Delaware’s Legislative Black Caucus Makes Local Voices Heard

The Delaware Legislative Black Caucus, formed in November 2018, is addressing root causes of racial discrimination throughout the state. Photo by Joe Del Tufo

In just two years, the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus has helped amplify concerns and issues that had often gone overlooked.

The morning of Nov. 7, 2020, marked a significant shift in the direction of the United States when the race for president was called in favor of former Vice President and Delaware U.S. Senator Joe Biden.

In homes across the state and the nation, that shift was marked by a deep sigh weighted with the feeling that a new day had dawned. It was certainly that way in the home of state Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown (D-17), where she says conversations after the 2016 election had immediately turned to the challenges they, as a Black family, would likely face over the next four years.

As a member of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus, formed in November 2018 after the number of Black members of the General Assembly grew to eight, Minor-Brown sees part of the group’s role in helping the Legislature as a whole understand that perspective.

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“The attitudes toward African Americans … I think if you are not in that environment and you’re not living in that brown skin and you are not experiencing the adversity and discrimination and the inequities that someone like me faces, you have no idea what that looks like or what that feels like,” she says.

A new opportunity

State Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden (D-2), who organized the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus, has believed in the value of caucuses since she was elected to her seat in 2010, working with Black elected officials throughout the First State to help support and promote their work on a local level. But working with municipal leaders, she admits, can only accomplish so much. So she was “elated” in 2018 when the number of incoming Black legislators made forming the Legislative Black Caucus a reality.

“That’s where you’re able to get things done legislatively,” she says. “We’re able to look at the entire state, not just the city of Wilmington or New Castle County. And when we’re looking at opportunities, dealing with economic development, health and welfare, safety, justice and infrastructure is why we were able to do the Justice for All Agenda.”

Introduced by the Delaware Black Legislative Caucus in June 2020, it is a broad package of legislation designed to address many of the root causes of racial discrimination and injustice throughout Delaware. It was created in conjunction with multiple state agencies and boasts bipartisan support.

Delaware Black Legislature
Photo by Joe Del Tufo

Making history—again

The agenda is just one item from a busy two years for the caucus, says its chairman, state Sen. Darius Brown (D-2). The 2nd Senatorial District includes the city of Wilmington and, as Brown notes, has historically been the one held by a Black member. To see a second Black member, Sen. Elizabeth Lockman (D-3), elected in 2018, was a welcome experience, he says.

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“It adds not just to the representation of a population of people but to the diverse idea that African Americans are not monolithic,” he says. “We have been very focused on addressing issues that impact the human condition of all Delawareans, recognizing that many of the challenges African Americans face are similar to the challenges faced by other brothers and sisters of color and others that reside in impoverished, underserved communities, working families and the middle class.”

Lockman’s 3rd District is a perfect example of that diversity, including part of downtown Wilmington and the Riverfront down to Newport. “It’s really just about the people you’ve been charged with representing and knowing them and being able to bring them into that space at different times,” she says. “And I think that happens with the Black Caucus. We have different experiences and different backgrounds as well. And how do we use that to become stronger?”

A more diverse outlook

Though he was part of the 2018 class elected to the Delaware House, Rep. Franklin D. Cooke (D-16) represents an older demographic that brings a wealth of real-world experience to the role, particular when it comes to the area of criminal justice reform.

As an officer with the New Castle County Police for 30 years, he’s seen both sides of what takes place between residents and law enforcement in his district along the Route 9 corridor. He’s also intimately familiar with the health crises in what has been designated a cancer hot spot in the district. That experience helps guide his lawmaking from a perspective his white peers might not have.

[If] you are not experiencing the adversity and discrimination and the inequities that someone like me faces, you have no idea what that looks like or what it feels like.
—Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown (D-17)

“They understand now because they get to sit down and talk to me and see me every day,” he says. “If there’s a question or something that boggles them, they get a chance to see me and talk to me or see our other Legislative Black Caucus members that are in their committees now.”

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Those discussions are inevitably focused on building a society that’s fairer to all its citizens, says Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D-1). “I think if I could find one word to define our caucus, it would be equity. I truly believe that we’re trying to show areas of inequity throughout our state, whether it be in health care, in the way our nonprofits are funded and the way our communities are policed, education, in the judicial system. We’re just showing that these are everyday realities for our communities, and they have existed for so long.”

Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker (D-3) knows about those realities from her own family. When her father returned from fighting in Vietnam, he and her mother went house hunting. In one neighborhood she now represents as part of her district, the real estate agent told her parents—using a racial epithet—that they would not be welcome there.

But during her last run for office, Walker drove her mother through the same neighborhood. “And I saw her looking out the window, tears just streaming down her face, because in that moment she saw a shift in the atmosphere,” she says. “While they were denied housing in this particular part of my district, to know that these same people were voting for her daughter to be their representative, I can only imagine what was going through her mind in that moment. But I think the tears said enough.”

For Rep. Kendra Johnson (D-5), part of the gratification of holding her seat has been simply to be of service to her constituents. She’s not beyond showing up at the home of someone in her district to learn more about a problem or issue. And she relishes those moments when she feels she’s done even a small amount of good. At the polls during Election Day, a young white constituent thanked her deeply for helping him straighten out his unemployment compensation.

“That matters,” she says. “It’s like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be at this moment. I am in tune with what the universe has for me and wants me to do at this time.”

New Faces in 2021

The 2018 election saw a dramatic increase in the number of Black legislators elected to office in Delaware. Again in 2020, Delaware voters helped broaden the diversity of the First State’s legislative bodies. The latest slate to be seated for the 151st General Assembly brings the total membership of the Legislative Black Caucus to 12.

Sen. Marie Pinkney (D-13)—As a social worker, Pinkney has seen the challenges her constituents face accessing quality health care. She has built her platform on a commitment to helping her district—which stretches from just south of Wilmington to encompass Bear—emerge from a history of systemic governmental and social inequities.

Rep. Larry Lambert (D-7)—A lifelong Claymont resident, community organizer and educator, Lambert’s campaign emphasized the working-class values he learned from his father, a Delmarva Power employee and union member. With a background in public education and banking, he ran on a platform of building bridges to prosperity for his district and the state at large.

Rep. Sherae’a Moore (D-8)—The first African American woman to be elected to the Legislature from south of the C&D Canal, Moore—an educator and community activist—represents the fast-growing Middletown area with all the accompanying challenges of a small town and its booming formerly rural suburbs.

Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton (D-26)—Wilson-Anton worked as a legislative aide to the 26th and 27th Representative Districts and is a policy analyst at the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. She ran on a progressive agenda that addresses disparities in education, health care, and economic and criminal justice. Wilson-Anton is the first practicing Muslim elected to the Delaware General Assembly.

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