American Impressions, Chapter 21: Delaware
I was about 10 when, for whatever reason, my older brother told me about the American Civil War (I think he was reading a comic book set in that period). He called it the War of Secession. I naturally assumed what he meant was South America had seceded from North America. I couldn’t imagine a nation as great as the United States getting involved in the very sort of moronic civil war that was raging around us in Lebanon at the time. When I asked my brother who won, he said the North, “of course.” “Of course,” I agreed. “It’s bigger.” I misinterpreted my brother’s smile for proud approbation. He never corrected me, although soon after I got a picture book thick with the black-and-whites of the War of Secession. The Blue and the Gray looked unmistakably alike.
I consoled myself by thinking it was all distant history, which this time proved correct. When I landed in the United States some years later, first in New York then in Tennessee, any mention of a difference between North and South would have made me laugh. There’d been more differences between East and West Beirut, which were divided by a street, than there could ever be between a northern state and a southern state. Yankee meant baseball to me, and South meant south.
It didn’t take me long to realize that William Faulkner could not have set Yoknapatawpha County in New Jersey or that Woody Allen couldn’t have set anything in Alabama. But those were still regional, not alienating, differences. For a nation this big and this diverse, the homogeneity of America is stunning, which is why it’s difficult for foreigners or immigrants to think of the United States as a place that once rent itself apart over differences much deeper than those created by the literary imagination. From that perspective, whatever splits remain seem absurd, or at least imagined for the sake of identity or nostalgia. Yet Americans themselves prefer to think that more significant differences persist.
Delaware, that sliver of a state, perfectly illustrates the divide, real or imagined. It is the union’s second-smallest state (like Polk County, it is a few plots more than 2,000 square miles). But it is of two minds, perpetually indecisive about its allegiance to the industrial North or the rural South. Its residents say it is a northern state north of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which runs the width of the state, a Southern state south of it. Being the only state east of the Mason-Dixon line hasn’t helped its identity crisis. (The Mason-Dixon Line runs in a direct North-South line, dividing Maryland from Delaware). Delaware was a slave-holding state that fought alongside the Union during the Civil War. It was a deeply segregated state that found a way to both condemn its black schools to calculated mediocrity and eventually lift them to a semblance of parity with white schools. It was the only state in which a court decision supported desegregation before Brown vs. Board of Education reached the Supreme Court in 1954.
” Delaware has a very, very peculiar history,” says Carol Hoffelcker, a historian at the University of Delaware and the author of the state’s bicentennial history. “In the late 19 th century, the state Legislature with great reluctance agreed that the state would support education for black people. But their reluctance was so overwhelming that the law that created state schools for blacks said they’d be paid for from a special fund that would be collected from black people, from taxes on land owned by blacks, and only black people would be taxed to support the black schools. I’m told that no other state, not even Mississippi, had a similar law. Obviously the schools that resulted were extremely poor because black taxpayers had very little money. That’s one side of Delaware. The other side is, how did we get out from under that? Well, Pierre du Pont who made vast sums of money as president and stockholder of the DuPont company, had decided during the 1910s to build schools throughout the state for black people as a gift, including a very modern, elaborate high school in Wilmington, Howard High School.”
du Pont’s motive wasn’t to privatize black education but to shame the Delaware Legislature into improving standards for white schools. By building and funding black schools all over the state, he was (theoretically, at least) creating the possibility that black schools would be in better shape than white schools, although he knew that by doing so the Legislature would immediately blunt that chance by finally upping its commitment to white education—du Pont’s aim all along.
Delaware is all paradoxes like that, a mixture of legacies halfway remarkable, halfway vile.
Harmon Carey’s voice, a deep and powerful tenor, fills the Pauline A. Young Memorabilia Room at Howard High School, where we’ve been sitting alone for an hour, trying to define the differences of North and South in Delaware. (Young is the late school librarian who shepherded the intellectual development of thousands of students during her long tenure there, Carey’s included). Carey, whose mother is from Plant City (“I tell people I have so many cousins from Plant City, if I went down there and ran for mayor, I’d win”) graduated from Howard in 1953. He is the state of Delaware’s executive assistant for African American Heritage, and the founder of the Dover-based Afro-American Historical Society of Delaware.
We could have gone on for a long time philosophizing over geography and regional character and religious leanings and the sensibilities of Yanks or Belles or cowboys, and where Delaware fit in all this. But the meaninglessness of a discussion like that becomes apparent when such differences are stacked up against the national chasm represented by the one word Carey repeated again and again: “Nigger.” In America’s rich hierarchy of racism, it has no demeaning equal—not for Hispanics, not for Asians, not for Semites, even though each of these groups has collected its share of prejudicial filth. All illusions of grander cultural aspirations aside, it is how that word was used on either side of the Mason-Dixon line that has defined, more than anything else, the difference between North and South.
Caught in the middle, Delaware fostered its own special relationship with the word, and those on whom its white establishment subtly inflicted it.
”In Wilmington,” Carey says, “unlike the South, no one called you a nigger. No one confronted you. It was almost a benign segregation. White men didn’t get drunk and come to your neighborhood to ravish your women; you didn’t suffer personal indignities as you did in the South. It was almost a strategy by those in power to not be too blatant here. There was an attempt to be civil in the way this was administered or meted out.”
Carey attributes this to Wilmington’s aristocratic-like business culture, which was really the DuPont culture—the plantation ethos applied to the corporate world. The civility was as carefully orchestrated as the second-class status of blacks.
”My father worked for DuPont,” Carey says. “He worked 39, 40 years. He went there as a janitor. He left there as a janitor. White people didn’t stay there for 40 years in the lowest-paying jobs. Sooner or later, they were trained and elevated to other jobs. Blacks were janitors, they were elevator operators, they were cooks. I don’t think anyone can refute that. DuPont may have been ahead of his time in his concern for education, but he was a man of his time in the way he operated his company.”
Carey reserves his unbridled admiration for two men: Louis L. Redding, once Delaware’s only black lawyer, and Collins J. Seitz, the judge who heard Redding argue in 1952 that school segregation or any Plessy-vs.-Ferguson-inspired separate-but-equal edicts were unconstitutional. Seitz agreed and ordered Delaware’s schools desegregated, two years before the Supreme Court supported his decision—and cited it in its own landmark ruling that ended segregation in 1954.
Both Redding and Seitz died last year. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden has nominated Seitz for a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor. Carey has petitioned Biden to co-nominate Redding, and won the support of Delaware’s governor. But he has yet to hear from Biden’s office whether the co-nomination will go forward. Nor has the Wilmington press seized on the idea.
With the du Pont family and company controlling at times a quarter of its economy, Delaware was referred to as “The Company State” in a study commissioned by Ralph Nader. The company first emerged as a local superpower during World War I, when it made dynamite and insisted that Allied governments pay half their bills in cash, up-front. The tidy war profits ($237 million by 1918) allowed the company to diversify into chemicals, plastics, and even acquire a major stake in General Motors.
The “company state” title still applies, but for an entirely different reason: As the exclusive dominance of the DuPont enterprise has declined, the state’s liberal incorporation and banking laws have attracted more than half the nation’s Fortune 500 companies to Wilmington—not to be headquartered there, to be sure, but to be incorporated there, which at least keeps the local legal profession busy. By removing most limits on the interest credit card companies can charge, Delaware has also acted as a magnet for national banks and has become a leader of interstate banking.
The result isn’t obvious. Wilmington—“A Place to Be Somebody,” city limit signs proclaim—has added a few skyscrapers to its skyline since the early 1980s. It has hung the usual downtown banners highlighting restaurants and shops and arts, its streets and avenues in the business district are wide, clean, ordered. But more than most northern towns I’ve seen, Wilmington is still the segregated city. Blacks and whites work some of the same jobs and attend some of the same schools. But downtown is an island of business and wealth rimmed in almost every direction by poor, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods of shuttered stores, boarded up buildings or empty lots. Neighborhoods like that exist in every city. It is one of the nation’s indifferent, collective crimes that nothing more than posturing and moralizing is ever done to rebuild them. In Wilmington, those neighborhoods are the city. Downtown’s wealth is the ghetto, a concentration of fortune whose horizons and dividends—like the interstate and globalist outlook of its companies—begins well beyond the city, or even the state.
Almost all the limestone markers that Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon laid out along the 233 miles of the line that bears their name have vanished. They’d been imported from England and planted by Mason’s and Dixon’s five-year surveying expedition, between 1763 and 1767. Farmers plowed them over or used them as construction stones, or stole them as souvenirs. A couple of re-surveys in 1849 and 1902 reset the markers in concrete at the five-mile intervals Mason and Dixon had established. But those, too, have decayed or come in the way of tractors.
It’s just as well. The line’s relevance goes no further than grade school history class, and even there teachers get its Civil War mythology mixed up with its actual origins. The Mason-Dixon line was ratified by a London court in the 18 th century to settle a colonial land dispute between the Calverts of Maryland and the Penns of Pennsylvania. Mason and Dixon had no inkling of divides larger than between properties as they went about their survey. They worried more about intemperate Indians or weather patterns than about triggering the rise of Dixiecology. By the time the Revolutionary Wars dispossessed the Calverts and Penns of their lands, the line became just another boundary between states, and only much later came to symbolize the divide between North and South, and runaway slaves’ last obstacle along the Underground Railway.
”What we were doing out in that country was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless,” the 18 th century narrator of Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” says somewhere in that brilliant sprawl of a book. Pynchon is known for his erudition as well as his fabulism. By combining the two skills in recreating the story of Mason and Dixon’s survey in his 1997 novel, he has also produced a more authoritative account of the line’s imprint on the American psyche than any footnote-dragging monograph ever could. A line that once went through the middle of properties, even the middle of houses, splitting communities and demarcating nature and Indians from the advance—somewhat decimating to both—of colonial progress could not have been a good omen. Pynchon has his heroes acting remorseful at the end of their line, seeing in it less a monument to their name than to the human desire for boundaries—pointless, in Mason’s and Dixon’s way of thinking. “Shall wise doctors,” Pynchon has Mason say, “one day write History’s assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-a-vis the not so good? I wonder which list will be longer.”
But just as it’s been America’s specialty to dilute the omens of history to the point of irreverence, so has it diluted the meanings once stamped on the Mason-Dixon line. In post-segregation, globalist Delaware, the state may claim to be “southern,” “rural,” “retro” and never be able to define any of these words (a quiet rural community in Michigan could be just as southern by the same standards). But its main draw is emblazoned on roadside markers at every border crossing: “Home of tax-free shopping.” It’s what keeps traffic brisk around Karen’s Treasures, the state’s very first tax-free shop of gifts and toys at the border crossing with Maryland, in the small town of Marydell. It so happens that one of the last remaining headstones planted by the original Mason-Dixon survey sits a few feet away from Karen’s Treasures, in a well-tended garden patch near the obligatory marker. No one pays it any attention.
DELAWARE IN BRIEF
Total area: 2,396 sq. miles (rank: 49).
Population (1997): 731,581 (rank: 46).
State capital: Dover.
Economy: Banking, manufacturing, chemicals, poultry.
Nickname & Motto: First State; Diamond State; Liberty and Independence.
Entered union: First of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution (Dec. 7, 1787).
Notable fact: Along with being the nation’s largest parking space for the military’s largest cargo planes, Dover Air Force Base also is the nation’s largest mortuary; it is where most American soldiers who die in action are first flown back, and where the 911 victims of the Jonestown massacre-suicide were repatriated from Guyana in 1978.
Delaware in quotes: “Delaware is like a diamond, diminutive, but having within it inherent value.”—John Lofland, a poet from Milford, Del., who penned this line in 1847.
Books: Carol Hoffelcker’s “Delaware: A Bicentennial History,” published by Norton in 1977, is out of print but available at any library (if not on shelves, then through interlibrary loan), or by special order through out-of-print booksellers. A more recent, comprehensive history of the state has yet to be written, although more specialized titles (about Delaware’s Native Americans or the Delaware River, for instance) abound. Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” is available in hardback and paperback. Edward Dent has recently published a critical look at the DuPont company’s corporate culture titled “Betrayal: Employee Relations at DuPont: 1981-1994.” It is available in paperback.
African-American Heritage: Harmon Carey can be contacted at the Afro-American Historical Society of Delaware, 512 E. 4 th St., Wilmington, DE, 19801; 302-571-1699. He also can be contacted through his office at the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, 302-577-3099.
* Howard High School of Technology, Wilmington: www.k12.de.us/howard/
* Dover Air Force Base: www.dover.af.mil
* Mason-Dixon Line Underground Railroad narrative: www.appalachia.org/mason.html
* Delaware tourism: www.state.de.us/tourism