A hard life for African-Americans in ante-bellum Delaware
Prior to the Civil War, Delaware’s black population lived under exceptionally difficult conditions. Their freedom was restricted, and opportunities for the pursuit of happiness earned through hard work were virtually non-existent. Blacks coped with their wretched plight through faith in eventual liberation and belief that salvation was for all human beings — blacks, as well as whites.
The Swedes brought the first African to Delaware as a slave in 1639. In the decade prior to the Revolution, 20 to 25 percent of Delaware’s population were slaves — higher than the northern colonies but lowest of the southern colonies. Political, religious and economic forces led to a strong manumission movement during the mid- to late-18th century. During the Revolutionary War, blacks were not permitted to serve in the military but did contribute by working as teamsters and express riders.
An eventual ban on exporting slaves from Delaware made slavery increasingly unprofitable and led to the freeing of a majority of slaves in the state by the end of the 18th century. Farmers found it cheaper to hire blacks than to keep them as slaves.
The paternalistic relationship under the institution of slavery, however, was eventually replaced by free blacks frequently being treated as pawns in negotiations between land owners and black workers. The one bright note was that, despite the inhospitable atmosphere, the ownership of property on the part of blacks grew in the decade before the Civil War.
However, fear by whites of the large free black population led to laws that restricted liberties, making Delaware the least hospitable state to freedmen. Delaware legislators put statutes in place preventing blacks from voting or holding a political office. No more than 12 free blacks could congregate after 10 p.m. unless white men were present. Blacks could not testify in court against whites.
Following Nat Turner’s bloody slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, Delaware banned free blacks from owning guns or swords. An 1845 law prohibited the sale of alcohol to blacks. Marriage between blacks and whites was illegal. These controls were a forerunner to the “Jim Crow” laws instituted throughout the South following Reconstruction.
Resentment at white control of religious services led black members to form the Union African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington in 1805. Black churches would become a central part of African-American lives and would serve as a place where blacks plotted ways to help slaves gain their freedom.
The only jobs available to most blacks were as laborers or domestics. Those who could not pay their debts could be auctioned into slavery for a number of years. When they refused employment because of poor pay and conditions, the Delaware General Assembly passed a law that threatened servitude for one year for unemployed blacks.
The education of blacks has been labeled a disgraceful chapter in Delaware history. In 1798, Quakers opened a school for blacks, and in 1816 a group called the African School Society opened another. However, by 1850 only 187 students were in public schools, and a decade later just 250 attended (while the free black population was almost 20,000).
In 1860, only the African School Society in Wilmington was concerned with what was referred to as “Negro education.” The General Assembly denied school aid to black students.
Although the percentage of free blacks had grown steadily from about 1790 to 1840 (mainly because of being manumitted from slavery), the hostile environment toward blacks in Delaware led to an increase in emigration to the North in the 1850’s.
In 1860, the Delaware population totaled 112,216, of which 19,829 (18 percent) were black, a reduction from 22 percent since 1840. However, only 1,798 (less than 2 percent) were slaves. At the outset of the Civil War, slavery was close to being extinct in the state.
Three times prior to the Civil War the General Assembly voted on a bill to abolish slavery, and each time it failed: in 1792, then again in 1803 and 1847, the latter two times by just one vote. In other words, although slavery itself was unpopular in Delaware, the people still were not ready to grant equality to blacks, slave or free.
The sorry state of affairs for free blacks in Delaware prompted William Yates, a black minister and visitor to the state, to comment, “They are neither slaves nor free, being subjected to the disabilities and disadvantages of both conditions and enjoying few of the benefits of either.”
The lives and prospects of African-Americans in Delaware would change once the Civil War began, but not always for the better. An examination of this situation will be the subject of a future article.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.