New Center for African-American Heritage Will Fill Gap in Delaware's Narrative

When the center opens in Wilmington this year, it will not only explain the black history of Delaware, but it will also become a place for stories past and present to grow.


Update: The opening of the Center for African-American Heritage has been pushed back until October 1, 2016. Find more information here.

When Bebe Coker speaks about bringing the many facets of Delaware’s African-American history to the forefront, she speaks of building bridges and unearthing buried treasures. Mostly, she insists that it is time for the state—and the rest of the country—to learn that everything that has happened throughout Delaware’s long history has a strong African-American component. Her mission is not to present fragments that exist on the history’s outskirts, but to demonstrate how a people who have been marginalized are significant actors in a centuries-old drama.

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Coker has more than a casual interest in the opening of Wilmington’s Center for African-American Heritage. She has lived in Delaware since 1960 and has been committed to teaching skills to those who want to find work. As a member of the center’s advisory council, Coker is helping bring a vision to life. As a citizen who has been dreaming of and working toward a moment when the influences of the state’s African-American residents would complete Delaware’s vivid tapestry of history, Coker is crusading for the inclusion of long-silenced truths.

“The biggest thing we want is for the historical archival material that has been ignored to evidence itself and bridge African-Americans and the state of Delaware,” Coker says. “We want the contributions of African-Americans to be recorded in the state’s total history.”

The CAAH is scheduled to open in March as part of the Delaware Historical Society’s renovated Market Street Center. It is the result of several years of planning and even more time and effort expended by those who struggled to bring the concept to fruition. Thanks to funding from the city of Wilmington, along with private foundations such as the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation, the project finally reached the point of critical mass and began to move forward two years ago.

When it debuts, the CAAH will be a crucial bulwark for the African-American community but, even more important, a symbol of recognition for a part of Delaware’s community that has felt left out of the state’s nearly four-century-long narrative. “For once, we will be able to see through legitimate archived research that African-Americans were pivotal parts of the community since the 1600s,” Coker says.

The process of aggregating information and presenting it is important, but the CAAH aims to go beyond the representation of history. It is possible to portray events and celebrate people through exhibits and to tell stories, but that kind of stand-alone representation isn’t enough. The center’s real work will be to serve as a vibrant entity committed to creating an ongoing dialogue, so that African-Americans’ roles in Delaware’s history live and grow. The center is designed to be more than just a standstill entity. Its value will be in the ability to advance the state’s historical dialogue.

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“The stories that are going to come to fruition will be voices that have yet to be heard,” says Scott Loehr, CEO of the historical society. “There will be very, very powerful deliveries. Delaware’s story is our nation’s story, and it’s fascinating.

“The center is going to succeed in expressing Delaware’s historical narrative by including lots of new voices.”

When Constance Cooper, chief curator for the historical society for more than 30 years, discusses the history of African-Americans in Delaware, she doesn’t start with the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil War or the Revolutionary War. She goes back to the beginning. Or, perhaps, the beginning, plus one.

One year after the Swedes established their beachhead in Delaware in 1638, an African named Anthony was delivered to Fort Christina by the captain of the Vogel Grip, the ship (along with the Kalmar Nyckel) that sailed from Sweden to the New World. Nine years after his arrival, “Black Anthony,” as he was known, became a free man, changed his name to Antoni Swart and served as a special assistant to Gov. Johan Printz, cutting hay and sailing his sloop. 

Though Anthony was not free when he came to Delaware from the West Indies, his presence in the new colony is just as vital to the state’s history as is the presence of the Swedes. “He participated in Delaware’s founding,” Cooper says. “People from Africa were part of Delaware from the beginning.” It is that fact that propels the CAAH forward. Anthony’s presence established immediate bona fides for Africans and their descendants throughout the state. Many of those who followed Anthony did so as slaves, but many were not. And those who minimize early the legitimacy of African-Americans because of their slave status rob them of their humanity and attempt to marginalize them. That’s something Cooper won’t tolerate. 

For her, the struggle to give African Americans full ownership of their time in Delaware and the United States is grounded in principles that were established when the country declared its independence. The struggle, she says, needs to be recognized today.

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“One of the things we want to focus on comes in the Declaration of Independence,” Cooper says. “It reads, ‘All men are created equal’. At the Center for African-American Heritage, we ask what that meant in 1776. The people who wrote the Declaration of Independence didn’t include black men and women, or even people of all colors who didn’t own land.

“There is a contrast of the nation’s ideals and real life for African Americans.”

It took some time for the center to reach the point of reality. The concept germinated in the late 1990s. The decision to move ahead was made in January 2012. There have been hurdles to clear, but come March, the hard work of many will be rewarded. One million dollars from the city of Wilmington helped the project along greatly. Patrice Gilliam-Johnson of the advisory council for the center believes the final product will satisfy just about everybody in the state. 

“To say to you that there was no acrimony would not be accurate,” she says. “But the community is beginning to recognize that our intention is to tell the African-American story in the midst of the larger story. People are recognizing that our intentions are good and are beginning to rally around that.”

Gilliam-Johnson and others connected to the center are trying to build a home for the stories of all African Americans across Delaware. That includes Wilmington’s East Side, the area below the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and the counties in southern Delaware. 

“This is a unified effort,” Gilliam-Johnson says. “We want all African Americans to feel that there is a place for them in Delaware history. They should feel proud and have some ownership in this. It’s a way of building a bridge so that folks can see their particular history. But we also want to integrate this so that people can see how all of the things are connected.”

The goal is to present African-American history in a way that allows for a variety of outcomes. Obviously, it is imperative that black Delawareans know their stories will be told, and not just in a cursory fashion. There must be the kind of depth necessary to show how they are part of the entire Delaware narrative, not just an adjunct. For that to happen, the story has to be blended into the state’s complete narrative. It’s a tricky endeavor, for several reasons. The most obvious challenge is handling the state’s complicated racial past. 

As a state that straddles the country’s North-South demarcation, it has a complicated heritage, one that must be told from many perspectives, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. Delaware was a key part of the Underground Railroad, but it also had many slave owners. The two-day upheaval that took place in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is another example of a period that must receive delicate treatment. Some see it as a riot. Others consider it a natural outcome after a horrific episode of violence. And the nine-month National Guard occupation after the incident remains raw for some Delaware residents.

Finding a way to represent all of this in one place while somehow looking at it through a broader lens is a considerable test. In that regard, the center’s affiliation with the historical society is a plus, because there will be the opportunity to combine the African-American narrative with the broader story.

“Your history is my history, and my history is your history,” Gilliam-Johnson says. “In that sense, we are connected in a way that is respectful, so that we can understand each other and bridge the divide.

That way, we can all have a better appreciation of what we all brought to the same party.”

If you are going to speak with Robin Krawitz about Delaware’s African-American history, you had better not be too busy. “How much time do you have?” she says with a laugh.

The Delaware State University professor is the director of the graduate program in historic preservation at DSU and is also an adviser to the historical society. She looks at the CAAH as a chance to “change the narrative” about African-Americans’ roles in the state’s history.

“Telling the story requires a look at all the perspectives,” Krawitz says. “We leave people out at our peril, and we then understand only in a small way. We need to know about African-Americans’ roles in Delaware’s history, because we still live in challenging times.”

Samuel D. Burris served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. His important story will be one of many presented at the new center. (Image courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society)

Krawitz believes people need to know about heroes like Samuel D. Burris, an African-American man who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves make it from Delaware to freedom in Pennsylvania. A free man, Burris risked his and his family’s lives to assist others. In 1847 he was arrested and imprisoned for his activities. While in prison, Burris wrote several letters, one of which came to the attention of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Burris was convicted and scheduled to be sold into slavery. On the day of his auction, abolitionist Isaac Flint “purchased” Burris, then took him to Philadelphia and freedom. 

“Understanding what happened before gives us insight into where we are going,” Krawitz says.

Krawitz is looking forward to visitors learning more about the stories of other prominent African-Americans and the turbulent times in which they lived. Few realize the turmoil that prevailed throughout the state over the idea of slavery. Delaware residents were divided on the issue, and as Krawitz looked through court petitions from the second half of the 1800s, she noticed that there were plenty of abolitionists looking for a legal way to end slavery, as well as many slaveowners trying to maintain the status quo.

“There was pressure from both sides on the courts,” Krawitz says. “In other states, slaveholders knew they were on top. Here, things could go either way. Every day was a potential battleground.”

In addition to exhibits and information about slavery in Delaware, there will be opportunities for visitors to learn about the work of heroes like Louis L. Redding Jr., the first African-American lawyer in the state. Two of the cases Redding argued regarding school desegregation, Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart, were significant victories in the fight and were joined with the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for blacks and whites were illegal. 

The center will showcase the work of heroes like Louis L. Redding Jr., the first African-American lawyer in the state. (Image courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society)

“[Redding] was a tough guy,” Krawitz says. “He wouldn’t take your case unless he could move bigger cases and issues forward.”

It will also be interesting to learn about Delaware’s role as the birthplace of the independent black church. Richard Allen, born into slavery in Kent County in 1760, founded in Philadelphia the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the country 34 years later. In 1813, Peter Spencer chartered the Union Church of Africans in Wilmington.  

“So much of African-American religious history belongs to Delaware,” Krawitz says.

Beginning in March, Delaware will be able to display that heritage in its full grandeur. The center offers an opportunity for African-Americans to have their history told as more than just an adjunct to a greater narrative. This will allow the whole story to move forward, thanks to contributions from people who have brought much to the state and continue to define it every day. As the narrative grows and becomes richer, all Delaware residents will understand their history more completely, because it will be told with more depth than it has before. History is not static, and the Center for African-American Heritage will allow the narrative to grow and become fuller with each new exhibit.

“Delaware’s African-American history has been so overlooked and neglected,” Cooper says. “It’s time to bring it out and focus it on it.

“This will be the showcase.”

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