A single piece of paper that’s showing its age tells a story of the powerful and the powerless, of black and white, of freedom and slavery. People from Africa and their descendants have lived in Delaware since Black Anthony arrived as an indentured servant in 1639, but there is little documentation of their early experience here. In a document dated June 13, 1699, William Rodeney and William Moreton of Kent County agree to sell “three Good Likely Negro men Nott to Exceed twenty five years of Age” to William and John Stevens of Dorchester County, Maryland. This is the Delaware Historical Society’s oldest document relating to African Americans.
We can learn about the men who are named in the bond because their race, wealth, and gender put them among the members of society whose lives can be traced through written records. For example, William Rodeney (1660-1708) was among Kent County’s early elite. Grandfather of the famous Caesar Rodney, Rodeney came to the colonies around 1680 and to Delaware in 1681. Except for a few years in Lewes, he lived in Kent County. By 1704, he owned 7,000 acres of land. Rodeney was also a merchant, traveling to Barbados in 1688 and London in 1690. He became a community leader, serving in many local government posts, the Pennsylvania Assembly and Provincial Council, and as speaker of the first Delaware Assembly. Rodeney died in 1708, and his will did not include any slaves among the property he bequeathed. The Delaware Historical Society holds other documents relating to him, but this is the only one involving slavery or African Americans.
But what about the “three Good Likely Negro men?” We can’t learn anything about them from the document. It only tells us that the transaction was completed, so that William and John Stevens acquired three new enslaved workers. We don’t know the men’s names or stories, only that they were strong healthy males aged 25 or younger. We don’t know what it was like to live and work on the Stevens’ plantation. But we do know that the labor of these three men and others like them, and the profits from the buying and selling of enslaved people, contributed to the wealth and position that William Rodeney, William Moreton, William Stevens, and John Stevens enjoyed.
This document has power. To look at it, to read it, is to come face to face with a hard truth of our nation’s and Delaware’s history. That’s why the collections of the Delaware Historical Society and similar organizations are so important. The people of the past can’t speak to us directly, but by honoring and studying the documents, images, and objects they left behind we can learn about their experience, and use that learning to understand who we are today and how we can be better tomorrow.