Slavery, Race, and Systemic Inequality at Delaware College, 1850-1859

How did the political setting of Delaware influence student discourse on the institution of slavery?

By: Margaret W. Hughes | Posted: 7-7-2022

Delaware College, the antebellum school that would later become the University of Delaware, was located at the intersection of North and South, and sat at the crossroads of national discussions around slavery, race, and union. Records from the 1850s indicate that students at Delaware College discussed slavery among themselves in formal and informal venues. And while College officials failed to make any statement of support in one direction or the other, the actions of trustees and faculty of the college show that they were powerful men who worked to preserve slavery – and minimize debate on the subject. 

One possible reason for Delaware College’s quiescent stance on slavery was the financial peril in which the school found itself in the 1850s.[1] Attendance had dwindled over the course of the 1840s, and by 1851 the school faced insolvency. Desperate for students and the revenue they would bring, the College was reluctant to make policy statements that could alienate potential applicants, especially those from Sussex County, where slavery remained entrenched, and points further south.[2] Delaware College was not alone in considering slavery in light of institutional finances; Princeton University actively sought to “make their southern students and slaveholding patrons feel welcome” on campus in the years leading up to the Civil War.[3]

Pro-slavery sentiment appears to have circulated within the student body at Delaware College. One source on this subject is the nine-year correspondence between Gideon Waples and John Lovell.[4] Both students came from strongholds of slavery–Sussex County, Delaware and Front Royal, Virginia, respectively–and from enslaving households. In November 1856, days after the presidential election, Lovell wrote of his “stump speeches” on behalf of newly-elected James Buchanan, a pro-slavery Democrat, before referencing a conversation with Waples years earlier: “I am henceforth a Democrat…you were right when we were at Delaware College together, and I was wrong—now we march with the only party that keeps step to ‘the music of the Union.”[5]

While Lovell and others may have evoked the preservation of the union as their political lodestar, the subtext of this position was really about the preservation of slavery. As early as 1842, future President James Buchanan heralded the Democratic party not just as one that tolerated slavery but indeed was “hostile” toward abolition.[6] Waples was pro-slavery throughout his time at Delaware College, and Lovell’s note shows that he has moved more toward Waples’s perspective. This letter fairly accurately summarizes Waples’ thoughts from their college years and conversations the two had at that time, likely in the midst of other students. That Lovell evokes conversations from five years earlier reveals the importance that he placed on conversations at school that shaped his own political ideology.

Among students, slavery was not limited to one-on-one conversations. Records for the Delta Phi and Athenean Literary Societies indicate that speeches often drew from national current events. Subjects for weekly debates included “Would the condition of the United States be improved by the formation of two republics—the Northern and the Southern?” and “Should the Missouri Compromise be reversed?”[7] Both these questions relate to the national conversation over the spread of slavery and the related question over whether “a house divided” could still stand.[8] These records also show frameworks for debating these political subjects: the Delta Phi constitution dictated strict policies and procedures for debate, stipulating, for example, that speakers should not “make any remarks on political subjects or on any other subject which may have a tendency to wound the feelings of any member.”[9] It is worth noting the casual privilege exerted by these men, some themselves enslavers, in turning discussions of slavery and race into opportunities for grandiloquence, rather than fundamentally reckoning with slavery’s inhumanity or the implications of exploitative labor.

This is not to say that the campus conversation around slavery remained abstract. In December 1853, a freedom seeker (a fugitive from slavery), sought shelter on campus. Student Joseph Cleaver, Jr. described this event in his journal, noting that the college president and Presbyterian minister Reverend W.S.F. Graham refused this request for aid, explaining that “the College must not break the law even when the law seems wrong.”[10] Cleaver’s story provides a concrete example of the school’s attitude toward slavery. By denying refuge to a fugitive from bondage, and instead upholding a law that was understood as immoral by antislavery activists, Rev. Graham would have taught the students a very specific lesson. 

Trustees’ actions provided additional examples that students would have seen. In their positions of power, trustees stood to lead conversations surrounding slavery and race, both on campus as well as in the state. In early 1841, trustees John Adams, John Clark, and Whitley Graham signed a petition in requesting laws “restraining the idle and roving habits” of free Blacks,[11] one petition out of many that were designed to preclude political agency of a growing free Black population.[12] Trustees also quashed anti-slavery discussion in Newark. In an article from the Pennsylvania Freeman in February 1852, anti-slavery speaker C.M. Burleigh reported that Rathmell Wilson, the President of the Delaware College Board of Trustees, and James L. Miles, Secretary and Treasurer of the College, had prevented him from speaking at the Odd Fellows Hall in Newark. According to Burleigh, Wilson claimed that “the subject of anti-slavery [was]…destructive to harmony and welfare of the community.”[13] An enslaver himself, Wilson had a vested interest in suppressing anti-slavery sentiment. Here, then, we see representatives from Delaware College’s leadership actively shaping the conversation relating to slavery in the college and in the community. As prominent citizens, the trustees’ actions would likely have been known and discussed among students, and would therefore have been part of the unofficial education at Delaware College.

What does this history mean for the University of Delaware today? While the university proclaims that it “exists to cultivate learning, develop knowledge, and foster the free exchange of ideas,” this examination of the school’s earliest years shows how faculty and trustees actively suppressed one of the most important conversations of the era.[14] Bringing this history to light is an important step in living up to the school’s mission – but presenting this information is not an end unto itself. Instead, we must consider how the university’s quiescent stance on slavery relates to larger patterns of inequality and exclusion within the school, even to the present day. Reports in the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries reveal that the university has fostered a hostile environment for many students of color and that as a result, the demographics of the school reflected an under-representation of Black students in relation to the population of Delaware.[15] This history is not static, then, but is tied to ongoing problems of racial inequity within the school. Only through reckoning with the past can the university fully understand its present and plan for a more equitable future.

Margaret Hughes is a PhD student in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She has worked for over fifteen years in education at art and history museums. She is a co-producer of the Webby-award-winning interactive documentary People Not Property: Stories of Slavery in the Colonial North.

[1] Irving Stoddard Kull, “Presbyterian Attitudes toward Slavery,” Church History 7, no. 2 (Jun., 1938), 113. 

[2] Patience Essah, A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638-1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 77.

[3] Martha A. Sandweiss and Craig Hollander, “Princeton and Slavery: Holding the Center,” Princeton and Slavery,  accessed 05/27/2022,

[4] The collection includes only letters sent by Lovell, not Waples’s letters to Lovell. Still, the letters demonstrate a sustained conversation, as Lovell references comments in Waples’s own letters, as in Lovell to Waples, November 22, 1854, Waples Family Papers, MSS 0402, Folder 6, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware.

[5] Lovell to Waples, November 9, 1856, Waples Family Papers, Folder 6.

[6] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 524.

[7] Delta Phi records, AR 15, Folder 10, UD Special Collections and Athenean Society records, AR7, Folder 4, UD University Archives.

[8] Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided” (speech, Springfield, Illinois June 16, 1858), National Park Service,

[9] Delta Phi Constitution, November 29, 1837. Delta Phi AR 15, Folder 9, UD University Archives. 

[10] Joseph Cleaver, The Diary of a Student at Delaware College, August 1853-November 1854, ed. William Ditto Lewis (Baltimore: J.H. Furst Company, 1951), 28. The handwritten journal has been lost to time, and the only known existing versions are transcripts.

[11] PAR #10384103: Petition of John Adams et al. to the Honorable the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Delaware, in General Assembly, January 30, 1841, in General Assembly, Legislative Papers Record Group: 1111, page 297-298, microfilm 297-298, accessed via the Race and Slavery Petitions Project. For this research I relied on the digitized petitions made possible via the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, so my sources were limited to the petitions on this site. This means that I did not access the full scope of petitions made to the State of Delaware, which might be related to slavery but categorized in such a way that they were not included in this database. There are no petitions by Delaware College board members in the 1850s in this database. This is an opportunity for further research. Race and Slavery Petitions Project, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, updated 2009, accessed December 29, 2021,

[12] Essah, A House Divided, 108-9.

[13] “From the Lecturing Field…,” Pennsylvania Freeman, February 19, 1852.

[14] “Mission Statement,” University of Delaware, University of Delaware, accessed May 30, 2022,

[15] Frank R. Scarpitti et al., Report to the President: The Black Student and the University of Delaware: Report to the President from the Advisory Committee on Policies, Programs, and Services Affecting Black and Other Minority Group Students. Newark, DE: University of Delaware, March 7, 1969; Mark Eichmann, “We Can Do Better on Diversity Says University of Delaware President,” WHYY, June 4, 2020,; Natalie Alamdari, “UD President: Lack of Qualified Students to Blame for Low In-State Enrollment,” Delaware News Journal, February 7, 2020.