Whipping post to be removed from grounds of old Sussex courthouse

Dr. Reba Hollingsworth, center, speaks prior to the removal of Delaware’s last whipping post July in Georgetown. At left is Dr. Brittany Hazzard; at right Jane Hovington.

GEORGETOWN — The whipping post, a symbol of a brutal period cemented in Delaware’s history, will be removed Wednesday morning from public display on the grounds of the Old Sussex County Courthouse and placed in storage in Dover.

The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs’ decision to remove Delaware’s last whipping post – located along South Bedford Street near The Circle – comes in response to requests from the community and in recognition of the violence and racial discrimination that its display signified to many Delawareans.

“Finally, Delaware is removing its last ‘Red Hannah,’ the whipping post, from the public’s view,” said Dr. Reba Hollingsworth, vice chair of the Delaware Heritage Commission. “Such relics of the past should be placed in museums to be preserved and protected for those who want to remember the cruel, inhuman, barbarous acts perpetrated on our citizens.”

A piece of state property, the whipping post will be moved to a Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs storage facility in Dover where it will join other historical objects and artifacts, including a whipping post that once stood near The Green in Dover.

“It is appropriate for an item like this to be preserved in the state’s collections, so that future generations may view it and attempt to understand the full context of its historical significance,” said Historical & Cultural Affairs Director Tim Slavin. “It’s quite another thing to allow a whipping post to remain in place along a busy public street – a cold, deadpan display that does not adequately account for the traumatic legacy it represents, and that still reverberates among communities of color in our state.”

The HCA intends to work with historians, educators and leaders of the African American community in Delaware to explore plans for future display of this artifact in a museum setting, where it can be properly contextualized and interpreted.

“That is the key. It’s not something we need to see every day,” said community activist Jane Hovington from Georgetown. “It can be placed in a museum and if I so desire or anyone so desires, they can go and look at it. But it is not something that we should have to ride by and look at every day and constantly be reminded of the atrocities that so many of our forefathers had to endure. And, it wasn’t just black people, but white people as well. I’m sure that there are families who don’t want to think about the fact their brother, uncle or cousin … was whipped on that post.”

“It is a state-owned artifact, itself a piece of state property. The Old Courthouse and grounds is state property,” said Doug Denison, spokesman for the Delaware Department of State. “So, we are just removing it from our property. It is going into storage with other historical artifacts, objects, basically the state’s collection.”

This whipping post was initially located on the grounds of the Sussex Correctional Institution south of Georgetown. The facility 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. The post was installed for public display at the state-owned Old Sussex County Courthouse site in September of 1993.

“Back in the early 1990s, SCI transferred it to the historical and cultural division as an historical artifact,” Mr. Denison said. “Then, in conjunction with the Georgetown Historical Society it was placed at the Old Courthouse site in early 1990s.”

The history of corporal punishment in Delaware goes back to the earliest days of colonial settlement and included the use of the whipping post and the pillory in all three counties into the 20th century. These punishments were imposed for a variety of crimes throughout history and were disproportionately applied to persons of color. Those sentenced to the whipping post could be lashed up to 40 times for a single offense.

The removal of the post caps long-running efforts to have it removed from public display.

“This is not just happening,” said Ms. Hovington, adding a formal request was made through 37th District State Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown. “We contacted the town who told us we had to contact our legislators. We put a request into Ruth Briggs King. She funneled it.”

“Time and time again people challenged the whipping post …,” said Greg Wilson, a fair-lending advocate and community reinvestment consultant from Wilmington. “Delawareans shouldn’t get the impression that this was a monolithically accepted form of criminal justice activity. There were prominent individuals that opposed it. And there were arguments much like today about unequal treatment of poor folk and poor people of color in particular that were resonating 150 years or 100 years, saying only the poor people are getting whipped for stealing something worth less than $10. But if you embezzle $200,000 you don’t get the lash.”

The whipping post, Mr. Wilson said, symbolizes the disparity in the judicial system’s treatment of people of color and poor white folks.

“The most glaring manifestation of that is Delaware’s whipping post. When other states turned away from corporal punishment went into penitentiary, Delaware stayed with the whipping post as a form of corporal punishment,” Mr. Wilson said.

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 Gov. Russell Peterson.

Dr. Hollingsworth, a lifelong Delaware educator, historian and civil rights advocate, witnessed a whipping in her childhood that still lives in her memory:

“When I was a child in the late 1930s, I saw a man being whipped at the Kent County jail at the corner of New and Water Streets in Dover. On a Saturday morning, my dad, Solomon Ross, had driven to Dover from Milford to conduct some business. When he saw the crowd gathered at the front of the jail, he parked his car and he, my sister Vivienne and I joined the crowd around the wire mesh fence, which surrounded the jail yard,” said Dr. Hollingsworth. “There, we saw a man, naked to his waist, with his wrists shackled to an eight-foot post, being whipped by a man with a cat-o-nine-tails that had a short handle with nine rawhide thongs, which appeared to be about 18 inches long. Even though the whipping occurred more than 80 years ago, I still remember the eerie silence that was pierced by the lashes of the whip. After each lash, the warden would loudly count each lash. I don’t remember how many lashes the man received that day, but the incident is a vivid memory every time I pass the jail on New Street, even though Red Hannah has been removed. When I drive around the Circle in Georgetown, my childhood emotions fill my heart.

Mr. Wilson said history will show whippings occurred in all three Delaware counties. “The majority of whippings happened not only in Sussex county or in Kent, but up in New Castle,” Mr. Wilson said. “All of Delaware is to blame. We all share the burden of our past. We should acknowledge that as we address the challenges of criminal justice reform in Delaware today.”

No ceremony is planned in conjunction with the removal of the post, approximately 9:30 a.m., July 1, although members of the public and those who spearheaded its removal are expected to be on hand.

Mr. Wilson applauds the state for undertaking the removal of the whipping post.

“It is the right move. And the right decision,” said Mr. Wilson.