Commentary: On Delaware Day, remember all in state’s history

By Tim Slavin

Dec. 7 is Delaware Day, the day each year on which we celebrate Delaware’s statehood. This year is different.

Traditionally, on Delaware Day, we commemorate the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and cite the five Delaware signers of the Constitution — George Read, Gunning Bedford Jr., John Dickinson, Richard Bassett and Jacob Broom. The stories of these five signers are well-known, and their actions have been preserved for history.

Tim Slavin

There are many others who also contributed to Delaware’s history and whose stories also deserve to be preserved for history. This year has brought a more inclusive history into focus for all of us.

My colleagues at the Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs recognize this and have dedicated our work to broadening the lens of Delaware history and including some lesser known, but no less important, stories of individual struggle and triumph.

This year, we are introducing five different people from Delaware’s colonial and early statehood period of history: Dinah, Warner Mifflin, Bishop Richard Allen, James Summers and “Unnamed Black Male, Burial #9.” Their stories are compelling. They encompass lives subjected to hard labor and injustice, lives dedicated to undoing injustice and, in one case, a life that leaves us with the promise of more learning.

Dinah served as a slave and, later, an indentured servant to John Dickinson at his plantation just outside of Dover. She made her way through a hard life of labor to raise a family. She now leaves a legacy we should no longer ignore. She knew hard labor and injustice. She also knew love and motherhood and raised a family in the most challenging of settings.

Warner Mifflin was an anti-slavery proponent who made his presence known in law offices, courthouses and legislatures along the Delmarva Peninsula. His rhetoric — reasoned and passionate — was matched by his nearly 7-foot frame. His was a commanding but gentle presence in word and physical stature. He lobbied John Dickinson repeatedly to take a stronger stance on the abolition of slavery in Delaware, grew frustrated with Dickinson’s slow progress on the issue but persisted, nonetheless, in convincing Dickinson to free his slaves.

Bishop Richard Allen earned his place in Delaware history through his faith and through his service in putting that faith into practice. He was born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760 and moved as a child to Delaware, living just outside Dover. He would earn his freedom from slavery in 1776, needing three years of labor to pay off the terms his slaveowner unilaterally declared. He would attend Methodist services as a child and became a preacher. He would preach across Delaware, but because he was Black, he was only permitted to preach during the mornings. He helped found the Free African Society with other ministers and then, in 1794, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He would later go on to found Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and was installed as its first bishop.

James Summers purchased the freedom of his children in 1797 at the Old State House in Dover. Summers had worked himself out of slavery to become a free Black man, but his children remained property of his owner. Summers worked off the debt to secure their freedom and, in one of the most profound but lesser known moments in Delaware history, scribbled his mark — an “X” — on the manumission document that granted his two children, Ruth and Thomas, their freedom.

“Unnamed Black Male, Burial #9” was all we knew of the human remains found at the Avery’s Rest archeological site in west Rehoboth Beach. A few years later and thanks to research by the Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania, we now know this: Unnamed Black Male, Burial #9 was between the ages of 32 and 42. He led a life of hard labor, as evidenced by the osteological analysis of his remains. He was from Africa. The Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania have confirmed that his mitochondrial DNA matches similar such samples taken from other burial sites from this time period from across the slave-trading world. It is our hope — and our commitment — that one day, we will reunite Unnamed Black Male, Burial #9 with modern-day family members.

History is not always easy, nor is it as tidy as we have sometimes been led to believe and practice.

At the Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs, we strive to practice inclusive history. Some of that history is difficult. We will not shrink from the pain of our shared history.

Our shared history includes the stories of Dinah, Warner Mifflin, Bishop Richard Allen, James Summers and Unnamed Black Male, Burial #9. Let us ensure that on this Delaware Day, their legacy is preserved.

For more information on these individuals and to see the videos on each person, visit history.delaware.gov.

Tim Slavin is director of the Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs.