by Carlos Holmes
As the nation celebrates the latest federal holiday on June 20 – June twentieth – it is instructive to understand what the Emancipation Proclamation means for Delaware.
In a practical sense, President Abraham Lincoln’s signature executive order represented the clear handwriting on the Civil War-battered wall that signaled to the entire nation that the tragic era of the “strange institution” of slavery was soon coming to an end.
However, in a purely legal sense, the Emancipation Proclamation previously meant nothing to the state, as the executive order’s abolition of slavery applied only to the federal southern states. At the time of the signing of that emancipation document on January 1, 1863, while all northern states had already abolished slavery, the central border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained legally slave states.
While Maryland and Missouri abolished their practices of slavery in 1864 and 1865, respectively, Delaware and Kentucky continued to legally approve slavery in their states after June 7th—June 1865, the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, the final Affected former federal states where the order was announced. However, legal slavery would be short-lived.
Certainly, by that time slavery had greatly diminished in Delaware. According to the late Dr. William H. Williams, “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware 1639–1865″—the only scholarly account of a peculiar institution in the First State—the slave population of 8,887 in 1790 declined to 1,798 in 1860. In mid-1865, there were only a few hundred slaves left in Delaware.
Even with that lack of slavery, Delaware lawmakers were adamant about the state’s right to make its own decisions on slavery. Despite Delaware refusing to ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, the two-thirds ratification required by the existing states was ratified on December 18, 1865, effectively abolishing slavery in the United States.
Despite the abolition of slavery that Delaware dragged its feet on, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment were a necessary but never more than a small step to correct 246 years of injustice to blacks in America, moreover, Delaware also refused to ratify the 14th Amendment. (guarantees equal rights to all citizens) and the 15th Amendment (granting blacks the right to vote), which became part of the US Constitution in 1868 and 1870, respectively. Delaware didn’t ratify those constitutional amendments until 1901—more than three decades after their adoption.
The state’s opposition to the first of those three constitutional amendments illustrated the further demilitarization difficulties for Delaware’s African Americans in terms of the provision of suffrage, civil rights, and educational opportunity.
So, the question is: If equality and justice were elusive for more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery, what are we celebrating and identifying with Juneteenth Day?
It is the first important step to rid this country of the social illusions and disease of white supremacy. Thus, while this country is still recovering from the criminal choices made during that dark era to enforce the subjugation and captivity of blacks, we can celebrate the beginning that Juneth represents. Despite Delaware’s opposition to the abolition of slavery and the inappropriateness of the Emancipation Proclamation for Delaware at the time, Juneteenth became a debut for this state as well.
The Emancipation Proclamation Executive Order completed the 13th Amendment, making the final reality – though slow in making it over the past 157 years – that change toward a more equitable and just union for all people was inevitable. Despite Delaware’s opposition to abolition, the two measures meant the end of slavery in the first state, as it did for the rest of the country.
Of course, the first state of the present day is completely different from Delaware in the 1800s. Today, equality and opportunities abound for all people across the state. In 2016, the Delaware General Assembly and then-Gov. Jack Merkel took responsibility for the sins of the state’s past race relations through a resolution in which the state apologized for slavery and Jim Crow-era laws.
On Friday, Delaware State University—which began in 1891, was part of that change by providing the opportunity for higher education and high school for blacks in Delaware and beyond—held a Juneteenth festival at its DSU downtown location. First the state’s only historically black university considered it part of its community service obligation to facilitate a celebratory event and thereby help preserve the history that Juneth represents.
Carlos Holmes is a university historian at Delaware State University, as well as its director of news services.