Delaware's slavery story is complex.
June 19, 1865.
That was the day Union soldiers brought news of President Abraham Lincoln’s January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to Galveston, Texas. The enslaved people there are believed to be the last in the Confederacy to find out about their freedom.
Today, the date is celebrated across the country as “Juneteenth,” commemorating the end of slavery in America.
In reality, the end played out in different ways on different timetables in each state.
As Union state, the slaves in Delaware weren’t freed upon the Emancipation Proclamation. It would be two years before they were truly free in a physical sense.
There is little information on the history of slaves in Delaware. William H. Williams’ book, “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865,” is perhaps the most in-depth.
First of all, slavery was legal in Delaware.
According to Williams, Delaware had a middling percentage of slaves, compared to the rest of the country. At its high point around 1750, slaves accounted for 20-25% of total population, higher than other northern states, but lower than southern states.
In many ways Delaware was a microcosm of America up to and during the Civil War. As a Union state, but also a border state, the ideology in New Castle and Kent counties was different from that in southern areas bordering Maryland.
Quaker influences, among other things, in Wilmington, New Castle County and the Camden area meant a largely anti-slavery north. Gradually, Kent County, despite having the highest concentration of slaves at one point, warmed to northern ideas.
In 1860, 75 percent of the few slaves left were in Sussex, where Southern sympathies dominated.
The 1860 U.S. Census included a “Slave Schedule,” and out of 112,216 people, 1,798 were enslaved. There were 18,966 enumerated families and 587 slaveholders. So 3% of families held slaves, and 2% of the population was enslaved. (In Alabama, 35% of the families were slaveholders and 45% of the population of 964,000 were enslaved individuals.)
The end of slavery in Delaware
In 1861, President Lincoln himself approached legislators here with a plan to handsomely compensate the state’s slaveholders for the freedom of their slaves.
But Delawareans were not Lincoln fans. He never won an election in Delaware. Williams wrote that legislators feared emancipation was the first step on the road to equality, and Lincoln’s plan never made it to a General Assembly vote.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to the Confederacy, the federal government went about freeing slaves in the rebelling states, but border states were left to their own devices. Delaware wasn’t alone in tolerating slave owners; Kentucky continued to do so.
The next attempt was made by Gov. Thomas Cannon in early 1865, but his ideas were rejected by the General Assembly. In December that year the Thirteenth Amendment finally ended slavery in Delaware after it was ratified by the required 27 states. The General Assembly did not ratify the amendment until Feb. 12, 1901.
Delaware slaves weren’t legislatively free until months after Juneteenth, but the day was settled upon as a date of celebration and remembrance.
Remembering the end
Two groups here celebrate Juneteenth, recognized as a state holiday since 2000.
The Delaware Juneteenth Association in New Castle County celebrates the third Saturday in June with parades, concerts, talent shows, pageants and gatherings.
This year the Freedom Parade will be held Saturday, June 15. It begins at Kirkwood Park in Wilmington. The parade will end at Christina Park, followed by a festival.
In Sussex County, Georgetown’s Richard Allen Coalition Juneteenth celebration will feature a June 15 parade. A festival at the historic Richard Allen School will include presentations from the Nanticoke Indian tribe, poetry readings and black history films.
“It’s a celebration of black history. It’s a history that’s not widely publicized and it’s a history that people need to know,” said coalition board member Jane Hovington. “We have such history, unbelievable history, and it’s not something that’s widely proclaimed. This provides us with that opportunity to share it.”
For more visit the Delaware Juneteenth Association, or the Richard Allen Coalition.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the photo of "Jints," as she was known, was the only known photo of a slave in Delaware taken during the slavery era. We have since been made aware that the Historic Odessa Foundation has in its collection a photo of John Whillden Janvier and his enslaved nurse, Hanna Thompson, taken in 1860.