‘Sacred ground’: Dickinson enslaved burial site uncovers the past

By Mike Finney
Posted 10/4/21

DOVER — Gloria Henry has worked at the John Dickinson Plantation for 30 years and throughout that time she held a feeling deep down inside that there was something missing on the 450 acres of …

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‘Sacred ground’: Dickinson enslaved burial site uncovers the past

Posted

DOVER — Gloria Henry has worked at the John Dickinson Plantation for 30 years and throughout that time she held a feeling deep down inside that there was something missing on the 450 acres of state-owned property.

That something that she felt was missing was finally discovered on March 9, 2021, when an unmarked burial ground measuring about 170 feet by 160 feet that is believed to contain the remains of enslaved, indentured and free Black men, women and children who died on the plantation was discovered.

For two years, the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs (HCA) had undertaken archaeological investigations on the expansive property.

After the team released a statement that it had finally discovered the long-lost grave site, Ms. Henry — site supervisor of the John Dickinson Plantation — was able to feel “satisfied” that people viewed as not important enough to be remembered were finally rediscovered.

The “satisfied” caveat for Ms. Henry lies in the state’s ultimate future actions to properly preserve and honor the African American individuals who were laid to rest in a barley field close to the St. Jones River, more than a half-mile away from the Dickinson Plantation.

“Ever since I started working here, I knew that there was a burial ground for the enslaved people and I kept saying, ‘I’m not leaving until I find it,’” said Ms. Henry. “When this came about, we purposely looked for it to find it and they did.
“It’s a different feeling when you’re out there (at the graveyard) and knowing that it was lost and not remembered and now, we’ve remembered it and we will never, ever let it be forgotten about again.”

She added, “It feels that way, knowing there were people out there that were forgotten, not thought to be important enough to be remembered, removed from history, so yes, it is sacred ground, and it should be.”

Tim Slavin, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said the preservation of the site is in good hands.
“This is sacred ground for Delaware, and we will continue to treat it with the honor and respect it deserves,” Mr. Slavin said. “Our path forward is to protect the site, engage with the community about how to proceed, and continue to learn more through research and dialogue.”

A chance to experience, remember

The John Dickinson Plantation has been hosting limited guided visitations of the burial grounds twice a day on select days this fall.

The free tours last around an hour-and-a-half and allow guests to engage with guides about the history of the property and its namesake owner — John Dickinson — a framer and signer of the U.S. Constitution.

The experience includes an orientation in the visitor center, a tour of a re-created small log dwelling that shows how enslaved and indentured people on the property would have lived and concludes with a mile round-trip walk to and from the burial ground, which includes a moment of silence.

During the walk, visitors pass by the grave of Samuel Dickinson, John Dickinson’s father. His grave is marked, surrounded by an ornamental brick wall and landscaping, which Ms. Henry pointed out was a stark contrast to the unmarked grave site where the property’s enslaved and indentured workers were buried.

Inside the small log dwelling, Dr. Kami Fletcher, a professor at Albright College who specializes in African American experiences of death, dying and burials, reminded visitors to respect the unique site they were about to encounter before the guests hit the trail for the long, sentimental walk.

“I would like to encourage all visitors to please not approach the space like any other historical site or monument because you are on sacred ground, made so not only by the rituals and last rites performed hundreds of years ago but also because the ground holds America’s ancestors,” Dr. Fletcher said. “Second, please be mindful that although a burial ground that interred enslaved African Americans may, and should, spark curiosity, for many it is a place to mourn and grieve the lives lost, lives lived in bondage.

“This is not a time for morbid curiosity and othering. Instead, this burial ground where enslaved African Americans are buried is a place where visitors can seriously reflect on the American plantation complex and how it sought to concretize white superiority/black inferiority even in death.”

Then, the tour set out to the burial grounds, which were discovered by the Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and South River Heritage Consulting, LLC.

The area is marked by several flags and is barely within sight of the John Dickinson mansion house. Visitors are not permitted to photograph the site.

Annie Fenimore, lead interpreter at the John Dickinson Plantation, said the tour is an evolving project due to the physical nature of the long walk on trails through farm fields.

“I don’t see us doing away with them,” Ms. Fenimore said, of the burial ground visits. “We are definitely keeping our information and adding to it as we find out more and I think that this will become a permanent type of program that we offer.

“One of the great things that we’re planning, and we actually have coming in very soon we hope, is a six-passenger golf cart that does have an access lift, that can lift people who use wheelchairs primarily. We’re fairly certain that that will be able to make it out to the burial ground site.”

While research continues, museum officials said the next step will be to surface the walking trail to the burial grounds and engage the community on how best to memorialize the individuals interred at the site — as well as to also remember Native Americans who also died on the plantation.

Many questions remain regarding burial grounds

John Dickinson (1732–1808), often described as the “penman of the Revolution,” wrote frequently about the “Blessings of Liberty” while also enslaving humans.

The National Park Service (NPS) said that at his 5,000-acre family plantation in modern-day Dover, the politician may have enslaved as many as 59 people — including men, women and children — at one time.

Mr. Dickinson lived on the property between the ages of 8 and 18 and continued to own and lease the property to tenant farmers throughout his life.

He enslaved people who tended to the property, but in 1777 he conditionally manumitted most of the enslaved African Americans working for him, providing they work an additional 21 years. Eventually, in 1786 he unconditionally freed them all.

Back in March, state archaeologists announced the discovery of the likely graves of at least 25 enslaved people on the plantation’s grounds.

The search for the burial ground was conducted using historical research, ground penetrating radar, metal detecting and shovel testing. The archaeologists dug trenches and exposed the tops of grave shafts. No human remains were disturbed during this process. The trenches were refilled after documenting and protecting the grave shafts.

Researchers remain unsure of the exact number of graves at the site, as some records suggest that several hundred enslaved individuals were laid to rest there, according to the HCA’s website.

Though researchers had previously found documentation indicating that as many as 400 enslaved people were buried on the plantation, the absence of gravestones and other markers made locating the site a challenge.

“We remain committed to telling inclusive history,” said Delaware Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. “This includes restoring dignity to those who have been forgotten. This important discovery presents a powerful moment for every Delawarean.”

Enslaved black people and indentured servants on the Dickinson plantation mainly farmed tobacco — a lucrative crop at the time, according to the NPS. Researchers now suspect that the oldest grave at the site may date back to as early as 1720.
The division has long known of a burial ground associated with the property. Its location, however, had been lost to time and historical record.

There are various plantation records mentioning deaths and a cemetery; however, one of the most compelling accounts is Violet Brown’s story. She was a Black woman enslaved by the Dickinson family.

She became a nursemaid to John Dickinson’s children and eventually gained her freedom.

Ms. Henry shared a conversation Violet Brown had shared with Sally Dickinson, John Dickinson’s daughter, and Sally wrote down Violet’s recollections.

Violet described the death of her father, Pompey, and the funeral procession that “passed by the mansion on the way to the burial ground.” This suggested that the burial ground for the enslaved individuals was in close proximity to the house.

It was those words that sparked hope for the HCA to finally locate the burial grounds and bring the memories of those lost back to the forefront of history.

Dr. Fletcher’s lasting words to those visiting the burial grounds resonated with a mixed feeling of happiness and lingering sadness that a flock once considered lost is now remembered.

“Visitors can deeply reflect on how these women, men and children, who were never meant to be remembered, are now not only remembered, but publicly and regionally memorialized,” she said, “and just how that defiance moves African American existence from margin to center in issues of Delaware historical importance.

“This is a time of reckoning with a past and may our ancestors at John Dickinson Plantation finally rest in peace and power.”