Wilmington’s Willis Phelps, 74, still remembers playing cowboys and Indians when he was 10 or 12. “Being blacks, we had to be Indians. We couldn’t be the sheriff or a cowboy,” he says. Then his uncles informed him that there had, indeed, been black cowboys. “So I quit playing Tonto. If I was going to play cowboy, I was going to be a black scout,” Phelps says.
These days the retired National Guardsman spends his time as a costumed storyteller, trying to re-educate audiences about the role blacks played in 18th- and 19th-century U.S. history. He specializes in the Civil War era, and has been a costumed interpreter at Fort Delaware for two decades.
Not enough people know that there were free blacks who fought for the Union, and they don’t know enough about the slaves who escaped through the Underground Railroad. One of Phelps’ favorite historical figures to portray is James Elbert, a free black from Polktown in Delaware City who enlisted as a private in the U.S. Colored Troops. Blacks enlisted to fight for the freedom of slaves, Phelps says, but they also welcomed the $75 to $100 they were paid to substitute for a drafted white man.
“I try to give my presentations in such a way that audiences go away saying, ‘I didn’t know that.’ And I hope they will go home and look up the rest of the story. There are a lot of misconceptions about the role that blacks played in the foundation of this country. I try to correct that.”