On Preserving African American History in the First State

Politely traipsing through privately-owned early nineteenth-century houses in Historic New Castle, Delaware, last May, I enjoyed the opportunity to take a peep as some strangers’ lives (and their glorious views of the Delaware River).

Gardens and Views of the Delaware River from The Strand in New Castle, Delaware
Gardens and Views of the Delaware River from The Strand in New Castle, Delaware, May 2015

In its 91st year, A Day in Old New Castle traditionally supported historic and other non-profit organizations based within the “old” city limits. As the New Castle Historical Society’s New Castle audio tour explains, the National Historic Landmark District, established in 1967 and expanded in 1984, includes buildings associated with land and events surrounding early Dutch and English settlement.

New Castle Delaware Historic District (New Castle, DE, Community History and Archaeology Program)
New Castle Delaware Historic District (New Castle, Delaware, Community History and Archaeology Program)

This vintage Day in Old New Castle ticket in my collection speaks to that European settlement history.

Mid-20th-Century Day in Old New Castle Ticket (Nicole Belolan's Collection)
Mid-20th-Century Day in Old New Castle Ticket (Nicole Belolan’s Collection)

I love New Castle so much I lived there for about two years while I was completing my PhD coursework, and I would consider moving back if the opportunity presented itself. New Castle boasts one of my favorite historic houses, the Read House, which is run by the Delaware Historical Society. The house, which you can tour, is well-documented and preserved. The house’s history is fascinating, but don’t miss the breath-taking view of the Delaware River from the second floor.

George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware (Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress)
George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware (Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress)

The “Day in Old New Castle” (DIONC) tour allows visitors to check out the homes and/or gardens a handful of current residents choose to open to the public for a few hours during this annual tradition. For the next few years, DIONC will be particularly critical for introducing Delaware’s new National Park (dedicated in 2013) to the public. The park encompasses the Woodlawn Tract (a patch of undeveloped land open to the public in northern New Castle County preserved by nineteenth-century cotton mill owner William Bancroft), the New Castle Court House (built in the 1730s, making it the oldest extant court house in America, and served as Delaware’s capitol building until the capital moved to Dover), the New Castle Green (the beautiful public space in the heart of Historic New Castle), and the Dover Green (plotted in 1717 and surrounded by historic sites such as the place where DE delegates met to agree to ratify the Constitution in 1787).

The sites that comprise the new National Park and the well-maintained private homes are, without a doubt, historically significant. But like all places, there is a lot more to Old New Castle than buildings associated with founding fathers. Perhaps the one that intrigues me most because it is now condemned and in danger of being demolished is the Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church at 138 E. 4th Street.

Places like this deserve more attention than they get.

I drafted this blog post in May, but this sentiment now seems all the more dire in light of the recent murder of nine congregants at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a crime with which 21-year-old Dylan Roof has been charged.

Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)
Mount Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)

Built to replace the original 1857 wood frame worship space, this 1878 Gothic Revival structure served as New Castle’s second black church. (Bethany UAME Church had been established first in 1817.) According to a National Register nomination prepared in 1983, the church retains some original furnishings such as carved wooden clergy stalls. The surrounding burying ground at Mount Salem includes several gravestones that commemorate African American soldiers—such as this one for Jerry Myers–who served in the Civil War.

Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church
Jerry Myers gravestone at Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, New Castle, Delaware (May 2015)

Now, as the notice affixed to the front door suggests, the Church is endangered.

The New Castle City Board of Health condemned the church last February due to “visual verification of mold infestation caused by moisture and flooding in the basement area” and “a strong odor of mildew through the structure,” as the notice states. The notice also explains that there is “probable cause to the believe that the church may be structurally compromised.” The Church’s congregation worships elsewhere.

I don’t know what progress has been made in mitigating or otherwise addressing the Board of Health’s orders. And one can’t help but wonder what will become of the civilians’ and soldiers’ graves here too. Next year’s Day in Old New Castle, then, may include one less building and therefore one less opportunity to learn about African American history in Delaware.

One might conclude African American history sites in Delaware face a bleak future. Yet the Delaware Historical Society recently established the Center for African American Heritage. I hope initiatives like will prevent future deterioration of Delaware sites associated with African American history. So here’s to a bright future for raising public awareness of and appreciation for African American history in the First State.

Further Reading and Exploration

For a comprehensive tour of buildings in Historic New Castle, check out the New Castle Historical Society’s excellent audio walking tour (which includes the Mount Salem Church), available free here. If you can, visit in person to explore this charming city.

You can learn more about New Castle Historic District here.

For a visual overview of New Castle’s history, check out Jim Travers’ New Castle (2005). For a more sustained look at New Castle’s history, see Constance J. Cooper’s 350 Years of New Castle, Delaware: Chapters in a Town’s History (2001).