Slave burial ground discovery at Dickinson Plantation comes with 'heavy responsibility'
A single sentence from an old family document suggested that a slave burial ground with as many as 400 graves existed somewhere on Delaware's historic John Dickinson Plantation.
Until this March, there was fear the graveyard of the slaves who lived, worked and died on the plantation was lost to history.
But on March 9, researchers for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs believe they found a burial ground of "enslaved individuals and other African Americans" in a remote site on the John Dickinson Plantation.
They are now are grappling with the responsibility that comes with the historic discovery.
"This is about as significant of a discovery as people in the field of history can find," Tim Slavin, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said. "The significance of this was important to us. The heaviness of the responsibility that we now have was not lost on us."
For the past two years, state agencies have researched documents and scoured the 450 acres of the land the state owns southeast of Dover, trying to find the burial ground referenced in Dickinson family writings from the 1930s.
The researchers now have about 10,000 square feet of the property marked off for testing of the burial ground, where they have so far found 25 to 30 grave shaft features. Slavin said they have not exposed any human remains.
The plantation is the childhood home of founding father John Dickinson. Dickinson, who at times represented both Delaware and Pennsylvania, was seen as one of the most influential political thinkers and writers of the American Revolution.
He also was one of the state's largest slave owners. Eventually in the 1770s, Dickinson gave conditional freedom to his slaves, freeing them all by 1785.
John Sweeney, who wrote "Delaware's John Dickinson: The Constant Watchman of Liberty," thinks it's likely that not everyone buried there were Dickinson's slaves. The graves could date back to previous owners of the land.
"You have to keep in mind how long we are talking about," Sweeney said. "We are going beyond the revolutionary period. We are looking way back before the Dickinsons."
Researchers do not yet know the age of the graves or much about the people buried there. Based on artifacts they have found, they believe some of the graves are from 1700-1750.
"You always leave open the fact that there could be earlier or later artifacts that come out, and what we have in hand is artifacts from that time period," Slavin said.
What happens next
The next phase will be to do more research and try to locate descendants of the slaves buried there.
"We need to engage with people who will represent the slaves and represent the Black community, so we can all make the decision going forward for how we will treat this site and what further research is needed," the director said.
Sweeney, a retired editor from Delaware Online/The News Journal, hopes researchers can uncover the identities of the people who are buried there.
"They are the ones who built the country, and by finding this graveyard and developing it, we will add a little bit of humanity in recognizing the people who worked there and were enslaved," he said.
Slavin expects it will take years of research to find all the answers they are looking for. For now, there are no plans to expose the graves or excavate anything from them.
The burial ground is at a remote location that is not accessible to the public while fieldwork is still conducted, but eventually, the public will be allowed to visit the graves, Slavin said
"We need to create this as a moment in Delaware landscape where people can come and interact with the site in a meaningful way," Slavin said. "This is very sacred ground for Delaware, and will now always be sacred ground."
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