Harold W. Hurst: November 2005

Free Blacks in
Antebellum Delmarva
Harold W. Hurst

     Free blacks in 1860 constituted a larger proportion of the total population of Maryland and Delaware than in other southern and border states. During the early part of the nineteenth century, many slaves in this area were freed because the system became increasingly unprofitable and Quakers and some Methodists opposed the institution on moral grounds. Consequently, on the eve of the Civil War, free blacks outnumbered slaves in many parts of Maryland and Delaware.
      Statistics for Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland tell the story. In the industrial city of Wilmington, slavery had become extinct by 1860 but free blacks formed 10 per cent of the total population. Even in rural Delaware, an area with pronounced southern characteristics, free blacks outnumbered slaves. For instance, in Kent County, Delaware, which contained the capitol town of Dover, free blacks accounted for 28 per cent of the inhabitants while slaves formed less than 1 per cent.
      On the Eastern Shore of Maryland slavery still thrived in some areas, but free people of color were also numerous. In Chestertown, free blacks formed 26 per cent of the population while slaves were only 10 per cent. Further south in Cambridge slaves outnumbered free blacks forming 39 per cent of the population but free blacks were 17 per cent of the total population of the town.
      In Accomack and Northampton counties in the Virginia portion of the Delmarva peninsula, slaves were more numerous, but even here free blacks formed roughly 20 per cent of the whole population.
      Were free blacks better off than slaves? Clement Eaton, a historian of the Old South, has described the plight of free blacks in Dixie as “tragic.” While legally “free,” they were, at best, second class citizens subject to discrimination and numerous restrictions. While this class could own property they were forbidden to hold public office, serve on juries, testify against whites in court, own firearms, sell liquor, or gather in public places after dark.
      Moreover, the heavy hand of judges made life burdensome for the free people of color. Public lashings were the most common punishment meted out to blacks. The court in Kent County, Delaware, for instance, sentenced a black man in 1859 to thirty lashes and a fine of $2 for stealing five shirts. Another free black was given seven years in prison and “a whipping” for stealing boots from a wealthy white farmer. The courts in Dover also vented their anger on blacks who dared to attend political meetings. In 1860 several black men were fined $20 for being present at a Republican meeting.
      Most free blacks led and life of grinding poverty. A majority were farm workers, day laborers, and domestics. A few skilled workers could be found among them, especially blacksmiths, carpenters, mariners, and masons. The 1845 city directory of Wilmington listed 26 occupations in which blacks found employment. A few were skilled workers and artisans.
      In rural Delaware most black males were farm laborers whose wages seldom rose above $4 to $6 a month. In Kent County, Maryland, which includes Chestertown, the local newspaper complained that labor was scarce because “free Negroes refuse to hire by the year.” As a result some farmers “were paying as high as $120 a year whereas a few years ago they would have paid $75.”
      These wages did not compare favorably with the pay of white factory workers in this era. For example, the women at the Mount Vernon Cotton factory in Alexandria, Virginia, were paid between $12 and $17 a month.
      In some towns in Delmarva blacks acquired a modest prosperity as butchers, grocers and restaurant owners. In Chestertown and Cambridge most butchers were blacks, while this race owned many of the restaurants in Chestertown, Easton and Princess Anne. Black oyster vendors plied their trade in every town on the peninsula.
      A famous eatery in Chestertown, the Rising Sun Saloon, opened in 1857 by William Perkins, a noted free black in town. The east room in this “saloon” was reserved for ladies and their gentleman escorts. The fare consisted of lemonade “in the French style,” diamond-backed terrapins and crabs. Gentlemen were served in the oyster room.
      Levi Rogers operated an “ice cream saloon” which also served oysters and crabs. Maria Bracker sold ice cream and lemonade in her shop from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
      Most blacks, however, were still involved in farming and a few owned sizeable plots. The Dover area of Delaware may serve as an example. The largest African American farmer in this area was Philip Roberts who possessed 164 acres and rented out an additional 97 acres. His estate included two horses, four cows, two mules, and twelve sheep. His properties were evaluated at $4,000, a middle class estate at this time. Several other black farmers were assessed for over $1,000 in an era when most of their race owned less than two or three hundred dollars worth of property.
      Free blacks and slaves in the southern and border states usually occupied huts or small frame houses located near their white masters or employers. The intermingling of black-occupied houses in neighborhoods resided in by the white gentry was a common pattern south of the Mason-Dixon Line. During the late antebellum era, however, some African Americans began to congregate in districts near the African churches and cemeteries.
      A few prosperous blacks built substantial houses. In Chestertown black merchants like Isaac Boyer, Maria Bracker, Thomas Cuff, James A. Jones, and William Perkins put up two story houses in the 1850s, some of which are still standing today.
      Certain rural districts in Delaware were the scene of separate black communities. One known as New Discovery stretched out for over a mile. Another all-black village was named Belltown for Jake Bell a free black who donated the land in 1840 for houses and an African church. Star Hill, located near Camden, Delaware, was situated on lands obtained from the Quakers.
      The institutional life of African Americans centered about the church, the focus of both spiritual and social activities and the chief medium for the promotion of black independence and self esteem. During the early nineteenth century many blacks occupied the rear pews and balconies of white churches. By 1860, however, an increasing number of blacks attended their own churches, some of which were served by preachers of their own race.
      Black-affiliated churches in Delmarva reflected the denominational pattern of the region which had been under the sway of Methodism since the early 1800s. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, for example, there were 200 Methodist churches compared to only 91 of all other denominations combined. The camp meetings, revival services, and spontaneous preaching of the Methodists appealed to blacks more than the staid worship of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.
      One of the first African churches in Delaware was the Ezion Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, established by free blacks in 1805. The congregation later joined the all-black African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the denomination of choice for both free blacks and slaves in the Delmarva region. Under the guidance of the Reverend Peter Spence the church grew rapidly and by 1843 its members numbered over 1,200.
      In Dover, Delaware, blacks withdrew from the white Methodist congregation in 1852 and formed what later became known as Whatcoat Methodist Church. Its members were nearly all free blacks. Chestertown, Maryland, witnessed the development of two black Methodist churches, both of which were established in the 1830s.
      Free blacks in Easton, Maryland, founded Bethel AME Church as early as 1818. The congregation worshipped in a frame building donated by James Cochran, a local Quaker. Another black Methodist congregation was started in 1849.
      People of color in Salisbury, Maryland, established their own church in 1838. Located on a steep slope in the town it became known as “the church on the hill.”
      In the nearby village of Sharptown the local blacks formed their own church in 1850. By the 1850s most free blacks and many slaves worshipped in their own churches, away from the watchful eyes and ears of their white neighbors.
      The role the Quakers played in the aid and comfort of free blacks in Delmarva deserves mention. Delaware Quakers began to free slaves in their area as early as 1775 and later gave much needed support to the activities of the Underground Railroad. They were among the most ardent champions of the black abolitionists in the region like Abraham D. Shadd, Samuel Burris and Harriet Tubman, all actively involved in helping slaves to freedom in the North.
      Members of the Society of Friends also contributed financially to the establishment of free black communities and churches. A noted example of these efforts is the construction of the all-black Star Hill community near the predominantly Quaker town of Camden, near Dover, Delaware, and the establishment of the Zion AME Church in the town.
      Free blacks who owned successful farms and established their own businesses and churches in the antebellum era became the basis of a small but influential middle class which provided the leadership of their race in the post-Civil War period. They became teachers, ministers, and political leaders. Some, especially in Delaware, were instrumental in helping to start the fledgling Republican Party. These people exhibited undaunted courage and extraordinary resourcefulness, and paved the way for a new generation ready to meet the challenge of freedom and citizenship.