The first black man to step on Delaware soil went by the name of “Anthony” and was an “Angoler or Moor”, captured by the skipper of the Grip in 1638, when the Minuit sent him south to trade. Anthony was delivered at Fort Christina in 1639, and in 1648 was a special servant to Governor Printz. Some of the Dutch in Delaware territory owned slaves as servants and farm workers. During the early English period English settlers in all three counties used slave labor to an increasing extent. It was only on the few large estates in the two lower counties where any one person would own a large number of slaves.
In Delaware, the general feeling was against the increase of slavery, and before 1700, some slaves had been freed. Before the eighteenth century, the people of Delaware relied on the work from Indian slaves rather than African slaves. This stopped at around 1720. African slaves were not used until the Dutch had control of Delaware. Sentiment and the continued freeing of slaves did not prevent the sale of other blacks, however, during most of the eighteenth century. This led to a declaration against slavery in the first constitution of the state in 1776 in Article 26. Article 26 stated that “No person hereafter imported into this State from Africa ought to be held in slavery under any presence whatever; and no negro, Indian, or mulatto slave ought to be brought into this State, for sale, from any part of the world.” By 1787, the law stated that any person bringing a slave into the state was subject to a fine of twenty pounds and the slave was declared free. Article 26 was later omitted in the state constitution of 1792.
Above is a painting of John Dickinson, a Delaware delegate who was strongly opposed to the extension of slavery.
One of the main supporters of this was delegate John Dickinson. Dickinson made a major impact on the compromise in regard to slavery when the disagreement on that subject threatened to create a break. Being opposed to extension of slavery, he insisted that the power to prohibit importation of slaves must be left to the National Government. The first federal census in 1790 showed that there was a total of 59,096 people total, with 3,899 free blacks and 8,887 black slaves. So, although Dickinson and others were against the spread of slavery, Delaware’s slave population still made up a good part of the total population. For more than a century, the freeing of slaves had been slowed by the legal requirement of an indemnity to be paid the county if the black should become a public charge. A succession of drastic laws to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks did not stop the practice in Delaware, however. There were abolitionists, chiefly Quakers, but there were few.
Above is a plaque in Delaware County, written in the 1800s which shows Delaware’s constant support of egalitarianism.
One of the most famous slaves in Delaware was Absalom Jones, because he was the first black priest in the country. Jones was born into slavery, unfortunately, in Delaware in 1746. At this time, slavery was in the middle of a hot debate: was it moral or immoral? Jones miraculously taught himself how to read, and relied on the New Testament as one of his chief sources of reading. At 16, Jones was sold to a shopkeeper in Philadelphia. It was here where Jones attended a night school for blacks. This school was operated by Quakers. Jones certainly had an advantage since he had taught himself how to read from an early age, and continued to read to this point. In 1784, Jones purchased his freedom and “served as lay minister for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.” Jones and his friend, Richard Allen, were active evangelists. Because of the active role Jones and Allen played in their church, St. George’s quickly gained a large following from the black community. The vestry were extremely alarmed and caught off guard from this increase in black attendance, so they quickly segregated the blacks into an upstairs gallery. In response, the Free African Society was created by Jones and Allen in 1787.
Above is a painting of Absalom Jones in his minister attire.
“Colonial Delaware – A History” by John A. Munroe
“Delaware: A Guide to the First State” by The Federal Writers’ Project