Wilmington, Delaware has a long history of Civil Rights activism. Tributes to ground-breaking attorney, Louis L. Redding, and retrospectives of the National Guard occupation of the city in 1968 are told in many places, but other lesser-known stories that moved the needle of human equality forward deserve sharing as well.
The portraits here are a work in progress, intended to shine a long-deserved light on the courage and accomplishment of “ordinary” citizens who labored for justice from the 19th century to the present.
Harlem Renaissance writer, educator, suffragist, organizer
Site: 1310 North French Street (private); East Side Brandywine National Register District
Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) was an accomplished writer of poetry and fiction, a social and political commentator, educator, organizer, Civil Rights advocate and Suffragist. Her New Orleans experience and her multi-racial heritage gave voice to her stories and authority to her commentaries on culture and the color line in American society. She has been described as bold, determined, ambitious, unapologetic, power-conscious, difficult to impress, brilliant at debate, and laser sharp in her ability to assess the world around her, especially as she pushed for rights owed to Black Americans and women. She also was a steady advocate of excellence in the arts, free from race and gender expectations. Dunbar-Nelson enhanced the formal, classical education of her youth by becoming a lifelong consumer of books, periodicals, performances, lectures and intelligent debate wherever she could find it. She moved in an extended circle of educated Black Americans and was considered an influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Dunbar-Nelson’s tenure in Wilmington began in 1902, when she left Washington, D.C. and her brief, tumultuous marriage to acclaimed Black poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar. She joined the supportive, mostly female household of her mother, Patricia Wright Moore, her recently widowed sister, Mary Leila Young, and Leila’s children, in a narrow, rented row house on French Street, in the East Side city neighborhood. In that home was her beloved niece, Pauline Alice Young, who became a dedicated, outspoken educator and activist of the next generation. Pauline reminisced about her childhood home as something of a wayside inn for visiting Black and white literary friends. These included luminaries such as W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes and William Weldon Johnson, as Alice recorded in diaries that survive. The extended family, which added Alice’s third husband, publisher and politician Robert J. Nelson in 1916, moved from 916 French Street in 1924 to 1310 French, which Dunbar-Nelson purchased. From her often-crowded house, Dunbar-Nelson sought solitude walking at night in Cool Spring Park, and sitting out on her East Side roof, as she looked at the lights on the river and added her thoughts to a journal. In 1932, Robert, Alice and her sister, Leila, moved to Philadelphia when Robert was offered a position with the Philadelphia Athletic Commission. Alice continued writing until her death in 1935 at age 60.
Dunbar-Nelson’s activism took many forms, including education, community organization, and political protest. She held teaching and administrative posts in New Orleans, Brooklyn, Delaware and Virginia over a span of 37 years in segregated public schools and private institutions. Along with fellow members of the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, she co-founded The Industrial School for Colored Girls near Marshallton, Delaware, to address the needs of delinquent and homeless young women of color. Following her dismissal from Howard High School in 1920 (ostensibly for her absences related to social and political activism), she focused on administration and teaching at the Industrial School from 1920-1928. The school was renamed the “Kruse Home for Girls” in 1943 after co-founder Edwina Kruse, principal of Howard High School and Dunbar-Nelson’s mentor and intimate friend.
As a seemingly tireless community organizer, Dunbar-Nelson managed WWI relief efforts and contributed to the women’s suffrage campaign at the same time. She was active in the Circle of Negro War Relief, which provided support to Black soldiers and their families. She also toured the South in 1918 as the only known Black field representative for the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, gathering information and helping Black women in nine states to organize war relief efforts. Beginning In 1915 Dunbar-Nelson was a field organizer for the Middle Atlantic States in the campaign for Women’s Suffrage, laboring for four months in Pennsylvania in support of an ultimately unsuccessful state referendum. She engaged in particularly vigorous print debates with male Black anti-Suffragists and, along with Blanche Williams Stubbs, engaged Wilmington women in the debate through the Equal Suffrage Study Club. In May of 1914 this club marched in Wilmington’s first substantial suffrage parade, organized by the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later renamed The National Woman’s Party), and headed by the outspoken Delaware and national leader, Florence Bayard Hilles. Both Hilles and Dunbar-Nelson reached across the color barrier, occasionally attending and speaking at the same conventions and meetings in an attempt to unite and fortify the campaign. Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, Dunbar Nelson organized voter registration drives for Black women in Wilmington, resulting in a strong turnout for the 1920 election. 1 She also was active in the efforts to have the Amendment ratified. In addition to Suffrage activities, Dunbar also was an organizer and charter member of the Wilmington chapter of the NAACP in 1915.
Dunbar-Nelson became the first Black woman on the State Republican Committee in Delaware, and by 1921 was chair of the League of Colored Republican Women. She campaigned vigorously for the party and for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, fueled since the 1890s and introduced in 1918. As Southern Democrats actively resisted the measure and Republicans fretted over potential political consequences, Dunbar-Nelson showed her utter disgust by becoming a Democrat.
Throughout her adult life, Dunbar-Nelson shared her observations on society, arts, culture, and politics through speaking engagements and writing for periodicals. What has been called her “journalistic activism” is, perhaps, the least well known of her endeavors, but may have been the most important. In 1913 she co-edited the AME Church Review, one of the most influential publications of the era. NAACP’s Crisis and the Urban League’s Opportunity published her articles. She contributed syndicated opinion columns to Black newspapers across the country, including “Une Femme Dit” for the Pittsburgh Courier and “As in a Looking Glass” for the Negro Press Association. With husband Robert Nelson, she co-produced the progressive Black newspaper, The Wilmington Advocate, from 1920-1922 from their home at 916 French Street, which housed even the printing press. In 1921, she was a featured speaker at the Sixth Annual Convention of the Delaware State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (meeting at Wilmington’s Ezion Church at 9th and French Streets), which sent a resolution to the Governor to block the KKK in Delaware. Dunbar-Nelson’s sharp observations and persistent advocacy for Civil Rights helped to push the political needle forward.
Hull, Gloria T.
1984 Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. W.W. Norton & Co., New York
Hull, Gloria T., editor
1988 The Works of Alice Dunbar Nelson, Volumes 1&2. Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford.
Brossman, Romy and Sarah Killinger
2000 “Wilmington as Experienced by Alice Dunbar-Nelson,” in Wilmington’s African American Cultural Resources: A Collection of Research Papers. Center for Historic Architecture and Design, University of Delaware, for City of Wilmington, DE. On file, Dept. of Planning.
Broussard, Jinx Coleman
2004 Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: Four Pioneering Black Women Journalists. Routledge, NY and London. https://books.google.com/books/about/Giving_a_Voice_to_the_Voiceless.html?id=SQTQJk84HY0C Accessed June 3, 2019.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, “Alice Dunbar-Nelson.” Contemporary Black Biography series. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/political-science-biographies/alice-dunbar-nelson#3444700404 Accessed June 03, 2019.
Erickson, Dr. Jesse Ryan
2019 Alice Dunbar-Nelson Reads Project: The Reading History of an Early 20th Century Bibliophile. University of Delaware. https://sites.udel.edu/alicereads/ Accessed June 3, 2019.
Garvey, Ellen Gruber
2019 How a New Exhibit Corrects Our Skewed Understanding of Women’s Suffrage. Washington Post, March 14. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/03/29/how-new-exhibit-corrects-our-skewed-understanding-womens-suffrage/?utm_term=.a54546d27f1e Accessed March 30, 2019.
1996 Mighty Oaks: Five Black Educators. In A History of African Americans of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Carole C. Marks, editor. Delaware Heritage Press, Wilmington.
1985 She Was Hard to Impress. Review of Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Gloria T. Hull. New York Times, April 14. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/14/books/she-was-hard-to-impress.html Accessed March 30, 2019.
University of Delaware Collections Finding Aid, Alice Dunbar Nelson Papers. http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/findaids/dunbarne.html Accessed June 3, 2019.Wikipedia: Alice Dunbar-Nelson; Pauline Young. Accessed June 3, 2019.
 Personal communication on suffrage interactions of Hilles and Dunbar-Nelson, 6/13/19, Dr. Anne Boylan, Professor Emerita of History and Women and Gender Studies, University of Delaware.
Wilmington City Councilman, Civil Rights advocate
Site: 104 West 9th Street (9th and Shipley Streets)
William H. “Dutch” Burton was a former factory and shipyard worker; owner of “Dutch’s Chow Bar” and pool hall; a county and city employee; and, a City Councilman in Wilmington, Delaware. He was known as a fiery advocate for fairness, a scrapper and an independent thinker who kept his sense of humor but who never backed away from a principled fight. Burton worked for racial integration in City departments, pushed for decent low-income housing, and decried the displacement of Black citizens under Urban Renewal projects in his East Side neighborhood. Burton served as the chairman of the Redlining Committee of “Wilmington United Neighborhoods” and as a member of a federal panel working to eliminate discriminatory mortgage practices. He was associated with the local “Committee for Fair Practices,” which kept an eye on racial and ethnic discrimination throughout the City. It is no surprise, therefore, that he is best remembered as a participant in a carefully planned challenge to racial discrimination, one that rose to national attention and became a landmark case for the study of U.S. constitutional law. The 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of “Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority” established that private tenants of a public facility were bound by the 14th Amendment, and could not discriminate on the basis of race.
In early 1958, the Wilmington Parking Authority (WPA), a government-supported entity, completed construction on a much-anticipated public parking garage and retail facility in the downtown, the first such structure in Delaware. The WPA was negotiating leases for its commercial tenants when Burton and the Committee on Fair Practices approached them with concerns about the Eagle Coffee Shoppe (aka Eagle Restaurant), a prospective tenant. The restaurant, in operation a block away, was known to discriminate against Black customers. The Committee asked the WPA to insert anti-discrimination language into all of its leases, but the WPA, while acknowledging their concerns, adopted a “wait and see” stance. Some weeks later, a group of seven Black UAW Chrysler workers were arrested and charged with trespassing after asking for service at the old Eagle Restaurant. Their attorney, Frank Hollis, conferred with attorney Louis L. Redding (who had helped to litigate Brown v. Board of Education). The two attorneys, together with the local NAACP and Burton planned to test the Eagle’s practices one more time. In the press, Burton maintained that all he wanted was a cup of coffee with his friends, but the details of his pivotal encounter at the Eagle suggest strategic planning. On Thursday, August 14, 1958, Burton entered the restaurant with two white acquaintances who were UAW officials-- Earl H. Henderson of Newark, and Alex Lux, a visiting union organizer. These officials must have been aware of the recent arrest of their union workers at the restaurant, and it is highly probable that they were part of the plan (Henderson would later support Burton’s version of the encounter to the press). The trio was told there were no tables available. Seeing open tables in the spacious new restaurant, they seated themselves. They were ignored for 35 minutes, during which time a waiter removed their table settings. When Henderson asked the management “if they didn’t serve Americans in here,” he was told that the proprietors had a right to decide whom they served, and that Burton’s group should take it up with the legislature. Ironically, Councilman Burton and his wife had been among the honored guests at the Eagle’s formal opening in June. Burton took the issue to the City Council caucus session that evening, and promised to form a committee to seek a remedy. He then went to City Solicitor, Stewart Lynch, who first suggested a conciliatory approach to the Eagle, which Burton flatly rejected. Lynch also suggested that the City Council could consider an ordinance requiring equal treatment of all races in City restaurants. Burton agreed, but felt that a strong and immediate response to the Eagle was also required. It was decided that a class action suit would be filed, seeking an injunction preventing the restaurant from operating in a discriminatory manner, which Burton asserted was in violation of his rights under the 14th Amendment. The suit was filed on August 21st, and attorney Redding, Burton, and supporters embarked on a three-year legal process in three courts. The injunction was granted in the Court of Chancery, reversed on appeal by the Delaware Supreme Court, and reversed again on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961.
When Mr. Burton took action against the Eagle, he was in a heated primary campaign for State Representative for the First District, and was seeking to be chosen a delegate to the State convention. News of Burton’s encounter at the Eagle began to make headlines on August 15, 1958, the day before the primary. The extra press did not ensure complete success for Burton, but he was elected as a delegate. When news broke a few days later that he was filing a class action law suit against the Wilmington Parking Authority, Burton gave a worthy and enduring quote to the reporter, plainly defining his past and future intentions:
It seems to me that so much is being said about the principles of democracy that we ought to begin to do something about them, rather than sitting around and hoping that they just happen accidentally. As an American citizen, I will protest any infringement upon my constitutional rights and those of any other citizen at any and all times.
The News Journal, 21 August 1958
Following resolution of the suit, The Eagle Restaurant changed its name to the Executive Club and became a private establishment, presumably to continue its racially discriminatory practices. In 1961, City Council followed through on legislation to prevent discrimination in city restaurants. The Ninth Street Bookshop later occupied part of the space, and the remnants of the Eagle and the Executive Club could be seen in their back room and basement. The Midtown Parking complex that housed it all was demolished in 2013. A Delaware Public Archives Marker erected in 2018 commemorates Councilman Burton and the U.S. Supreme Court case, as does the new “Burton Place” access road, mid-block.
1980 The Famous Cup of Coffee Case. Sunday News Journal 6 January: H4. Wilmington, Delaware.
Hollis, Frank H.
1998 My Memories of Law Practice in Wilmington Delaware. Delaware Lawyer, Volume 16, No. 2 Summer.
Mack, Carolyn D.
1986 The Other Side of Equity: The Court of Chancery and Civil Rights. Delaware Lawyer, Volume 5, No. 2 Fall.
Rubenstein, Harvey Bernard
1987 Delaware Controversies That Have Shaped the Constitution. Delaware Lawyer, Volume 6 No. 2, Fall.
Salvatore, Katie and Patricia Talorico
1993 Burton Dead at 82. The News Journal 22 January: B1, B5. Wilmington, Delaware.
The Journal Every Evening [Wilmington, Delaware]
1958 Seams Crack in Campaign. 9 August: 5. Negro Councilman Declares Restaurant Refused Service. 15 August: 1. Suit is Filed on Race Ban. 21 August: 1,6.
The Morning News [Wilmington, Delaware]
1963 Burton Plans House Bid. 16 November: 3 [portrait]
Civil Rights champion, scholar, publisher, AME Zion minister
Sites: 824 French Street; 830 Tatnall Street; Spencer Plaza, 800 Block French Street
William Howard Day, known as an eloquent speaker, scholar, educator, civil rights champion, clergyman and publisher, lived through pivotal periods in 19th century history, and applied his exceptional skills accordingly to the abolition of slavery, to war-time resettlement of freedom-seekers in Canada, and to Reconstruction Era posts and activism. His civil rights work started in Oberlin and Cleveland, continued in Michigan, Ontario, Maryland, Delaware, New York, North Carolina, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His means were many, including community organizing (from forming the Cleveland Negro Suffrage Society to organizing voter registration drives in North Carolina); accepting national leadership posts (such as chair of the National Convention of Colored Freedmen in 1848); newspaper publishing (best known for the Aliened American and Our National Progress); fundraising (visiting England in 1859 with resettlement activist Rev. William King to raise funds for refugee settlements in Buxton, Ontario); oration and debate (engaging with John Brown on educational policy, and becoming the foremost speaker of the post-Civil War “Equal Rights League”); ministry (as an itinerant preacher of the AME Zion Church and an editor of the church-owned “Zion’s Standard and Weekly Review”); protest (challenged segregated public transportation in Michigan in 1858, and addressed the first march on Washington on July 4, 1865); and education. Beginning with his primary education at the African Free School in New York City, Day fully embraced education for personal fulfillment (he was a librarian at the age of 9), as a vehicle for breaking stereotypes, and for fully claiming equal rights as citizens. Day was a lifelong teacher and speaker/activist for education policy.
As a traveling lecturer for the Equal Rights League, Day worked with Wilmington abolitionist and Underground Railroad “stationmaster,” Thomas Garrett. In 1867, Day accepted a post as superintendent of schools with the Freedmen’s Bureau, which lead to further collaboration with Garrett, as he, son Elwood and the Quaker community at large were heavily involved in supporting the Quaker African School. The two became very close during this relatively brief collaboration. Day was a featured speaker at a large, festive and integrated event in 1870, partially organized by Garrett, commemorating the passage of the 15th Amendment. At the dedication of the Colored Normal School in 1871, Day acknowledged Garrett as the “president of the Underground Railroad.” A short time later, Day would have another, more bittersweet opportunity to thank his friend, as he contributed a short eulogy at Garrett’s funeral, saying that his “grief was too fresh,” and his “heart was too bowed down” to do Garrett justice at that time. On February 7, 1871, a great memorial meeting and service in tribute to Garrett was held at the African Union Church on French Street, organized by his many friends in Wilmington and the region. William Howard Day had been appointed to prepare the resolution in memoriam, and he delivered his own “…eloquent and impassioned oration…” as well. A small committee including Day took responsibility for printing the proceedings in a pamphlet.
During Day’s tenure with the Freedmen’s Bureau (1867-1871), he traveled a great deal between Baltimore and Wilmington. He lived in Baltimore for two years, and moved to Wilmington in 1869. He first boarded at 824 French Street in the East Side neighborhood, one of the centers of black settlement and culture in the city. The home was owned by William and Harriet Simpson and included another boarder, dressmaker, Georgie Bell, whom Day married in 1873. Following a fire in 1871, Day moved to 830 Tatnall Street where he lived in the home of laborer, George Webb. From this address, Day was editing the newspaper, “Our National Progress,” a progressive black-owned/edited newspaper published simultaneously in Harrisburg, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Camden and New York. Day later relocated to Harrisburg, where he became a long-term and beloved school board member and board president, the first Black American to hold such a post.
Mealy, Todd M
2010 Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day, 1825-1865 (Volume I); 1865-1900 (Volume II). America Star Books, Maryland.
African American Registry
2003 William Howard Day, Editor and Minister. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. https://aaregistry.org/story/william-howard-day-editor-and-minister/ Accessed 6/18/19.
Our National Progress (Harrisburg, PA) 1869-1875 [Record notes]. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83032133/ Accessed 6/19/19.
Dalleo, Peter D.
2013 African American Public Recognition of Thomas Garrett. Draft manuscript on file at the City of Wilmington, Department of Planning.
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Day, William Howard; Aliened American. Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. https://case.edu/ech/articles/d/day-william-howard Accessed June 18, 2019.
Mealy, Todd M.
2018 William Howard Day Online Database. https://www.toddmealy.com/w-howard-day-file Accessed June 17, 2019. [articles and historic primary source material]
National Equal Rights League. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Equal_Rights_League Accessed 6/19/19.
William Howard Day. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Day-7845 Accessed 6/18/19.
Formed by and for Black Catholics seeking freedom of worship
Site: 1012 North French Street; National Register of Historic Places
Chartered as the “St. Joseph Society for Colored Missions of Delaware” in the late 19th century, the present buildings house a legacy congregation started by Black Catholics seeking a full worship experience. Black Catholics worshipped at churches throughout the city, but were increasingly subjected to demeaning, racially discriminatory practices, such as restricted seating and denial of communion at the altar rail. With strong guidance provided by the Josephite Fathers of Baltimore, the founders developed the property at a steady pace to occupy most of the block by the 1930s. The mission included a teacher’s residence, school, orphanage, church, rectory, hall and outbuildings at its peak. With changing needs, the complex eventually contracted to almost its initial size by the late 20th century. The present church dates to 1948; it was rebuilt following an electrical fire on December 31, 1945. The rectory dates to 1954. The neo-Gothic church design incorporates Mission Revival elements, such as the bell cote, which honor its origins as a mission church.
In 1889, Father John DeRuyter of the St. Joseph’s Mission Society traveled to Wilmington at the invitation of Bishop Curtis, who was concerned that Black Catholics had stopped congregating at white churches in response to growing discrimination. Father DeRuyter was assisted by local resident, John Crawford, in gathering approximately 50 Black Catholics who wished to worship together, and secured the use of the basement of a nearby East Side church, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception (E. Sixth and Pine Streets, extant), where they were welcomed and were able to remain for five years. Father DeRuyter and the church leaders solicited other local and regional parishes for funds to build a church, which soon became a campaign for a school, as well. While Father DeRuyter no doubt quickly assessed the poor state of Black schools, his educational goal was in keeping with the Josephite philosophy, maintaining that there is no more effective missionary agent than the free school.
Father DeRuyter secured a mortgage for property on French Street, which had been a nucleus of African American religious and cultural life since about 1800. The mission first erected a small building in 1890 to house teachers and classrooms. With the help of Mother Katherine Drexel (now Saint Katherine), Father DeRuyter was able to staff the school with Franciscan Sisters from Glen Riddle, PA. A separate school building was completed in the fall of 1890. A contemporary newspaper reported that the laying of the school cornerstone was cause for one of the largest gatherings of Catholics in the city, drawing county participation as well. Until funds could be raised for a separate church sanctuary, mass was celebrated in the school. Father deRuyter invited “…all persons, without distinction of creed or color…” to the first mass in the new school.
A separate church sanctuary would wait, however, as the need for an orphanage took priority. In October 1893, the mission opened an impressive brick orphanage complete with a free dispensary and operating room, a revolutionary facility for the community and the first complex of its kind in the nation. The managing medical board included Dr. Samuel G. Elbert, Sr., one of the first Black doctors to practice in Delaware. In 1893, an act of the Delaware Legislature formalized Wilmington court referrals for young boys of color in-need, to the care of St. Joseph’s. The following year there were reportedly 120 students at day school and 125 boys in the orphanage. A separate church sanctuary was added to the complex sometime between 1901 and 1928.
The orphanage was transferred in 1928 to the site of the St. Joseph’s Industrial School (1895) in Clayton, Kent County, Delaware. The building was remodeled for the elementary school expansion, and it continued to operate on French Street under the dynamic leadership of the fifth pastor, Father Conrad Rebschner. Prior to the end of school segregation, St. Joseph graduates were limited to attending the Industrial School (for farming, building and mechanical trades courses), Howard High School in Wilmington and Philadelphia’s Southeast Catholic High School. In 1950, another Wilmington option became available as Salesianum High School opened its doors to St. Joseph’s students on November 14th. They were the first secondary school in Delaware to integrate voluntarily. St. Elizabeth’s received its first two St. Joseph’s students shortly after. Due to changing needs of the community, St. Joseph’s School (the former orphanage complex) was demolished in 1956.
St. Joseph’s established two additional missions as it grew: Our Lady of Mercy in Belvedere (southwest of Wilmington) in 1929, and Blessed Sacrament at 712 Scott Street, Wilmington, in 1936. St. Joseph’s continues in its founding mission in Wilmington to the present day, and the congregants include numerous descendants of the founding families. The parish is vibrant and conducts many outreach programs (including prison and homeless ministries). St. Joseph’s also serves downtown workers at daily mass. The parish has been supported by clergy of the Franciscan Order since 1993. A Delaware Public Archives Marker commemorates the site.
1894 History of Wilmington: The Commercial, Social and Religious Growth of the City During the Past Century. Compiled by The Every Evening, Wilmington, Delaware.
Pearce, B. Ben
1998 Historical Vignettes of African American Churches in Wilmington, Delaware. Chaconia Press, Wilmington.
Martin, Debra Campagnari
2004 National Register of Historic Places Nomination, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Wilmington, Delaware. Listed 1/14/2004.
Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church
1990 One Hundred Years of Service to God and His People. Booklet. Wilmington, Delaware.
St. Joseph’s Industrial School
1951 St. Joseph’s Industrial School 75th Anniversary. Booklet. Clayton, Delaware.
1888 History of Delaware. L.J. Richards & Co., Philadelphia.
The Morning News [Wilmington, Delaware]
1890 Public notice of Sisters house reception. 27 August: 1
1890 Father DeRuyter Speaks. 29 September: 3
1893 Doings Down at Dover, Act in Relation to Colored Orphans. 5 April: 2
The News Journal [Wilmington, Delaware]
1893 Free Dispensary and Operating Room. 29 May: 3
1893 Open to Public Inspection [orphanage]. 10 October: 3
African-American community center; NAACP office; Civil Rights speaker’s venue
Walnut and East 10th Streets
What is now known as the Walnut Street YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) was built to serve the Wilmington African-American community. It became the first such separate YMCA facility in the State. While the YMCA discouraged discrimination as a policy, discrimination existed in the established Wilmington branches in subtle and unsubtle ways. Wanting open access to all programs and facilities that the organization offered, in 1928 a small group of Black Wilmington citizens embarked on what would be an intermittent, ten-year planning and fundraising project to construct a separate facility in the East Side neighborhood. This followed a long-established history of the development of African-American YMCAs nationwide since the first in 1853. The Walnut Street facility maintained an “open-door” policy, though, and served a diverse cultural population, many of whom lived in the neighborhood. The facility featured a pool, gymnasium, auditorium, bowling alley, billiard room, and a dormitory of 17 rooms. It later added a credit union to meet the needs of its members. It was described by one long-term member as “an oasis and mecca” for young people during Segregation and in times of unemployment. The Walnut Street Y hired distinguished and experienced executives from across the country to develop and manage their programs. The facility was able to offer limited employment to college graduates and others as desk clerks, bowling alley manager, secretaries and custodial staff. They also trained scores of volunteers in operations and program facilitation.
On August 26, 1940, the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Association moved in to the new Walnut Street headquarters together. After an exploratory period, the two organizations decided that their missions and structure were sufficiently different that they agreed to remain largely separate (but with occasional joint programs) under the same roof. The YWCA of the Walnut Street facility became known as the “Branch Committee” in 1940.
The YWCA shared similar goals of “mind, body and spirit” with the YMCA, while also addressing their programs to particular needs of women and families in the workplace and at home. The Wilmington YWCA traced its origins to 1926 and the first leadership training course offered for African-American girls at the Central Branch on West 11th Street. In 1932 they initiated the “Interracial Committee,” in Wilmington, a highly successful effort to provide opportunities for white and Black women to know each other better by working together for common national causes and Wilmington community welfare. This was consistent with the YWCA’s historically inclusive national model.
The YMCA and YWCA models were nimble enough to respond to changing community issues and national needs quickly, such as when, soon after opening, the Walnut Street branch became a center for WWII services. The comprehensive program featured classes as diverse as first aid, home nursing, blueprint-reading and air raid protection. They opened a civilian defense office for the registration of volunteers; housed defense workers in the dormitory; and, with the USO Council, assisted in referring women for defense plant work.
Perhaps its greater challenge and opportunity came as the modern Civil Rights movement gained critical momentum in the mid-20th century. The strategy for achieving racial equality had been the catalyst for planning the formation of the Walnut Street Y in the 1920s, and the solidarity, fellowship and leadership cultivated within the institution over the years carried it forward as an engine for change. Walnut Street Y provided meeting and office space for organizations including the Wilmington Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), chartered in 1915, and the Human Rights League of Delaware. A 1941 meeting sponsored by the National Negro Congress (founded in 1935) to support an equal rights bill for Delaware African Americans was held there. Speakers included John P. Davis of the Negro Congress, journalist, lawyer and activist and Louis L. Redding, Delaware’s first African-American attorney and an NAACP leader. Civil Rights activism within the walls of the Walnut Street Y continued to reflect the Y mission of inclusion, as Black and white leaders from all economic classes labored for justice together for decades.
The original Walnut Street YMCA building was designed by the prolific Wilmington architect, G. Morris Whiteside, II, in what he termed the modern Scandinavian style. Construction (and a maintenance trust fund) was made possible by a gift from local philanthropist, H. Fletcher Brown. This building was largely demolished in 1996, and a new building featuring enhanced fitness spaces and a daycare was opened in 1998. The original clock tower was incorporated into the new building, as were several salvaged, bas relief panels depicting African American artists, educators and scientists. A Delaware Public Archives Marker commemorates the site.
DeShields, Reba E. and Thelma T. Young
1945 The Walnut Street Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association of Delaware, History 1935-1945. Pamphlet.
1998 Walnut Street YMCA Remembers its Roots. The News Journal, 12 September: B1. Wilmington, Delaware.
Hamilton, Cynthia Rose, Powers & Co.
2001 National Register Nomination, Wilmington Central YMCA, New Castle County, Delaware.
Steenberghs, Connie and Jennifer Cathey
2000 The People’s Settlement House and the Walnut Street YMCA, Agents of Social Uplift in Wilmington’s East Side. In, Wilmington’s African American Cultural Resources, A Collection of Research Papers. For the City of Wilmington, Delaware. On file at the University of Delaware, Center for Historic Architecture and Design, Newark.
Sunday Morning Star [Wilmington, Delaware]
1940 Formal Dedication Ceremonies of New Building Sept. 22. Sunday Morning Star: 1 September.
Young Men’s Christian Association of Wilmington
1989 History of the Walnut Street Branch Y.M.C.A. Fiftieth Anniversary and Annual Meeting, Walnut Street Branch YMCA, September 22, 1989. Booklet.