When the historically Lenape Little Union Church in Cheswold, Del. burned down at the end of last month, a piece of history disappeared with it.
In this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt sits down with Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware Dennis Coker and Richard Durham of an associated church about Little Union and it roots in the Lenape community.
SOPHIA SCHMIDT, DELAWARE PUBLIC MEDIA:
What was known as the Little Union church on W. Denney’s Rd was not owned by the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, but it had deep ties to the Lenape — or Delaware Moor— community in Cheswold.
I’m here to talk about it with Principal Chief of the Tribe Dennis Coker and Richard Durham, board member at the Immanuel Union United Methodist Church in Cheswold.
Chief Dennis Coker, I was wondering if you could give me a sense for what your first reaction was when you heard about the fire?
DENNIS COKER: Certainly, Sophia. It was as devastating event. The church building itself even though it was not owned by our tribe or the Immanuel Union Church currently, was the anchor for the cultural mapping project that we were initiating for the Fork Branch area. So losing that anchor, it seems that we’re a little bit adrift right now. And we really haven’t come to grips with the repercussions of that fire. So we’re kind of working through those details right now.
SCHMIDT: And Mr. Durham, you have family that’s buried in the cemetery that’s right next to the Little Union Church, right?
RICHARD DURHAM: That is correct. I have family of course that’s buried at the Fork Branch cemetery that’s across the street that the Little Union Church owned at the time. And the cemetery that’s all the way around on all three sides of the church. I believe it’s my great-great-great— third-great or fourth-great ... grandfather that’s buried behind the church. Benjamin Durham. And he would have been one of the owners of the Benjamin Durham house up on the hill that we had, that got destroyed.
SCHMIDT: According to one— and I actually found two somewhat conflicting historic records here— but according to one historic catalog that’s in the Delaware Public Archives [The Churches of Delaware by Frank Zebley], the Little Union Church was organized in 1850. But it said that the most recent structure was built in 1883. I’ll start with you, Mr. Durham. What can you tell me about the history of the church?
DURHAM: Seeing as how I’m still quite young, the history that has been handed down to us basically would be the same history. That the Little Union Church started off as a little slab shanty … The pastor of Little Union Church was also the pastor of the former Manship Church in Cheswold [currently Immanuel Union United Methodist Church]. The congregation kept meeting at Little Union. I have the same family members that were going to Little Union going to Manship in Cheswold. Just different brothers might have gone different places, but still family members that were still located together ... And it wasn’t until about 1947 that Little Union felt they could not keep their doors open. They did not have enough members still coming that they could keep their doors open. And that’s when the decision was made to join with Manship in Cheswold. And Manship and Little Union merged together in 1948 and they changed the name of the church to Immanuel Union. We picked up the Immanuel for God with us and the Union came from Little Union. So we became one church in about 1948.
SCHMIDT: So Chief Coker, can you tell me a little about the church’s connection to the Lenape community in Cheswold?
COKER: Certainly. The Fork Branch area was somewhat of a subset of the Cheswold community and it’s not really clear to me where the line was drawn that would have indicated which part of the community that you participated in ... In Fork Branch there was a school, there was a church, there’s a cemetery. And in Cheswold proper in town, there was a school, there’s a church, and there’s a cemetery.
So the roots are very deep in Fork Branch for our community, and I would venture to say that maybe the oldest interment there might be older than the ones at Immanuel Union. We’ve always celebrated the existence of Fork Branch just simply because many of our citizens were schooled at the Fork Branch school—
SCHMIDT: That school building also no longer stands there. So Little Union Church is not the first historic landmark that has been lost at the Fork Branch area. Tell me about those others.
COKER: Absolutely. We had our school really in Cheswold which was a two-room schoolhouse which was demolished in the mid-1960s. And at the same time we lost the Fork Branch school building, which was a one-room school building. It actually suffered a fire as well. So the only two structures which we had remaining which were community structures were the two churches. The loss of the Fork Branch church building leaves one remaining structure that can be definitively tied to the Cheswold Lenape community. So it’s diminishing. And it’s very sad.
SCHMIDT: What does it mean to a community like yours to lose a historic landmark like this one?
COKER: Every community, I think, is rooted in its cohesiveness. So when we start to lose these structures, that cohesiveness seems to degrade a little bit. I remember my relationship with the Fork Branch school, we used to meet with our cub scout pack, Pack 283, in the Fork Branch school. So that would have been probably around the early part of the ‘60s, a year or two maybe before they actually closed the school [because of school integration.]
So these properties that we look at and try to honor, because they were the home and activity centers of the ancestors of our community, are very important to us. And when we lose them it’s like having a part of your heart kind of ripped out. Because we’re an underserved community. We’re really not able to fundraise to a great extent, to make these repairs and reacquire these properties. So we’re constantly looking for assistance through some funding mechanism whether it be grants or endowments or someone that sympathizes with our plight and our cause, and that can be challenging at times.
SCHMIDT: So Chief Coker, you and I spoke in the past about your hopes for the Fork Branch area. We were talking about the remediation of the school property. And you’d mentioned a hope of having a community center on that land … Another reason that area is important is the only land the tribe owns— that roughly half acre— is right next to the church property.
COKER: Absolutely. We had approached the administrative services of the state back in the latter part of the 1990s, and maybe the early part of the 2000s, when we learned that the small arms training facility [on the former Fork Branch school property across the street from the Little Union Church] was going to be abandoned when they started planning for a new facility. We thought that we would get that property returned to our community.
And so we stayed in touch with our legislators and finally made some headway with them to commit to returning the property. But the obstacle was that it had a lead contamination from having been used as a firearms training facility for nearly forty years. So we’re in the middle of the environmental assessments ... Hopefully within another year that property will be given a clean bill of health. And when it does it’s our goal to have it returned to the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.
And our plans were to try to reacquire the church and move it across the road to the school property. Because the church in its current location was threatened. The very face of the church was on the DelDOT right-of-way. We thought that we would make an attempt to move the structure across the street if we could reacquire it and then have it become a basis for a community center, somewhat of a museum and a meeting place, and then maybe build a small addition to it for an administrative office area so that we could begin to own our community center as opposed to renting it.
So that area— since we own a piece of property there, the Tribe does, the church and its cemeteries are there, the school property is there— it begins to take shape as a land base that we would own and control in our community, which is very important for us. When we talk about sovereignty and independent existence, we can start to take the step to display what that really means to us as a Native American community.
SCHMIDT: Dickie [Richard] Durham and Principal Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware Dennis Coker, thank you so much.
COKER: You’re quite welcome, thank you.
DURHAM: You’re welcome.
SCHMIDT: The fire at Little Union is still under investigation by the State Fire Marshal and federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The State Fire Marshal says the current owner of the church is Fellowship Pentecostal Church. They could not be reached for comment.