Local historians and activists say the state’s first marker memorializing a lynching that was installed last week in Price Corner is just the beginning. They are planning to document more instances of racial terror in the state.
On a breezy day last week, 16-year-old Savannah Shepherd dug up soil beside tennis courts at Greenbank park in Prices Corner. At a ceremony attended by elected officials and community members Sunday, the soil was placed in a jar marked with the name “George White” and the year he died— 1903.
George White is the victim of the most well-documented lynching in Delaware. Shepherd organized the marker for George White after visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
White, an African-American laborer, was accused of killing a white girl. He denied involvement and was awaiting trial at the New Castle County Workhouse in what is now Greenbank Park when he was dragged out by a white mob. He was burned alive before a crowd of spectators. Historians say no one was ever indicted or convicted for involvement in his murder.
According to Delaware Public Archives officials, George White’s lynching is the first in the state to be remembered with a marker. It is the only one in Delaware documented in the Equal Justice Iniative’s database of more than 4400 lynchings of black people in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. But historians say George White’s is not the only lynching that occurred in the First State.
Former Delaware State University professor Yohuru Williams, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas now, attributes the limited documentation of lynchings in Delaware in part to the fact that the state did not secede from the Union during the Civil War.
“The former states of the Confederacy were under the purview of the U.S. Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau,” he said. “They operated in those states to maintain order.
"Because you had that influence, there's better documentation of incidents of racial violence in those states because of course the Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau are there to record them … [At the time] Delaware isn't under Reconstruction in the way that other states are. There's less of an incidence of reporting, and sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to find those incidents of violence.”
Williams has documented two other Delaware lynchings that occurred in the 1860s — one in Leipsic and the other in Smyrna. “Are there others that I may have missed or may not have classified or [that have] gone unreported? That’s absolutely possibly the case,” he said.
Savannah Shepherd— and members the Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition she founded— are among those determined to try to document others. “They aren't always called lynchings, so you have to pull from different cases and just research,” she said.
Delaware Historical Society Director David Young says his organization is working to form a statewide partnership with educational institutions, local historical societies and Shepherd’s Delaware Social Justice Remembrance Coalition to uncover more incidents of racial terror in Delaware.
“This is only one in New Castle County, the marker to George White,” he said. “But there are incidents in Kent and Sussex County that may not have been called lynchings at the time, but they certainly qualify as some element of racial terror, racial violence or unequal justice.”
Young says they will use contemporary news accounts, church records and interviews with living Delawareans. They’ll also look to national experts when developing criteria for what classifies a lynching. Then they will work to memorialize the incidents.
This is work that the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) approves of. “We believe that no one should ever drive or walk past a location where a lynching occurred and not know that lynching occurred there,” said program manager at EJI Jonathan Kubakundimana. “So we have this project where we’re trying to put up markers all across the country at every site where we’ve documented a lynching.”
Kubakundimana says he sees public acknowledgement of lynchings— or “truth-telling”— “restorative.”
"We believe here at EJI that we need to break the silence around this history,” he said. “Many of the communities where these lynching occurred, there isn’t a real consciousness about the horror, the terror of these lynchings, but even more importantly the legacy of this history, the ways in which this history continues to shape and inform a range of contemporary issues.
Yohuru Williams argues memorials for racial violence should have a clear purpose.
“Ultimately, what do you want to come out of that conversation?” he asked. “Is it reconciliation? Is it an opportunity to reflect on the history and have a better sense of how we’ve grown and where we need to go? Or is it simply for the fact of recounting something that’s been long forgotten. I think all those are compelling. But the end goal, if they don’t bring us closer to conversation about how we can overcome some of these differences, then they’re empty — in that way, anyway.”
Savannah Shepherd also sees the historical incidents she is working to commemorate as relevant to the present. “Yes, slavery was abolished, but we still see some forms of it in mass incarceration today,” she said. “So I think bringing the idea back now is kind of what my goal is.”
For now, George White will be remembered through the new marker at Greenbank Park and the jar of soil, which will head to the Milton Historical Society and may end up at the Equal Justice iniative’s Legacy Museum near the National Memorial in Montgomery.