In 2018, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote, “Most Americans are trapped in a history that they do not understand.” I used to consider myself so trapped, but I am on a journey to grow my understanding. As someone who practices in the field of public history, his words have great power.
At the state’s Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs (HCA), we have embarked on a program of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility, which touches every part of what we do. But before we could start, we had to pause and listen.
We knew that some of Delaware’s greatest stories and traditions were likely borne out of the weaving of historical fact with myth-building and storytelling. We were wary of those age-old, untested and, in some cases, unproven parts of our history that we all had come to rely on. We knew that there were other, more difficult parts of our history that had not been told.
The telling of difficult history is not easy. We have approached this work with respect and dignity, despite the anxiety, fear and risk that addressing difficult history can raise. We seek no rancor. We do not invalidate but rather seek to affirm experiences. We intend to present a wider consideration of our history, one that is not bound by previous versions.
An example of this is the Plantation Stories project led by my colleagues Gloria Henry, Annie Fenimore, Sakinaa Rock and Vertie Lee. They set out to find names that were previously not recorded in our history books — the names of every Black person who lived, worked and died at the John Dickinson Plantation. The first release of their research includes 128 names of enslaved people, many of whom were previously erased from the narrative. Their research will continue.
The list of names is compelling. Abigail, Betty, Caleb, Dinah, Emelia, Honour, Laetitia, Peter, Reuben, Rose, Sinah, Tobias, Violet. Each name with a voice finding its way back into our history. While we now know their names, we do not know their full stories. History was not kind to these people, who noted scholar Kami Fletcher has said “were never meant to be remembered.” Archival resources are rare, letters and diaries nearly nonexistent. We can continue our research and bring more names into the telling of our history. But we need to listen for their voices — with whatever scant reference we find that was left behind — to truly know their stories. And we must admit that we may never truly know their tales, as well.
History that is driven by anecdote has all but failed us. An example: A common comment is that “John Dickinson freed all his slaves.” Although John Dickinson did eventually free the people he enslaved, he did not prohibit slavery on his land and continued to do business with enslavers. The three lists of enslaved people he freed are point-in-time references; they are not inclusive of all his years of being an enslaver. This project endeavors to document all African Americans who lived, labored and died on the plantation, including those enslaved by members of the Dickinson family and their tenants.
Delaware Day is typically reserved for telling of stories of bravery in the formation of our great state. This year is no different. We are endeavoring to recognize Delawareans whose contributions to the founding of the nation have been both lost to time and erased from the history books.
Timothy A. Slavin is director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.