Historians seek to preserve legacy of those discovered at Dickinson Plantation African burial ground
We don’t know how many enslaved people Founding Father John Dickinson and his family owned. But historians say, in Dickinson’s era, they were not meant to be remembered.
That’s changing after the discovery of an African burial ground at the Dickinson Plantation near Dover.
Delaware Public Media’s Roman Battaglia reports guided tours of the site allow visitors to reflect on the lives of those who lived and died there.
It’s the 1700’s before the Revolutionary War, and you’re standing where John Dickinson might have stood at his boyhood home just outside of Dover.
Nearly everything you see, all the way up to the treeline in the far distance is a part of your land, over 450 acres — and most of it farmland.
Dickinson arrived in Delaware at the age of seven, when his father, Samuel Dickinson, moved the family from Talbot County, Maryland.
John Dickinson Plantation Lead Interpreter Annie Fenimore paints a picture of what life was like when Dickinson was growing up in colonial Delaware.
“Imagine the smell of a wood fireplace as it keeps you warm,” Fenimore says. “Imagine the rattle of a wagon as you travel over uneven and muddy roads. How about finding your bed by candlelight after the sun has gone down. And then, in the morning, rolling off of that straw mattress to light a fire and to cook your breakfast.”
Fenimore says the plantation wasn’t just land used by the Dickinsons, it was a small community of tenant farmers, indentured servants, and enslaved people who worked the land, and in turn created profit for the Dickinson family.
After John Dickinson grew up, he didn’t spend much time at the plantation, heading off to London to study law, and returning to practice in Philadelphia in 1757.
Dickinson is best known as a founding father, and helping to shape the fledgling United States as the so-called “Penman of the Revolution.”
But there’s more to his story according to the plantation’s site supervisor Gloria Henry, who’s worked there for thirty years.
“John Dickinson was a founding father, he did help create this nation,” says Henry. “But that’s only one aspect of him. One person is usually not two dimensional; they have different aspects. So we talk about John Dickinson as a founding father — he talked and he wrote about freedom. All the while holding other people in bondage; other men, women and children in bondage. So yes he was a founding father but yes he was also an enslaver.”
While owning slaves himself, Dickinson was one of the few founding fathers to take a staunch position against slavery, even trying and failing to pass a bill at the Delaware Constitutional Convention in 1792 abolishing the practice gradually.
Dickinson chose to manumit, or free his slaves on a conditional basis in 1777, and then freed the remaining slaves in 1786.
But even with his stance against slavery, racial disparties persisited between whites and people of color at the Dickinson Plantation.
Historians knew a burial ground was located somewhere on the plantation, but historical records were spotty and vague. Documents spoke of some place where Black people who lived and worked on the plantation were interred.
Henry says the burial ground could have been active as early as the 1720’s. The discovery of additional documents helped narrow down its location. They included conversations between Dickinson's daughter, Sally and an enslaved woman, Violet Brown.
“She [Sally] wrote down her recollections of the conversations she had with Violet, and this is one of them,” Henry says. “So violet talks about her father, Pompey, dying — and that Samuel was in the new room addition, that’s the middle section of the mansion. And that he was not attending the funeral but the mistress of the house attended the funeral. And they allowed the funeral procession to walk past those windows on the way to the interment for the colored people; those were her words that she used that Sally wrote down. So that gave us an idea that there was a graveyard within some distance from the house.”
And more importantly, Henry says, the burial ground was within walking distance.
"There is no objectivity to a burial ground of possibly 400 people, and it being lost. Those are men, women and children buried there and it is very hard to go out there and see that space and know that they were lost in history
Using modern day technology and a little detective work, the site was discovered about a half a mile away from the mansion in a field. The land containing the burial ground was only acquired by the state in 2000.
Henry says when archeologists discovered evidence of burial shafts, it was an emotional experience.
“I always thought I’d… I’m a historian, I can read things, I can be objective,” she says. “That was — there is no objectivity to a burial ground of possibly 400 people, and it being lost. Those are men, women and children buried there and it is very hard to go out there and see that space and know that they were lost in history. As Dr. Cambie Fletcher said, they were never meant to be remembered.”
While modern day cemeteries are maintained with proper headstones marking those who lie there, this burial ground, like others holding people of color, was forgotten, turned into farmland.
Since the African Burial Ground’s discovery in March, the space has remained off limits to visitors, but staff started offering what they call visitations in September.
They start with an introduction and overview back at the interpretive center, then visitors learn more about the discovery of the site at the Log Dwelling, a recreation of a typical family home in the 1700’s.
And finally, visitors take a walk to the burial ground itself, where they experience what Henry felt as she saw the grounds for the first time.
“I’d like us to have a moment of silence,” says Henry. “And then if you would like, Annie will escort you around the actual burial ground.”
After the discovery of the burial grounds, archeologists covered the site back up, marking locations where they found the burial shafts. Henry says they only were meant to find evidence that people were buried there. Any further digging to uncover human remains, and try to identify living relatives invokes stricter laws around the handling of such remains.
The plantation is using the tours to gather feedback on the burial ground’s future. For now, the site remains untouched as historians seek to contact descendant communities to determine the best course of action.
“Some of the feedback has been very interesting,” Henry says. “Some people have said they would like it a little bit more accessible — but that’s also part of the experience; to walk, actually walk those grounds and to go to the burial ground. Some people have suggested putting back the post and rail fence that John Dickinson said was around the burial grounds. Other people have suggested trees and shading. Other people have suggested an area of reflection. Other people have suggested to leave it alone. So we get a variety of thoughts and suggestions; and we’re gonna take all of that into consideration.”
Henry says visitors have come in small groups since September. They’ll pause during the winter and start up again in the spring.
We’re lucky that this one was unearthed and there’s a plan to manage it, but, realizing that oh, there’s others like it is a pretty sobering experience,
Steve and Susan Dietrich were on a November tour. The retired couple - originally from New York City - visited the plantation earlier this year, and Susan says when they found out about the burial ground visitations, decided to come back to learn more about this discovery.
Steve is a historian.
“Well I didn’t know what to expect but it’s pretty sobering when you realize that these burial grounds exist probably in a lot of different areas — we’re lucky that this one was unearthed and there’s a plan to manage it, but, realizing that oh, there’s others like it is a pretty sobering experience,” Steve says.
Steve mentions another burial ground found in the middle of Manhattan, just a block away from New York city hall. The site was uncovered during the construction of a new federal office tower in 1991.
After archeologists dug more than 30 feet below the city’s surface, they found what’s now the largest and oldest African burial ground in the country. The 6-acre site contained over 15,000 intact remains that date back to the 1630’s. The site is now home to a national monument; and many of the remains found there were laid back to rest there in 2003.
Susan Dietrich says helping the descendants of those buried on the Dickinson Plantation should be part of the future for the burial ground.
“It’s nice that they have a plan to try and find relatives of those that might be buried here or might have lived here,” says Susan. “And hopefully they find them and they can be involved with the plans for the future — since it is their relatives; apparently it’s people who might not even realize that they were related.”
It could take a long time to decide what to do with the grounds. But Henry is thankful the state acquired the land before any major development took place - keeping it safe while feedback is gathered and that decision is made.
Henry admits it’s a tough call.
“Part of me wants to leave it alone, that the people who died there have been through enough,” Henry says. “And then the other part of me wants to know everything there is to know so we can share this information so that they will never be forgotten ever again. So to your answer, I have a lot of conflicting stuff on the burial ground. And they’ll stay that way and we all have to make decisions; and then other people and other things have to live with and deal with the consequences.”
For now, Henry will keep bringing visitors to the site to ensure their legacy remains.
Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.