The Future of the Past at the Delaware Historical Society

A conversation with Delaware Historical Society's new director, David W. Young, about his career move, his plans for the society, and the relevance of a public history to public life.

Above: Front façade of the Delaware History Museum and the glass connector to the Old Town Hall, Wilmington, Del.  The connector was added during museum renovations in 2015. © 2015 Todd Mason, Halkin | Mason Photography LLC. Used with permission.

By Linda Shopes
David W. Young. Photograph by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography; courtesy Delaware Historical Society.

In June 2018, David W. Young, known to many in the Mid-Atlantic region as the innovative director of Cliveden and prior to that the Johnson House, both in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, became director of the Delaware Historical Society (DHS). The society, a private organization founded in 1864, includes six sites and facilities: the Delaware History Museum, the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, the Research Library, Old Town Hall, and Willington Square, all in Wilmington; and the Read House and Gardens in New Castle. In a series of email exchanges and a lengthy phone conversation with Linda Shopes, Contributing Editor for Cross-Ties,  Young discussed the reasons for his career move, his plans for the society, and the relevance of a public history to public life.

“I had been at Cliveden for twelve years and had accomplished many things I set out to do: Cliveden had become an important voice in the neighborhood and the field; the next steward had been identified for Upsala, a historic house across the street from Cliveden that we had managed for more than a decade; and Historic Germantown, a local partnership that Cliveden had also been involved with, was in good hands with a fulltime staff. At the same time, the Delaware Historical Society was seeking a transformation, a culture change. After spending years developing new core exhibitions and the Center for African American Heritage, during which the museum was closed for much of the time, the organization desired greater statewide and regional impact, as well as an enhanced national profile. The exhibits are outstanding, and the society has powerful collections and a unique story to bring to wider audiences—the issue is bringing them forward with the voices of the current staff and leadership in ways that serve the society’s larger goal.”

Entrance to the core exhibit, Discover Delaware, and the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, Delaware History Museum, Wilmington, DE. Courtesy Delaware Historical Society.

Young also identified recent developments that have opened up fruitful opportunities for the society:

“In 2017 the George Read House and Gardens, constructed between 1797 and 1804, was designated a National Historic Landmark, only the fourteenth such designation in the state. This gem of historic New Castle deserves wider recognition in the region for its stories, design, and centuries of stewardship. The society’s journal, Delaware History, has resumed publication after a period of dormancy, and we are excited to bring it back as platform for delivering content in ways that combine scholarly rigor with the passion of citizen historians. And DHS saw several senior, long-tenured staff leave in the last two to three years, leaving a large opportunity to replenish with new talent and energy.”

Other factors also played into Young’s decision to leave Cliveden and take the helm at DHS:

Cover design by Kate Nichols; used with permission of Temple University Press.

“I’ve been working hard on a book about the last hundred years of preservation and public history in Germantown, including the recent work of Historic Germantown and Cliveden. I got the final reviews for it and the green light to go ahead with it on April 9  [2018]; the following day I got the offer for this job. The thesis of the book—it’s titled The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America (Temple University Press, forthcoming, Fall 2019)—is that what we have done in Germantown provides lessons for other communities. In many ways it has been an incubator for best practices. So, when I received the go-ahead for the book, I felt like I had permission to leave Germantown and apply some of what we’d learned in other communities. So here I am in another community with an opportunity to bring some of those lessons and see the degree to which they apply to Delaware’s public history.”

The lessons from Germantown that Young seeks to apply to Delaware include broadening public history to include diverse people and experiences; collaborating with stakeholders and co-historical and cultural organizations to develop new, often challenging stories; and connecting these stories to contemporary concerns. As he explains it, these modes of practice are coming together in DHS’s focus on the history of education in the state:

“This is a major story in Delaware history that already is a big part of our exhibition at the Center for African American Heritage. It is also the source of much great work in local public history and preservation. We have two important Delaware education stories with national resonance: the eighty-eight DuPont Schools funded by philanthropist Pierre S. DuPont in the 1920s, which compensated for the state’s failure to ensure proper facilities to educate African American children; and two school desegregation cases argued in 1951 that became a part of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. DuPont schools were different from the South’s Rosenwald schools [for African American children], in that the DuPont schools were about educating the workforce [as opposed to uplift]. And the efforts to integrate the public schools were deemed legal earlier than Brown in the State of Delaware. As a result, and ironically enough given the state’s legacy of segregation and racial disparity, Brown vacated several existing state laws and decisions except Delaware’s.

“There is also so much good work being done on the subject in a variety of communities from a variety of entry points. There are alumni groups of the DuPont Schools and of graduates of segregated high schools established in the 1950s. The DuPont Schools Preservation Network, comprised of advocacy groups dedicated to preserving and maintaining many of the fifty or so of those buildings still standing, bring an amazing passion to their work. We’re developing a series of education-related program initiatives with the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, which manages the state historic preservation program as well as several museums and historic sites. The historical society can provide an umbrella, connecting these groups horizontally, but also making the case vertically about how this state’s legacy of education is unique to the nation.”

In a 2013 interview with The Ultimate History Project, Young stated that “Cliveden is a place that tells the truth: that American history is difficult.” Asked if the education initiative could be a platform for looking at challenging issues the state is currently facing, his response was emphatic:

“It better be. Of course. That’s why it’s public history. Among the things we are looking at are the inequity of education in Delaware as well as in many other states, which is related to the way the tax base is set up and how schools get funded. There is also the school-to-prison pipeline. And the need for more meaningful jobs programs and skills training, where nontraditional educational facilities like a historical society can fill a need. Delaware has many active agencies and entrepreneurs working to address these issues, often in isolation. A historical society can provide a sort of commons to consider new research, invite different perspectives where people can look, together, at a past that doesn’t always reflect well on society or ourselves.”

The society’s education initiative also has the potential to extend further into the history of race and the legacy of slavery in Delaware:

“Bryan Stevenson, who founded the national memorial of lynching [National Memorial for Peace and Justice], is a Delaware native. He received the History Makers Award from DHS a few years ago. This project includes county-by-county memorials to some 4,400 people it has documented as having been lynched. One of its goals is to have those markers reconstructed or relocated in each county to commemorate the events that happened in that county.

Whipping post and Kent County Jail in Dover, DE, ca. 1910. Courtesy Delaware Historical Society.

“Here’s the thing: ironically enough, the home state of the man who founded this path-breaking initiative presents a unique problem for historians because as a border state Delaware was not required to report to the federal government incidents of racial terrorism under Jim Crow during Reconstruction. As a result, much of the evidence of—how to put this as bluntly as possible?—a lot of people don’t know the many cases of racial terrorism, including lynchings, that happened in Delaware. Or the fact that up until the 1970s there were three whipping posts, one in each county prison in Delaware. And keep in mind that a memorial to the Confederacy was installed in Georgetown, Delaware, in 2008—for exactly the same reasons that such memorials were installed in 1893 and 1908 and 1923.

“So Delaware is missing from Stevenson’s national memorial, and we have a high-level partnership developing very quickly about how to memorialize these incidents in Delaware. But we have to find them out first, because the records the Equal Justice Initiative has consulted don’t include Delaware. Yet in my brief time here, I’ve already found three incidents of lynching, two of which have been published in Delaware History.[1] These go back a few years, but the articles make clear that communities have records of this, whether in newspaper accounts or in other documents, and we’re going to find them. Along the way we can provide skills training for younger people to help with research in the archives or on-line data bases or in the oral histories that abound in the state. Then we’ll see how we can connect the dots and bring this information forward in a way that says, ‘We didn’t know this happened, and what should we do to tell these stories?’ Because a lot of my work over the last twenty years has made clear that if we share research in a respectful and welcoming way and invite people to discuss it, we can learn more together about what to do with it, and what it means now.”

Young elaborated on ways of managing difficult history in public history settings:

“I’m under no illusions, but I also know that people are eager to talk about tough stuff in history, and if we do it right, we can learn together. How should I say this—the status quo is the riskiest option for organizations like mine. And if there is protest, that is energy. The things we can agree on in history, like dates the Civil War occurred, are the least meaningful. It’s the things we don’t agree on that we need to be discussing. And history provides a way—whatever else someone might say, we have the evidence. So, what’s the protest? Are you going to protest that two thousand people watched a man be burned alive in 1903, in Wilmington, in New Castle County? And how are we going to remember that? What does that mean to people today? But we have to be careful and thoughtful and intentional in the process. The key is a triangle of trust between board, community, and staff and also building out in ways that say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think? How shall we tell it?’ And keep going.”

Young also reflected on how a better understanding of Delaware’s unique history could enhance the state’s national profile:

“Delaware has many contradictions:  It has an industrial, wealthy, urban north centered around Wilmington and an agricultural, small town south. Its colonial history, including Swedish, Dutch, and English settlers, is remarkable, international, and very old. The state is also loaded with commercial and mercantile history and later, industrial, immigrant, and legal history, all with important implications for American history. Delaware is the ‘first state’ for some things, like ratifying the Bill of Rights, but it did not ratify the Civil War Amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—until 1901. It was a southern slave-holding state in the Union that didn’t vote to secede but didn’t really claim an antislavery narrative. Yet because of its location between Maryland and Pennsylvania, it also has deep roots in the Underground Railroad. Most Delawareans know these complexities about their state, but not all of the nation does. So I see an opportunity to take the history beyond boosterism and become more prominent on the map of American public history. And perhaps one of the ways to think about what makes Delaware unique, beyond the usual trope of urban versus rural, is to consider the legacy of the plantation-based economy and its relationship with the urban area that is Wilmington and the smaller industrial towns around it.”

DHS collections support this interpretation, he added:

“One of the reasons this job appealed to me so much is how its collections represent five centuries of diverse people in the region, including many whose stories are not widely known. The DHS includes the Mitchell Center for African American Heritage and is in active discussion to use one of its buildings to host the Jewish Historical Society, whose archival collections are in the holdings of our library. Unlike many collections in Delaware that represent one wealthy person’s passions, the DHS has objects and papers that represent a far greater range of perspectives. The diversity of our buildings also speaks to the peopling of the region. The Read House on our New Castle Campus, one of the few National Historic Landmarks in Delaware, is a remarkable gem from the commercial era, an incredibly modern house in many ways for 1804. A 1940 Woolworths houses the museum; a 1930 art deco bank, the library and archives. Then there’s Old Town Hall, built from 1798 to 1800, and Willingtown Square, four colonial era buildings saved from demolition during urban renewal and relocated around a little square in a preservation setting. The use of a Woolworths building for the museum also gives us an opportunity to message adaptation as a key factor in successful preservation and conservation; in other words, the responsible management of change is how buildings are given new life.”

”More generally, we have 2.5 million items, and several tens of thousands of them are material culture. We have forty-seven letters from Alexander Hamilton in his own hand to Dr. James Tilton, Surgeon General of the United States Army during the War of 1812. We have a remarkable collection of Revolutionary War materials, including a piece of George Washington’s boat that crossed the Delaware and the flag British Captain William Dansey captured from a Delaware militia unit a few days before the Battle of Brandywine, which we’re in negotiations to loan to the Museum of the American Revolution for an exhibition beginning in late August. To say nothing of the Civil War records or the Delaware-iana that reflects five centuries. I’m also stoked to know that I now work at a museum that displays an image of Nixon on the beach in its core exhibition in which he’s not wearing a coat and tie; has a spacesuit manufactured by ILC Dover in its collection; and plays host to a reggae festival each summer because Bob Marley lived in Wilmington when he worked in a factory nearby.”


Richard and Pat Nixon and daughters Julie and Tricia on a Delaware beach, summer 1952. Nixon was then senator from California and the running mate of Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. Courtesy Delaware Historical Society.
Revolutionary War flag captured from Delaware militia by British officer William Dansey following skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge, Newark, DE, ca. 1777. Courtesy Delaware Historical Society.










Young envisions bringing more public attention to exhibits:

“One goal is to make some elements of our core exhibit a bit more interactive—we could have fun doing that. Pop-ups that show more of the collections and speak to themes in exhibits are one possibility; also residencies in the exhibits—we have a number of spaces to activate that are part of the new construction connecting the museum with Old Town Hall. But exhibits are one of several platforms for delivery of content in exciting ways. Given its wonderful acoustics and capacity for hosting meetings and events, we could do some site-specific programming related to trials and meetings that were held there, like meetings having to do with the Underground Railroad or abolitionist meetings.”

Front entry of George Read II House and Gardens, New Castle, DE. Courtesy Delaware Historical Society.

Bringing Young’s work full circle are the connections he made between Delaware, his former workplace Cliveden, and Germantown:

“Some of the richest soil in the country lies in southern Delaware, and wealthy landowners like the Chews [owners of Cliveden for nearly two hundred years] knew that. When we first started research on the family in the 1970s, we knew of one plantation that they owned. We now know of nine, and the largest ones are in Delaware, Whitehall and Home Plantation near Dover. Chew girls intermarried with many families that have legacies in Delaware, like the Ridgelys, the Canbys. The Underground Railroad came through Kent County and Wilmington, and there are connections to Germantown that way. A freedom seeker from Delaware named John Tilghman ended up joining the U.S. Colored Troops at Lucretia Mott’s place in LaMott, near the Johnson House. He was bought into freedom by the Dugles family, who owned a boarding house in Germantown. And the Dugleses helped one of the Chew ladies escape a violent altercation with her brother at Cliveden. One way to look at it is to see the whole region as one story, much like when I left the Johnson House to take the Cliveden job and realized that the Underground Railroad station—the Johnson House—was built by the same man who built the Chew mansions, slave owners’ mansions. If Cliveden is part of this regional connection to a plantation economy and Underground Railroad activity, the region is one story. And when I came in as a candidate for this job and took a look at DHS’s exhibits, I saw that one of the first things in the African American Heritage Center is stories of slavery at the Chew plantation at Whitehall, and that’s based on an article that our research at Cliveden had uncovered and published in the Delaware history journal.[2] So there’s a lot of overlap. Another way to look at it is my intellectual as well as my professional interests helped this job make sense.”



[1] Yohuru Williams, “’Revenge in the Most Terrible Manner’: The Lynching of African American Civil War Veteran William ‘Obie’ Evans,” Delaware History 34, no. 1 (Fall 2013/Winter 2014): 33-60; and Dennis B. Downey, “’Mercy, Master, Mercy’: Racial Politics and the Lynching of George White,” Delaware History Journal 30, no. 3 (2003): 189-210 . See also Yohuru Williams, “Permission to Hate: Delaware, Lynching, and the Culture of Violence in America,” Journal of Black Studies 32, no. 1 (September 2001): 3-29.

[2] Philip Seitz and John Reese, “The Slaves of Whitehall Plantation: A True Story of Defiance and Resistance,” Delaware History 33, no. 3 (Spring/Summer 2011): 123-140.