From museums to libraries to public archives, it seems that in today’s world, all of history is right at your fingertips. However, for each story we pass down, there are hundreds of stories that remain untold. The stories of minority communities are often overshadowed or overlooked. The history of these communities contains stories of pride, triumph over adversity and strong community values.
For the African American community of Wilmington’s East Side, that history just became more accessible thanks to Hara Wright-Smith, PhD.
Wright-Smith published African Americans of Wilmington’s East Side to give those in the area today a tangible representation of their community, which has repeatedly risen up in the face of adversity since the early 1900s. This African American community thrived through the era of racial segregation, Jim Crow policies and the multitude of challenges America’s Black community faced between the 1900s and 1960s.
We spoke with Dr. Wright-Smith about her inspiration for the work, her career in economic development and what she envisions for the future of the African American community in Wilmington.
One thing is that it adds to the annals of history of Black life in Wilmington’s East Side in a really significant way. It looks through the lens of family experiences. I wanted to really highlight what life was like in segregated communities at the time.
But the other reason was that my doctoral studies focused on Wilmington’s East Side many years ago. I looked at black churches and interviewed dozens of them. I wanted to understand the contribution of African American churches in this section of town and how they contributed to neighborhood revitalization, community uplift, the spiritual, political and social life of the community.
But what came out of that, though, was I realized that although I completed my doctoral requirement and answered critical questions, I knew from the conversations I had in my interviews that there was a lot more to tell. There was another story here to uncover. And that stayed with me for years.
There are a couple of messages I’m hoping folks take away.
One is that while the rich history of Black neighborhoods is not always told, these stories exist in communities all across the nation. The East Side is a good representation during [the] segregation period of the strength, endurance and pride that communities had despite [their lack of] resources. They made do with what they had.
I want people to take away the fact that maybe they have perceptions of what the East Side looks like today, but despite what you see today in Black communities, there is often a deep history that is not told. I think that’s the larger conversation that’s being had nationally around Black history.
I’m hoping this book can be shared with many families and elders who still live in this community and generations of their children and grandchildren who still live there. They can take this tangible document and hold it with pride. They’ll be able to open it and see that their families flourished at that time socially and economically. It’s something they can be proud of and draw inspiration from as they think about their own lives and all that the East Side community has the potential to be.
The very first cover of Chapter 1 shows a significant Black couple who is important to Wilmington’s history: Littleton and Jane Mitchell. They were activists, they were professionals, they fought for justice and sat in leadership roles on the NAACP. Littleton Mitchell was a Tuskegee Airman, so he served his country well, then came home and fought for justice in Delaware, and so did his wife. Jane was the first Black nurse in the state of Delaware who fought for justice in medical treatment for African Americans. They were graduates of Howard High School, which is important to the East Side. They were leaders as a married couple. In fact, our 46th president today, Joseph Biden, delivered [Jane’s] eulogy in 2004, so [Jane and Littleton] were very successful.
I say all that to say they’re on the first page. But then you turn the page, and you see a family that may not be as known: Wittie and Beatrice Johnson and their children. And that’s the theme throughout the book. You might see very influential families right next to families you may not know because I wanted to lift up the influential and the unsung. That’s the way it was in [the] segregated East Side. You had very influential doctors, lawyers, teachers and dentists living right next-door to blue-collar, working-class individuals. The community was established that way, so your role models lived right next-door to you. So that’s what I think was really important and why the layout of the book represents how people lived in that community at the time.
And there were hosts of Black-owned businesses. So many Black-owned businesses on the East Side at the time provided for the economic stability of the community. French Street, Walnut Street and Poplar Street were all filled with Black-owned businesses. I often relate it to stories about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the tragic story of Black Tulsa at that time. Similar stories exist on a smaller scale. The East Side story is similar where the Black community was self-sustaining.
My career in community and economic development spans 20 years. This profession allowed me to be a technical advisor to many cities. I answered questions and provided solutions to how cities can improve economically. With that experience, I came back to Wilmington to work at Wilmington Alliance. The mission of the organization is about addressing economic mobility, providing employment opportunities and supporting small businesses. It’s about creating places in the city of Wilmington around neighborhood revitalization to create that uplift.
I was born and raised in New Castle County, so I’m from Delaware. My goal is to use this work that I’ve produced to share with the families and take a step back. I had a career in community development, but, for the first time in my career, I’m able to really give something back to the families in those communities. I can give them something tangible as inspiration to continue to thrive socially and economically. Frankly, I would love to do this kind of work nationally. I’m so glad to be a representative in the city of Wilmington, in the area where I was born and raised. But communities everywhere want this kind of story told and uncovered for them as well. There’s a larger American story around this.
Much of this started around urban renewal and other federal policies. I know from my work and academic background that it changed Black communities. Oftentimes when you think about changing the physical condition of a community, even if it’s legitimate, it’s critical. Methods have to be thought out very well. It’s not just brick and mortar and houses. These are places that people call home. We have to consider the people aspect of development as much as the physical aspect. I’m now a proponent of the importance of understanding how to integrate people into community change. This book is the culmination of my career goals.
I don’t know if I’ve taken enough time to thank the families, because there were hundreds of families who participated in this. Many came to me after the book was published and thanked me for the work, so I know it was valuable to them. It’s a photographic history because people relate to images. Many families came to me and said, “Thank you for telling our story and allowing us to have a voice through this work.” People really had to look and make phone calls and find where these photos were, but they took on the task because they realized the importance of it.