Commentary: Reflecting on Delaware’s past, shaping a path forward

By Jeffrey W. Bullock

On Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware became the first of the 13 colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution, making it the first state in our union. Since 1933, Dec. 7 has been celebrated. Delaware Day is a day steeped in tradition and an appreciation of our state’s history.

Jeffrey Bullock

During my time as secretary of state, I have celebrated this day in many ways. I have hosted an annual fourth grade history competition, attended dinners with dignitaries at historic sites and crafted communications to educate the general public regarding Delaware’s five signers of the Constitution.

This year, 2020, is much different. On this Delaware Day, we are asking everyone to stay at home, avoid contact with anyone not part of your household and wear a mask. COVID-19 is the immediate existential threat to our state, and we must do everything we can to protect each other.

But we can also take a moment to reflect. Back in 1787, Delawareans believed that a stronger national government under the new Constitution would help protect them against attack and create a more level economic playing field with larger states. Those Delawareans supported the establishment of laws that fundamentally guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens, like making sure that everyone had a say in how government was run.

Importantly, most people living in our state at that time were not represented or fairly protected after statehood was obtained. That same Constitution, as well as laws at the local, state and national level, prohibited people of color, women and others from sharing the rights and freedoms cultivated, in large part, because of their efforts. In addition, the stories reflecting their efforts were rarely acknowledged.

Today, our Constitution has been amended 27 times, the first 10 amendments representing what is referred to as our Bill of Rights. Some of the other amendments corrected inequities in the original document.

But for all this progress, anyone who has lived through the tumultuous year of 2020 knows that there is much work to be done. To correctly celebrate Delaware Day and our place in history, we must continue our efforts to root out and challenge laws, rules and policies that unjustly and disproportionately impact certain communities.

In just a few weeks, we will inaugurate a new president, Delaware’s own Joe Biden. It’s a very proud moment for our state, regardless of politics. That same day, Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as vice president of the United States, our nation’s first woman of color to hold that office. Even during the pandemic and economic turmoil, these are times of historic progress.

On this Delaware Day, we dedicate ourselves to continuing that progress and to the telling of a more complete and accurate history of our state. This is not an effort to diminish the courageous contributions of those who created our Constitution and worked so hard to make it the living document but rather to recognize the huge contributions of all Delawareans, regardless of their station in life, who also shaped our state and nation. Our Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs has already begun this effort and started a project to tell the stories of Delawareans whose place in history has long been ignored. You can see the videos they have created at history.delaware.gov.

A complete telling of our history will better explain how people who live in this same small state can view Delaware so differently. And it may help guide us to solutions to create the kind of social and economic justice that has eluded us. I would invite every Delawarean to participate in this effort. It is your history, and it’s our collective future, that we are trying to shape.

Jeffrey W. Bullock is secretary of Delaware’s Department of State.