Our mission here at the Delaware Historical Society is to explore, preserve, share, and promote Delaware stories. You may think this only includes high-profile people like senators, CEOs, or members of prominent families, but much of what we have in our collections comes from “ordinary” Delawareans. To accurately represent the past, we need to hear diverse voices, from those in powerful positions to those just going about their daily lives. This week for American Archives Month, we’re highlighting some of these stories in our collections!
William H. Furrowh
Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1896, William H. Furrowh attended Howard High School but eventually dropped out. In 1917, he was drafted into the army. While stationed in France, he met troops from the North African countries of Algeria and Morocco, an experience which sparked a passion for black history. After the war, Furrowh became involved with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He organized a Wilmington chapter, and by 1922, it boasted about 400 members. Furrowh spent most of his career as a boiler-maker with the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he advocated for equal rights and fair pay. His collection of letters, photographs, and postcards give us a glimpse into the life of a Delaware family caught up in World War I. The later items provide invaluable evidence of the grass-roots struggle for civil rights throughout the mid-twentieth century. Furrowh’s life is a great example of an “ordinary” person doing extraordinary things.
The Ryan Family
Sometimes average people find themselves at the center of a historic event. This was the case of the Ryan family who resided at 821 Adams Street in Wilmington. In the early 1960s, the family found their home in the path of the proposed Interstate 95 construction. A legal process ensued, the state purchased the property, and the Ryans became the last to move from the interstate’s path. Their papers document this transaction, and also help to tell a number of other stories. The scrapbooks of brothers Charles and Frank Ryan, kept to memorialize their athletic achievements, contain a great deal of information on sports in Wilmington, as well as the interests and hobbies of young men. In addition, Frank Ryan’s photograph collection provides excellent images of everyday life in Delaware during the early twentieth century.
Aletta Clowes Clarke
Seemingly ordinary stories can become fascinating when they offer a unique perspective. The life of Aletta Clowes Clarke is a perfect example. Aletta Clowes was born in Milton, Delaware in 1768. Her father, John, was a musket-master in the American Revolution. She later married Miers Clarke and the couple had eight children. They lived on a farm near Milton and belonged to the Methodist faith. Aletta’s collections of diaries and family correspondence span her adult life, recording daily activities of family and friends, religion, children, illness, and death. Not only do they detail the experiences of a family living in southern Delaware at the turn of the 19th century, the collections provide a rare voice from a time and place when few women were literate. During her life, Aletta was interested in a number of intellectual endeavors including religion and science. Her husband died in 1810, and she spent her later years in debt due to the poor agricultural yields of her fields.
All of these stories occupy a unique place in the larger Delaware narrative. Remember, we are always interested in collections that fit our mission and tell a new story. If you have items you’d like to donate, please make an appointment to see one of our curators!