Whipping post removed from old Sussex courthouse grounds

The whipping post is lifted from the ground at its location next to the Old Sussex County Courthouse near The Circle in Georgetown Wednesday morning. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — The public punishment chapter in Delaware’s history is no longer in sight.

Nearly seven decades after Delaware’s last recorded whipping, a whipping post was removed from state-owned grounds of the Old Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown late Wednesday morning, bound for storage in Dover.

“We don’t want to erase history. We want to erase negativity,” said the Rev. Tambara Stewart, who watched the event.

A racially diverse audience of an estimated 200 people was on hand to witness the removal of the whipping post, perceived by many as a horrible reminder of punitive actions with racial and social overtones.

Cheers rang out when the approximate 7-foot concrete post and its concrete base were lifted by backhoe from the earth.

“This isn’t just starting. It’s something we have been working for over the past three years or longer,” said Jane Hovington, president of the Richard Allen Coalition and part of the committee effort that spearheaded the drive to have the post removed. “Many people said, ‘I can’t believe that you have not done anything to remove it.’ I am here to tell you today, it is going away. And I need you to understand, there were white people, I’m sure, Hispanic people, and there were some Indians who were whipped on this post, as well as African Americans.”

Dr. Reba Hollingsworth, a lifelong Delaware educator, historian and civil rights advocate, shared her experience as a witness to a public whipping as a child in 1938.

“I actually saw a man getting whipped at the whipping post in Dover. There were crowds, just like today. And the whole crowd was watching this man shackled to the post, and a man with a whip … was actually whipping this man, and each time he would whip him, he would count the number of times he struck the man,” said Dr. Hollingsworth. “When he struck the man each time, it felt like something was going through the crowd. It is something that, even though I am almost 94 years old, I have never forgotten. Each time I come to Georgetown and see this replica here, I remember.”

The last use of the whipping post in Delaware took place in 1952. Delaware was the last state to abolish the whipping post, removing the penalty from state law in 1972 through an act of the General Assembly signed by then-Gov. Russell Peterson.

Georgetown Mayor Bill West views this as an opportunity for positive progress.

Georgetown Mayor Bill West addresses those gathered to witness the removal Wednesday of the whipping post located next to the Old Sussex County Courthouse. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“We want to go forward. Today is a great day, the start of going forward and bringing this community together, so we can talk, come together as one under one God,” Mayor West said.

“Every now and again, you have to shame people or shame things,” said the Rev. Stewart. “This morning, I want to shame the devil because I know he has a purpose and it is to divide and separate people. The Bible says that he comes to kill, steal and to destroy. And if we as a people don’t come together, he’ll do just what he came to do. I believe that God has a body of people that will come together, and they will fight for harmony. They will fight for unity, and they will fight for peace.”

Property of the state of Delaware, the post was taken to a Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs storage facility in Dover. It will join other historical objects and artifacts, including a whipping post that once stood near The Green in Dover.

The Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs plans to work with historians, educators and leaders of Delaware’s African American community to explore plans for future display of this artifact in a museum setting, where it can be properly contextualized and interpreted.

“It’s time for us to put these kinds of things in museums, not destroy them, because if you destroy them, the generations coming behind us will not believe that this occurred,” said Dr. Hollingsworth, vice chairwoman of the Delaware Heritage Commission. “So, put this in a museum and let it be there for part of our history, and let it really represent the shame of Delaware — the last state in the union to get rid of a whipping post. We have been last a lot of times, even though we are the First State. First in a lot of things and last in a lot of things. That’s what life is. Let us not repeat the past. Let us use the past to improve and make our present and our future better.”

The whipping post, encircled by an iron fence, was moved to the Old Sussex County Courthouse site in September 1993 from its original location on the grounds of the Sussex Correctional Institution, south of Georgetown. The SCI was established in 1931, but the exact date this particular post was installed is not known, according to the HCA.

In 1992, the warden donated the post to HCA, and the post was installed for public display at the Old Sussex County Courthouse site the following year.

An online Change.org petition calling for the removal of the whipping post had garnered more than 1,450 signatures by Tuesday evening.

“I think it is extremely important that we come together as a community,” said Dr. Brittany Hazzard, a community advocate who works with youth. “We need to be mindful of what community means, and that means standing together, even if we have differences, to try to gain an understanding. I think what this is showing today is that is what we are doing. We’re trying to come together even more as a community and as a state to gain more understanding for each other.

Dr. Reba Hollingsworth, center, speaks prior to the removal of the whipping post on state-owned grounds of the Old Sussex County Courthouse. At left is Dr. Brittany Hazzard; at right is Jane Hovington, among those who spearheaded the drive that led to its removal. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“When one gains understanding, then one can build trust. That is the goal. And then with trust, we hope that one of the biggest conversations, which is the racial divide, we hope that can be closed,” said Dr. Hazzard.

Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) issued the following statement on the removal of the whipping post in Georgetown, Delaware. 

“As our country has grappled with a racial reckoning over these past weeks, I have done a great deal of reflection on the vestiges of systemic racism that we see in our own state,” said Re. Blunt Rochester. “There are few that elicit the visceral pain of subjugation more than the whipping post in Georgetown. It is important to note that unlike some of the statues and monuments whose presence we have debated recently, the whipping post is not a reminder of history centuries gone by. 

Rep. Blunt Rochester added the last public whipping in Delaware took place in 1952. “The practice was still legal until 1972 when I was 10 years old and Delaware finally became the last state to outlaw the practice. Indeed, there are those still with us in our community who bore witness to that inhumane practice on public streets and town squares from Dover, to Milford, to Georgetown,” said Rep. Blunt Rochester. “Robert Caldwell, a former professor at the University of Delaware, found that 68 percent of those beaten were Black during a period when Black people made up less than 20 percent of the state’s population. While it is appropriate for the whipping post to be preserved in an historical context, so that future generations may learn about the barbarous acts committed against Delaware citizens, it is not appropriate to glorify the whipping post through public display.”

Rep. Blunt Rochester thanked Secretary of State, Jeff Bullock, Historical & Cultural Affairs Director Tim Slavin for their removal of the post – “but I want to especially thank Dr. Reba Hollingsworth, Jane Hovington of the Delaware NAACP, Dr. Brittany Hazzard, Diaz Bonville and so many in the community who raised their collective voices to advocate for the removal of the whipping post.”

“Our work to address systemic and institutional racism in this country will be an arduous task. We must work to address both the substance and the symbols of our historic oppression and we must deconstruct those vestiges of racism as intentionally as they were constructed. And as we deconstruct those vestiges, we find in their absence a space for reconciliation and path forward paved with justice for all,” said Rep. Blunt Rochester.

Delaware Gov. John Carney shared his thoughts on the whipping post’s removal Tuesday during his weekly COVID-19 press conference.

“I think it was the right thing to do. I mean the idea that at some point in our history, we took individuals out to the public square and whipped them like that. And, of course, those enslaved Delawareans here in our state were whipped when they were on the farms and plantations in our state, outside of the law. I think for Delawareans of African descent, descendants of slaves, I think it’s a terrible reminder of that history, and I think appropriate to put it in a museum or a place out of the public square.