cover initial living expenses.

Soon thereafter, Evans received word from the government that his bounty had been approved for payment. He requested Collins to release him from the previously agreed contract and a return of his bounty papers. Desiring reliable work for the duration of the harvest, however, Collins declined Evans’ request, which led to bad feelings between the two men.

When one of the barns on the farm caught fire, Williams writes that “Collins suspected arson, and … rumors circulated that Evans was responsible.” Two days later, a small group of men with handkerchiefs covering their faces showed up at the farm, took Evans away and hung him at a nearby farm.

A Wilmington newspaper, the Delaware State Journal & Statesman — normally in tune with the Democratic political position about separation of the races — unexpectedly editorialized in opposition to this lynching: “It looks very much like an attempt on the part of bad men to inaugurate a system of murder against an unoffending class of people such as has disgraced several localities in the South.”

Nonetheless, the only person brought to trial was Ann Eliza Guy, a black girl and friend of Evans wrongly accused of assisting him in setting the Collins’ barn on fire. Fortunately for her, editorial outrage by newspaper editors and a lack of evidence led to her acquittal.

The nature of post-war politics in Delaware, including a system that barred blacks from testifying against whites, prevented justice from being done in the lynching of William Evans. Despite suspicion that the guilty parties could be identified by blacks on the scene at the time, no one was accused or brought to trial.

In Williams’ view, the silver lining is, in Delaware, “violence [against blacks] never equaled levels observed in the former states of the Confederacy.” Moreover, the unprecedented permission to allow testimony by a black person in the trial of Ann Eliza Guy was later cited to exonerate a black rape suspect in a landmark Supreme Court case.

Yet, Williams concludes, “it would be more than three quarters of a century before the Civil Rights movement guaranteed full legal equality for African Americans,” including in the State of Delaware.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.