In 1813, Peter Spencer established the first independent African American religious denomination in the United States. Spencer and other remarkable black Delawareans of his generation asserted their people’s right to liberty, autonomy, and equality through the creation of churches. Their actions challenged the United States to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Our upcoming exhibit, Forging Faith, Building Freedom, will explore and celebrate these diverse African American faith experiences. We are working with some outstanding church leaders from around the state who have lent objects, photographs, and other materials to help bring this story to life.
We have also utilized many items from our own collections. Of particular interest are the Zebley photo albums. During the 1930s and 1940s, Frank Zebley traveled the state researching and photographing all of the active churches he could locate. His book, The Churches of Delaware, was published in 1947. A great many of them are African American churches and Zebley’s exhaustive research provides concise histories of each congregation. Although his photographs often show only the exterior of the buildings, they manage to capture a glimpse into the congregational life.
Without Zebley’s albums much of this history would be lost. In the foreword of his book, Zebley writes, “Some churches have excellent records but many of the churches have no records or poorly-kept ones. Some church records have been destroyed in fires, while in extreme cases, the records have been loaned to unidentified persons and not returned.”
We hope that this exhibit and the research we have put forth will fill in some of the gaps in this very significant and remarkable story. Please stay tuned for other behind-the-scenes action on Forging Faith, and we hope you’ll be there to celebrate its opening on September 26, 2013!