Commentary: Delaware has its own black history figures

By Carlos Holmes

Every year in February, the natural approach to Black History Month is to highlight the African American stories and accomplishments of national importance — giants of the past and present who are renowned from the East to the West Coast.

While such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and the like are certainly worthy of regular attention and celebration, Delaware has its own list of African Americans who have their own stories and achievements that should never be forgotten.

Carlos Holmes

Here are some of the Delaware Black History African Americans of note:

• Anthony Swart, the first African documented in this area circa 1639 when it was known as New Sweden. While there were probably African contemporaries, Anthony was the only one of that time mentioned in any colonist journals that have survived. As a slave, he was part of the labor force to develop Fort Christina. He was later freed and then was employed by New Sweden Gov. Johan Printz for 10 years. What became of Anthony after that is unknown.

• Samuel Burris (1813-1863), a free black from Willow Grove, who helped escaping slaves as a conductor on the Delaware route of the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and 1840s. Caught assisting in the escape of a slave in 1847, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to be sold into slavery. However, an abolitionist posing as a slave owner purchased him and released him in Philadelphia.

• Edwina Kruse (1848-1930), the earliest black education leader in Delaware. Ms. Kruse served as the principal of Howard High School in Wilmington for 44 years. From 1891 to the early 1920s, Howard H.S. was the only high school that blacks could attend in the state. She established a teacher education program there, founded a Girls Industrial School, and was one of the co-founders of the NAACP chapter in Wilmington.

• Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875-1935), a renowned author of poetry and short stories, who was married to the famed poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. However, after that marriage ended violently, she moved to Wilmington in 1902 and became the head of Howard High’s English Department. Considered a part of the Harlem Renaissance, she continued writing, and also served as a co-editor of the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive black newspaper, the AME Review, and published a literary anthology, The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer. She taught summer sessions at the State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State University), and was an activist in the suffrage and anti-lynching movements.

• Louis L. Redding (1901-1998), the first African-American to practice law in Delaware. His legal victory in the 1950 Parker vs. University of Delaware was the first case in the country in which a court forced an institution of higher education to enroll blacks. He subsequently won two desegregation cases in New Castle County, the appeals of which were included in the landmark 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, and landed Redding on the winning legal team headed by Thurgood Marshall. He later returned to the nation’s high court in 1961 to successful argue against segregation in public accommodation in Burton vs. Wilmington Parking Authority.

• Jane Mitchell (1921-2004), the first African-American to work as a registered nurse in a Delaware hospital. After breaking that color line in 1948 at the Gov. Bacon Health Clinic in Delaware City, Ms. Mitchell worked at the Delaware Psychiatric Hospital, where she became the first black director of nursing in the state. She also became the first African-American to serve as a member of the Delaware State Board of Nursing.

• Littleton Mitchell (1918-2009), a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and the husband of the aforementioned Jane Mitchell. He was best known as the 30-year president of the state NAACP (1961-1991) and he established a reputation as ferocious fighter for civil rights in the First State, which included the areas of housing, public accommodations, education and voting rights.

• In the elected arena, the following were Delaware African-American firsts: George C. Wright, mayor (1981-1995, Smyrna); William Winchester, state legislator, House of Representatives (1950-1952); Herman M. Holloway Sr., first state senator (1963-1994); Lisa Blunt Rochester, member of Congress (2016-present).

• As the First State’s only Historically Black institution of Higher Education, Delaware State University is a significant part of the African-American story in this state. As such, Dr. William C. Jason, president of the then-State College for Colored Students from 1895-1923, and Dr. Jerome Holland, president of then-Delaware State College, both should be considered Black History figures. The leadership of both men contributed greatly to the continuance of the institution during some of its most difficult years.

Much more could be told of the stories of the Delaware African Americans highlighted above, and many more could be added to the list of blacks to be celebrated and from whom to learn. Such is the challenge to identify them and to educate ourselves and others about their lives during the current Black History Month and the annual ones to come.

Carlos Holmes is the director of News Services for Delaware State University and that institution’s foremost expert on its 129-year history. He is also a former writer and editor for the Delaware State News.