Students, Delaware College, and the Exploited Labor of Black People

How did Delaware College benefit from the exploitation of Black labor in student family households?

By: Tara Lennon | Posted: 7-7-2022

There are many ways to investigate how Delaware College may have benefited from the exploited labor of Black people under slavery. This post will focus on the financials of the College in its earliest years, during the antebellum period. At this time, one of the most important sources of funds for the College was tuition paid by students. Determining whether the wealth of students and their families derived from participation in slavery and other forms of labor exploitation is therefore one avenue for investigating how the College was connected to the institution of slavery. This research zooms in on four students enrolled during the 1837-1838 school year, selected from the earliest available College records: Albert Emory, William Benneson, William W. Ferris, and Thomas Bell. Archival research shows that these students’ families benefited financially from the exploitation of Black people, and this wealth and power accumulated from the labor of Black people transferred to the College through their status as tuition-paying customers.

These four accounts do more than illustrate Delaware College’s ties to slavery. They also reflect the complicated systems of bondage in Delaware. Unlike some other slave states, in Delaware private acts of manumission were legal – but enslaved people were rarely freed unconditionally. Many were forced to serve what amounted to “extended pre-manumission indentures” – terms of service that extended their bondage well into their prime working years – and when finally free, faced limits on their civil and political rights.[1] Historian Patience Essay terms this condition “half freedom,” and calls into question census records that record the manumitted as “free black people.”[2] Additionally, many “free” Black people, especially children, were bound  by apprenticeship contracts, which theoretically bound them to labor for their masters in return for food, clothing, and some vocational training “education” – but in practice were far more exploitative. To reflect these complexities, this project adopts a wider understanding of how Black labor was exploited during the antebellum era, considering not only chattel slavery — that is the ownership of Black people as property — as a form of exploitation of Black labor for the benefits of white people, but also indentured servitude, low, unlivable wages, and apprenticeship contracts as forms of exploitation and unfreedom. Thus, the paper’s terminology will broadly utilize the term “exploitation” to capture these states of unfreedom. These four case studies show the complications of realizing freedom in a nation that was polarized on the subject of slavery, in a state that refused to legislate against slavery, and at a college that struggled for financial stability.

Albert Emory

1821-1886, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland[3]

Attended UD: 1837

Background: Thomas Emory (father) was an enslaver; census records from 1800-1840 show he held over 30 slaves; served in the Maryland State Senate[4]

After UD: Emory served in the pro-slavery Democratic party as a lawyer and advocate for the expansion of slavery, supporting the pro-slavery presidential campaign John C. Breckenridge in the election of 1860.[5] Also served as a Quartermaster Sergeant of the Confederate Army, 3rd Battery of Maryland Artillery[6]

From his family holding multiple enslaved persons to his own role in the Confederate Army, Albert was thoroughly in the pro-slavery movement and was a tuition-paying student in the year 1837-1838. Though it is not clear the reason he left Delaware College, it seems that he left a year later with his ideas about Black labor intact, as he went on to support  the proslavery cause during the Civil War. It’s unclear how Emory’s time at Delaware College shaped his views, or how Emory’s presence at Delaware College may have influenced the views of other students at Delaware College. But given the number of people the Emory family enslaved, as well as the the political power that his father, Thomas Emory, amassed in the state of Maryland, its clear the Emorys financially benefited from slavery,and thus, so did Delaware College, as Emory was a tuition-paying student, even if only for one year.

William Benneson


Attended UD: Graduated 1839[8]

Background: Thomas Benneson (father) listed with one “free colored person” in 1840 in Delaware[9]

After UD: Member of the 78th regiment of Illinois infantry, Union Army[10]

In his life after Delaware College, as he graduated in 1840, William moved to Quincy, Illinois and worked as a lawyer. The available census records from this period of his life indicate that Benneson did not own any enslaved people, indentured servants, or employ any other type of in-home Black workers. Additionally, Benneson fought in the Civil War for the Union Army, beginning in the August of 1862. In the 78th regiment of the Illinois infantry, he served as a colonel up until September 1863. Surviving the war, he ended up dying on January 27th, 1889 at the age of 71 in Quincy.

The story of Benneson, especially in comparison to that of Emory, illustrates the diversity of upbringings that came into contact at Delaware College. He fought in the Union army and lived the remainder of his life without directly utilizing enslaved labor, building wealth as a lawyer. This raises questions about how different upbringings may have come into contact during the 1830’s at Delaware College: did these students engage in debate over these issues, or did they let these differences exist without any discussion? While some students clearly and directly benefited from the labor of Black people, other students had less first-hand experience with this practice. While Benneson comparatively engaged less in the exploitation of Black labor, he still benefited from exploitative practices by participating in an economy linked to these slavery.

William W. Ferris


Attended UD: Graduated 1839[12]

Background: Jacob Ferris (father) was an enslaver from 1800-1850[13] and politician of the Democratic Republican Party and served as a commissioner of the Levy Court and the Court of Appeals in New Castle County.[14]

After UD: Ferris was a member of the anti-slavery Republican Party 

William Ferris graduated in 1839 from the College. Census records indicate his father exploited Black labor during and after William’s time at Delaware College. Census records indicate both slaves and “free” Black people in the household, which potentially follows a trend toward manumission and mixed forms of Black labor in white households in Delaware.[15] William Ferris, however, does not seem to be involved with any indentured servants,enslaved people, or any other forms of exploited Black labor after he left Delaware College.[16] In September of 1867, Ferris may have attended an assembly at the Wilmington Institute, which was in favor of recognizing Black people as equal citizens under the law.[17] Additionally, William Ferris may have presided over a meeting of members of the Republican Party in Stanton in 1872, according to the Wilmington Daily Commercial.[18]After his death in 1873, his obituary appeared in the Delaware Republican, further indicating that Ferris may have aligned with the party defined by its opposition to slavery.[19]

William Ferris’s story provides an example of how some local students who attended Delaware College interacted with the institution of slavery – and raises questions about how his time at Delaware College shaped his views about slavery. He entered the College with a family history of enslavement, but in the rest of life, did not seem to own any indentured servants or enslaved people and potentially even advocated for equal rights for Black people. Did his time at Delaware College encourage him to make this decision? Or was this decision a result of the changing times in Delaware that made slavery less economically viable? 

Thomas Bell


Attended UD: Graduated 1839 [21]

Background: Samuel Parson Bell (father) was an enslaver, with 3 total enslaved people in his household, and 1 free “colored” person.[22] He was also a leader in the local education system, a trustee of Delaware College, and was the superintendent of a neighboring female seminary in Newark.[23]

After UD: Worked with his father at the female seminary

Senior Thomas Bell was the son of Samuel and Mary Bell. His father was an enslaver and an influential citizen, holding several community positions, including as a Trustee of Delaware College. Census records indicate Samuel Bell likely acquired enslaved people at some point between 1830 and 1840[24] By the time of the 1850 census, however, it seems that Bell is no longer directly enslaving Black people; but his household includes free Black people — 28-year-old Harriet Williams and 21-year-old Henry Evans.[25] In 1855, Samuel Bell died and in his will, he stipulated that the entirety of his estate, worth $9,000 at the time, should go to his sons,including Thomas.[26] Therefore, Thomas directly benefited from the wealth his family accumulated from slavery beyond just being a dependent in the household as a child. After his time at Delaware College, it seems that Thomas worked with his father in some capacity at his female seminary. Thomas moved to Rockingham County, Virginia, at least by the year 1857.[27]

The history of Thomas and Samuel Bell presents an account of how Delaware College students interacted with the College beyond just being students. In the case of Thomas Bell, his father was not only a trustee at the College for a period but kept in close contact with those in power at the College after he left this position through his ladies’seminary. This makes the fact that Bell was an enslaver as of the 1840 census even more significant. The College not only benefited from the tuition dollars generated from enslavement that went from the Bells to the College, but also from the broader relationship between the Bell family and the College. 

The Legacies of Tuition and Enslavement

Together, the disparate histories of these four students at Delaware College in the same year tell a broader story about the relationship between students, their families, Black labor, and the College. These histories illustrate that the diversity of geographical and financial backgrounds brought students with widely differing experiences with the exploitation of Black people into contact, raising questions about how these students may have exchanged ideas with each other. What would happen in a conversation between Albert Emory and William Benneson, for instance? Would Emory have spread the sentiments of an enslaver to other students? Would other students have fought back against this rhetoric or just avoided the subject in order to maintain the peace? 

The College’s survival was based on wealth generated from the institution of slavery and from other forms of exploitation. College education was and continues to be a business where a consumer pays for a service, though only recently has college education been discussed in these terms. Therefore, the University today must acknowledge that the money that allowed the College to survive in the nineteenth century came from the exploited labor of Black people. The survival of the university today is in debt to the labor of Black people. The question of the ways in which Delaware College benefited and interacted with enslavement and other exploitative labor practices is one worth answering because it addresses the University of Delaware’s history of racial injustice and the legacies that this history has on the present day. 

Tara Lennon is a senior history and English double-major at UD from Newark, Delaware. Since coming to UD, Tara has been thoroughly involved with the student newspaper and has been a campus tour guide, a tutor at the UD Writing Center, and an intern for the UD Antiracism Initiative. 

[1] Patience Essah, A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638–1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 76. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Newark College, Newark, Del., 1837-8 (Philadelphia: William Stavely, No. 12 Pear street, 1838).

[4] “Thomas Emory (1782-1842),” Find-a-Grave, accessed via ; Thomas Emory and Thomas L. Emory, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, 1800 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Thomas Emory and Thomas L. Emory, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, 1800 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Thomas Emory and Thomas L. Emory, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, 1800 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Thomas L. Emory, Baltimore, Maryland, Ward 7, 1830 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Thomas Emory, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, 1840 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[5] “Things in Baltimore County,” The Daily Exchange, February 24, 1860, p.2.; “Messrs. Editors:—There were two large…,” The Daily Exchange, October 30, 1860, p.2.; “Breckinridge/Lane Democratic Ticket, Broadside, 1860,” Document Bank of Virginia, accessed via

[6] Albert T. Emory, U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865, accessed via; W W Goldsborough, The Maryland Line in the Confederate Army, 1861-1865 (1900), 296.

[7] “William Henry Benneson (1818-1899),” Find-a-Grave, accessed via

[8] Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Newark College

[9]  Thomas Benneson, White Clay Creek Hundred, Delaware, 1840 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[10] “Benneson, William H,” Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database, accessed via

[11] “William Whann Ferris (1818-1873),” Find-a-Grave, accessed via

[12] Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Newark College

[13] Jacob Ferris, Pencader Hundred, Delaware, 1800 United States Federal Census, accessed via;  Jacob Ferris, Pencader Hundred, Delaware, 1810 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Jacob Ferris, White Clay Creek Hundred, Delaware, 1830 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[14] Jacob Ferris, Pencader Hundred, Delaware, 1800 United States Federal Census, accessed via; “Notice is hereby given to…,” Mirror Of the Times, & General Advertiser, September 28, 1803, p.3.; 52 “Red Lion Meeting,” American Watchman, August 25, 1813, p.3.

[15] Jacob Ferris, White Clay Creek Hundred, Delaware, 1840 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Jacob Ferris, Pencader Hundred, Delaware, 1850 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Essah, House Divided, p.36.

[16] Edward Cleaver, Delaware City, Delaware, 1860 United States Federal Census, accessed via; Jacob Ferris, White Clay Creek Hundred, Delaware, 1840 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[17] “The Equal Rights Convention,” Delaware State Journal and Statesman, September 6, 1867, p.2; “Border State Convention,” The New York Times, September 13, 1867, p.1.; 

[18] “The Meeting at the Logan House,” Wilmington Daily Commercial, October 14, 1872, p.4; Though William Ferris likely was the person who attended this convention and attended these meetings of the Republican Party, there was another person, or potentially several people named “William Ferris” living in Delaware at this point in time, as indicated by the fact that a “William Ferris” appears in Delaware newspapers for years after the Ferris of interest’s death, as well as the fact that William Ferrises of other professions appear in Delaware newspapers, like a Ferris who owned a furniture store in Wilmington.

[19] “Deceased.— We learn with regret…,” Delaware Republican, June 23, 1873, p.2;

[20] “William Whann Ferris (1818-1873),” Find-a-Grave, accessed via

[21] Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Newark College

[22] Samuel Bell, White Clay Creek Hundred, Delaware, 1840 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[23] “The Authority of the State of Delaware…,” American Watchman, March 13, 1819, p.2.; John A. Munroe, The University of Delaware: A History (Newark, DE: The University of Delaware Press, 1983), 62,

[24] Samuel Bell, White Clay Creek Hundred, Delaware, 1830 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[25] Samuel Bell, Division 3, New Castle, Delaware, 1850 United States Federal Census, accessed via

[26] “Rev Samuel Bell (1776-1855),” Find-a-Grave, accessed via ; “Rev Samuel Bell.” Delaware, U.S. Wills and Probate Records, 1676-1971, accessed via

[27] “New Ark Female Seminary,” Delaware Republican, October 8, 1841, p.1.; “Thomas D. Bell.” Delaware, U.S. Land Records, 1677-1947, accessed via