Nationwide protests over racial injustice have reignited conversations about the role of historical statues, symbols and relics. The historic whipping post in Georgetown will be the latest in the First State to come down.
State officials will take down the whipping post that stands on the grounds of the Old Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown Wednesday, according to Delaware Department of State spokesman Doug Denison. The object will move to a state storage facility with the possibility of future display in a museum setting.
The state’s action is a response to calls from the community. As of Monday, more than 1,400 people had signed an online petition for the state’s last publicly displayed whipping post to be dismantled.
“To me the most shocking part of the whipping post itself was the fact that it was used well into the twentieth century, during the Jim Crow Era,” said petition author Hunter Harmon. “I found that at least 66 percent of the men punished there between 1900 and 1945 were Black.”
The whipping post, known darkly as “Red Hannah,” was used for criminal punishment in Delaware until the 1950s. Each county had one. Delaware was the last state to abolish public whipping as punishment in 1972.
Officials with the state Div. of Historic and Cultural Affairs acknowledge that the whipping post was disproportionately used against Delawareans of color. But Harmon, a resident of Rehoboth and member of the Nanticoke tribe, says the plaque currently describing the whipping post at the Old Sussex County Courthouse does not.
“[The plaque] didn’t state how wrong it was,” he said. “It didn’t state, you know— the shameful past. It didn't express regret. It didn’t take accountability from the State. It just sort of glorified the violent practice.”
Elise Harmon, Hunter’s sister, helped organize the petition. The Nanticoke tribal member sees the whipping post as particularly troubling near the active court buildings on the Circle in Georgetown.
“We both served jury duty there, and we really had a hard time understanding why [the whipping post] should stand outside of the courthouse where people are supposed to be justly and fairly tried,” she said.
Reba Hollingsworth, vice-chair of the Delaware Heritage Commission, recalls as a child in the late 1930s seeing a man whipped at the Kent County jail in Dover. She said in a statement prepared by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs that to this day, when she drives around the Circle in Georgetown, her childhood emotions “fill [her] heart.”
“Such relics of the past should be placed in museums to be preserved and protected for those who want to remember the cruel, inhuman, barbarous acts perpetrated on our citizens,” Hollingsworth said in the statement.
The Georgetown Historical Society, which interprets the Old Sussex County Courthouse grounds, said Monday it does not advocate for taking down historic monuments or historic markers, but would support whatever decision the state makes as long as the post is not destroyed.
The Div. of Historical and Cultural Affairs intends to store the whipping post, then work with historians, educators and leaders of the African American community to explore the idea of displaying it in a museum, with proper context and interpretation.
“It is appropriate for an item like this to be preserved in the state’s collections, so that future generations may view it and attempt to understand the full context of its historical significance,” said Division director Tim Slavin in a statement. “It’s quite another thing to allow a whipping post to remain in place along a busy public street – a cold, deadpan display that does not adequately account for the traumatic legacy it represents, and that still reverberates among communities of color in our state.”
David Young, director of the Delaware Historical Society, says historical monuments reflect the values of the time in which they are erected and maintained.
Earlier this month the City of Wilmington abruptly took down a statue of Christopher Columbus and another of Caesar Rodney— a signer of the Declaration of Independence and former chief executive of Delaware who owned slaves. The move was at least in part an effort to prevent what the City saw as the possibility of destruction by protesters.
The statues are being stored awaiting community discussions about what to do with them, but City officials have not specified when those conversations will happen.
Caesar Rodney owned as many as 200 enslaved laborers with his brother on their Kent County plantation called Byfield, most of which is now the Dover Air Force Base.
Rodney’s thoughts on the institution of slavery are not well known, says Young, despite a growing abolition movement during the later part of his life. In his will, Rodney directed for his slaves to be freed— but only after his death. Young says it is unclear whether Rodney’s wife inherited the enslaved individuals.
Rodney was also on a committee in the House of Assembly that drafted legislation which would have prevented the importation of enslaved workers into Delaware. But the legislation failed to pass, and Young says it was never motivated by a disapproval of slavery.
“It is commonly understood that these were economic measures to keep inflated the value of enslaved laborers currently in Delaware at the time,” he said.
In discussions around historical monuments, Young says the Delaware Historical Society supports more context, accurate historical information and an opportunity for the community to be heard. He does not see removal of statues as erasing history.
“The things that crystallized in the protests— the ire, the passions expressed— are rooted very much in history,” he said. “So it’s appropriate to reconsider those [statues] … It’s a community consideration of what the value of these people we’ve been glorifying means to us today. A welcome conversation, far overdue.”
Caesar Rodney’s presence in Delaware is not limited to the statue that stood above the square bearing his name. He appears on the back of Delaware drivers’ licenses, on special license plate tags, and in the name of a school district and high school.
Young says across the country, nostalgia for colonial America and its purported heroes tended to grow during periods of change, such as the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities beginning just before the 1920s— when Wilmington’s Caesar Rodney statue was built. Idealization of the colonial period also occurred during the 1940s and 1950s.
“The making of Rodney as an icon of Delaware was also at a time when the population was changing or more immigrants were coming in to work in the factories, like Bob Marley,” said Young.
Students of Caesar Rodney High School reportedly protested the school’s name earlier this month because of Rodney’s ownership of enslaved humans. A recent Change.org petition pushes for the entire district to be renamed Harriet Tubman School District. A second petition urges the district to revise its curriculum to represent diverse perspectives, provide concrete resources to Black, Indigeneous and other students of color, and hire more educators of color.
“It’s important to recognize that the statues, or the schools named in honor of such people—who were both patriots and suppressors of human rights—are expressions of community values of the period when [the statues were built or schools were named],” said Young.
Elise and Hunter Harmon say they would support changing the District's name. Elise is hopeful that removing the Georgetown whipping post is a step in the right direction.
“Removing this, and the values that it holds, will be the first small step in implementing real change in our communities and our state at large.”