Twenty five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Historical Society of Delaware mounted an exhibit to commemorate this significant event in our history. “Opening the Door to Freedom” opened on November 19, 1989 on the first floor of the Old Town Hall Museum. The exhibition represented a collaborative effort between the historical society, the City of Wilmington, and the Wilmington Civil Rights Commemorative Commission. It was the first major exhibit to discuss the history of the black experience in Delaware.
“Opening the Door to Freedom” focused on the struggle for equality in Delaware beginning with the arrival of the first slave in 1638 and covering slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the period of Jim Crow, through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Items featured in the exhibit came from the collections of the Historical Society of Delaware, the Delaware State Archives, as well as the personal collections of James Baker, Littleton Mitchell, and Pauline Young. Additionally, the Society offered educational packets for classroom exploration, a lecture series, and special programs for adults and children.
The exhibit also provided an opportunity for the Society to uncover new insights hidden within existing collections. The Society’s spring 1990 newsletter reported that, upon closer examination of cards from a Civil War draft in Sussex County, that both slaves and free blacks in Delaware were eligible for army service. Likewise, the William Furrough Collection shed light on the experience of African Americans in World War I through photographs, papers, and other memorabilia.