Although Sussex County had the largest numbers of slaves of the three Delaware counties during the first century of the United States’ existence, slavery was not a large part of life here, according to a Delaware history interpreter who spoke at the South Coastal Library last week.
Because Sussex farms tended to be small and the growing seasons relatively short, the use of slaves as farm labor “wasn’t as profitable” as it was on bigger, plantation-style enclaves in other parts of the country, said Kyle Parks, a Delaware Historical Society interpreter who spoke at the Bethany Beach library on Thursday, Feb. 21.
“It was found that it was cheaper to pay people for part of the year than to support them all year and not pay them at all,” Parks said.
If there were slaves on local farms, there were an average of three per property, Parks said, and they were likely to be working the fields alongside their owners. Delaware, as a “border state,” allowed slavery, although it did not secede from the union during the Civil War.
On the eve of the Civil War, Parks said, there were about 1,800 enslaved Africans in Delaware, and 75 percent of those were located in Sussex County. That’s compared to about 4 million slaves across the nation. Slavery was banned in Delaware in 1776, but that ban went “largely unenforced” until 1787. Also, slaves who were located in Delaware could only be sold within the state.
By 1850, 90 percent of African-Americans living in Delaware were freed slaves — the largest percentage of any state in the country at that time, according to Parks.
Although Parks said there were Delawareans who fought for the Confederacy, slavery in general “wasn’t very popular in the state of Delaware.”
As a border state, however, Delaware was “very important” in the history of the Underground Railroad — a network of meeting places, secret routes, passageways and safe-houses used by slaves in the U.S. to escape slave-holding states to Northern states and Canada.
“On the Underground Railroad, for a lot of people, we were the last place” before freedom in the north, Parks said. Wilmington, in particular, was a key location, since it was the “last stop before people could get to Pennsylvania,” he said.
Wilmington was home to a “very large” community of Friends, or Quakers, Parks said, due partly to its proximity to Philadelphia. Quakers believe in the “spiritual equality of all people” and, as such, rejected the concept of slavery long before the general population in the United States. As pacifists, Quakers also believe in solving conflicts in non-violent ways.
In Delaware, Quakers began holding rallies against slavery and sending petitions to Dover rejecting the practice, Parks said. The Underground Railroad, he said, was illegal, and represented “kind of a rejection” of the idea that legal means of ending slavery were likely to succeed.
Since the Underground Railroad essentially helped slaves to escape from their owners, “you were technically aiding in theft” when participating in the escape network, Parks said.
Parks reviewed some of the “code language” used during the time of the Underground Railroad, including “station master,” referring to someone who operated a safe-house, which was referred to as a “station,” and “conductor,” who was a guide for those navigating to freedom.
Approximately 100,000 people found their way to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad nationwide between about 1830 and 1865, Parks said.
One Delawarean — a wealthy Quaker from Wilmington named Thomas Garrett — was responsible for helping about 2,700 people escape to freedom in the north, according to Parks.
Harriet Tubman — probably the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad — had strong ties to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and to Delaware as well, Parks said. For example, she reported staying at the Appoquhemeinimink Friends Meeting House in New Castle County several times, according to Parks. In that structure, it is still possible to see the hidden compartments under the eaves where escaping slaves were hidden.
The Camden Friends Meeting House near Dover was another Delaware Underground Railroad location, and is the burial place of another well-known abolitionist, John Hunn.
Even Delaware’s governor’s residence, Woodburn, has a connection to the Underground Railroad. The home was built in 1825 by Daniel Cowgill, an abolitionist and Quaker. Cowgill freed his family’s slaves and allowed them to meet in the home’s Great Hall, records show.
The Delaware Historical Society’s Mitchell Center for African American Heritage in Wilmington offers multiple exhibits offering information on topics such as the Underground Railroad in Delaware and other themes. For more information, go to www.dehistory.org.
By Kerin Magill