How can land ownership be a form of political resistance?
By: Anisha Gupta | Posted: 7-7-2022
In the late 1840s, Delaware College trustee Rathmell Wilson drew up a map (Figure 1) of a large tract of land bounded by New London Road, Nottingham Road, Nathan Boulden’s land, and James Shaeffer’s land. He divided up the tract into lots and started selling them to local residents–including five free Black men: Isaac Bacchus, Nathan Wrench, Joseph Williams, Griffen Saunders, and Charles Brown. In purchasing these lots in the mid-1840s, these men and their families laid the foundations for what would become a thriving free Black community on New London Road for over 150 years.
In antebellum Newark, the New London Road community’s existence was itself an act of resistance against the dominant political and social climate. Owning land was the foundation of Black independence and self-reliance. Black communities separated from whites offered several benefits, including safety in numbers and networks of employment. As the communities grew, social networks and institutions also developed. These communities were sometimes called “shadow towns” since they were “in the shadow of larger communities.” The New London Road neighborhood fits several of the criteria for shadow towns: it had houses on small lots along a road that stretches away from the town center, it eventually supported a church and school, it included a mix of landowners and renters, and it was close to businesses that offered employment to Black residents.
Land ownership was a symbol of Black independence, free from bondage and white control, and the beginning of economic self-sufficiency. Thus, Black land ownership has been contentious throughout US history. In the mid-nineteenth century, many states prohibited free Black people from owning land. In neighboring states like Maryland, stringent laws dating back to the eighteenth century restricted free Black property ownership. Black families looking to acquire property and build robust communities were forced to flee to neighboring states such as Delaware.
Land Ownership History of New London Road
The land bounded today by New London Ave, Cleveland Ave, and W. Main St. was owned by three different white men before Black families started building a community there. In 1838, Lewis Black sold the parcel to Andrew Bradley, who in turn sold it to Rathmell Wilson, the President of the Board of Trustees of Delaware College . One of Wilson’s first sales was to Isaac Bacchus, a Black man, on August 26, 1844. Bacchus was released from an apprentice indenture on February 26, 1831, working as a farmer for John Whitby in New Castle County. His indenture contract promised twenty dollars during this apprenticeship, and he should have also received two suits of clothing upon completion. This money may have contributed to the payment for this land, which cost him ninety dollars. With his wife Margaret, Bacchus was soon joined by a mix of Black and white owners, and by 1848 there were five Black households in the neighborhood. From 1844 to 1870, the number of Black families living on New London Road grew from five to twenty-one.
This free Black community emerged adjacent to slavery. They conducted business with and lived alongside white Newarkers who had participated in and benefited from slavery. The neighborhood was bounded by land owned by Nathan Boulden, one of the area’s significant enslavers who held more people in bondage–and for longer amounts of time–than average white Newark residents. Andrew Bradley, also an enslaver, owned a large lot on New London Road intersecting with Boulden’s land.
The Significance of Land Ownership
By 1848, five Black families – the Bacchus, Wrench, Saunders, Brown, and Williams families – owned land on New London Road. This research shows that the lands were not only important for building a family and living free lives, but also for building generational wealth and creating a Black economy.
The majority of the Black families on New London Road owned these properties until their purchaser’s death, at which time the properties were either passed on to other family members or sold off, generally to other free Black families, suggesting that land ownership was of a collective significance. For example, the Williams family owned their land for over sixty years. After purchasing in the mid 1840s, Joseph and Betsey Williams raised not only their three sons there, but at least two grandchildren.
In 1859, Joseph and Elizabeth Williams sold land on New London Road to Nathan Wrench for $500. A couple of years later, Wrench sold this land to Charles Pierce, a Black resident of Pencader Hundred, likely from the free Black community of Iron Hill. Finally in 1864, Betsey Williams bought this land back from Pierce for $550. This lot moved from family to family, perhaps because they needed a place to stay for themselves or as extra rental income. Though we cannot discern the reason, we can see how community members interacted. By selling land to one another, they kept the land and the wealth within the Black community.
Another Black resident, Isaac Bacchus, purchased two lots of land in 1844. In 1851, only seven years after his initial purchase, he sold some of his land to William and Eliza Saunders for $28.75. Just a couple months later, the Saunders sold the land to their relative Griffen Saunders for $35. Since Griffen already owned a lot on New London Road, he likely rented out this new property to a Black family. Nathan Wrench also owned multiple properties. He bought his first lot on Nottingham Road in 1842. Though it is not clear when he first bought property on New London Road, by 1848 he owned multiple properties and was renting out his land on New London Road for extra income. This was one way in which they created their own Black economy. Like white residents, the Black families used real estate to acquire and build wealth – but unlike Whites, they kept it within the Black community.
Post-Civil War society and the twentieth century brought continuous assaults on Black land ownership, but the New London Road neighborhood was resilient due to the strong support system it created through land ownership. These families were deeply intertwined, often selling land back and forth, housing each other’s family members, and finding employment for one another. Today, the New London Road neighborhood has been displaced by the growing footprint of the university. Though it is no longer an African American neighborhood, its legacy lives on in community members. It is important that we, as members of the university and the Newark community, better understand the impact on our surroundings and how it affects the current and future circumstances of Newark residents.
Anisha Gupta (she/her) is a PhD student in the Preservation Studies Program at UD. Her research focuses on contextualizing the legacies of colonialism in cultural heritage collections care and expanding practice to include global caretaking traditions that value people, communities, and sustainability. She is trained as a paper and preventive conservator and graduated from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2016.
 Rathmell Wilson, The Conditions of Sale for Properties on New London Road and Nottingham Road, n.d., Series IV, 10001 – 10199, Doc. 10139, George G. Evans Family Papers and Supplement, University of Delaware Special Collections. The date “c.1853” is lightly written in graphite on the map, indicating it is not original but added later. It is likely from earlier, closer to 1848, since the last person to purchase land on New London Road on this map was Richard Simmons in 1848, and he appears on the map. Tracing transactions on Nottingham Road will help define the time period of the map.
 Rebecca J. Sheppard and Kimberly Toney, et al., “Reconstructing Delaware’s Free Black Communities, 1800-1870” (Center for Historic Architecture and Design, University of Delaware, September 27, 2010), 14-16, https://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/5647.
 Sheppard and Toney, et al., “Reconstructing Free Black Communities,” 16.
 Syl Woolford, personal communication, November 9, 2021.; Ross M. Kimmel, “Freedom or Bondage – The Legislative Record” in “Blacks before the Law in Colonial Maryland.” MA Thesis, University of Maryland, 1974. https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/speccol/sc5300/sc5348/html/title.html.
 Rathmell Wilson and Isaac Bacchus, August 26, 1844, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011, 5-7.
 Apprentice indenture of Isaac Black Baccus, February 26, 1831, Delaware Public Archives, Series 2555.32, Box 6, Folder 3.
 Thomas McIldoon and Griffen Sanders, October 11, 1847, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011, 420-421.
 Joseph Williams, White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware, 1860 United States Federal Census, and Betsey Williams, White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware, 1870 United States Federal Census, accessed via Ancestry.com.
 Joseph and Elizabeth Williams and Nathan Wrench, March 22, 1859, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011.
 Joseph and Elizabeth Williams and Charles Pierce, March 23, 1861, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011, 53-54.
 Charles Pierce and Betsey Williams, August 25, 1864, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011, 167-169.
 Isaac Bacchus and William Sanders, April 22, 1851, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011, 211-213.
 William and Eliza Saunders and Griffen Saunders, August 26, 1853, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011.
 Sheppard and Toney, et al., “Reconstructing Free Black Communities,” 16, 18.
 James S. Miles and Nathan Wrench, November 17, 1842, Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, RG 2555, Subgroup 000, Series 011, 105-107.