He found holes in history. Now, he’s educating others about the role of Black Delawareans in the Civil War
Juneteenth is best celebrated by looking into the past, according to the members of the Hockessin Historical Society – few things can be fully understood separated from context.
So Thursday’s Juneteenth event, the organization’s first, was more history class than end-of-school pizza party.
About 25 people gathered at Hockessin Memorial Hall, assembled in spaced out chairs across the hall’s hardwood dance floor under the sheen of white sheets draped from the ceiling, to take in presentations from Delaware historian Syl Woolford and Civil War reenactor Willis Phelps.
They spoke hours after President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in Confederate states, a federal holiday. Earlier in the day, Gov. John Carney signed a state bill requiring Delaware schools to implement curriculum on Black history for kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We have two reasons to celebrate Juneteenth, but first we have to figure out what is Juneteenth,” Woolford said to start his presentation.
Woolford backtracked to the start of the Civil War, tracing the order southern states succeeded in before reviewing the back-and-forth threats between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and how African American troops became pawns in those discussions.
Woolford, who started studying history in retirement after finding holes in a Newark history book, highlighted Lincoln’s attempt during the Civil War to pay Delaware to end slavery in the First State. Delaware rejected the tactic, known as compensated emancipation.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived to liberate enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, the last place in the Confederacy forced to do so.
In Delaware, slavery was retained for two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The state originally opposed ratification of the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) Amendments which eliminated slavery and provided citizenship and voting rights to Black citizens. It didn’t ratify them until 1901.
“Let me hope that Juneteenth moving forward will give us the opportunity to learn more about African American history,” Woolford said.
Phelps, dressed in a navy Union sack coat and blue pants while carrying a musket, unfolded the story of private James H. Elbert, one of the “Five Heroes of Polktown.”
Phelps bounced between the roles of Elbert and narrator, while audience members stood in for the accompanying part, waving their arms and marching around the room to Phelps’ vocal cues.
Phelps’ story took the audience from when Elbert enlisted in Wilmington after being rejected in Middletown because he was Black, to training in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania and entering the war in the south.
This content was originally published here.