When Old Town Hall opened in 1799 as the seat of government for Wilmington, Delaware, captured freedom seekers were held in the basement cells during the same period that the Abolition Society was allowed to meet in the building free of charge.
Unfortunately, no known sources tell us whether African Americans were involved in the construction of Old Town Hall.1 From the beginning, clubs and civic organizations used the building as a meeting place. Most paid a fee, but in 1799 the borough council allowed the fire companies and the Abolition Society to meet there free of charge, implying that men on the borough council supported abolishing slavery. Indeed, at least two council members were active in the abolitionist movement.2
The basement of Old Town Hall contained jail cells where all prisoners—white and Black, male and female, petty criminals and those accused of egregious offenses—were detained until they could be transferred to the county jail at New Castle. There was no heating until 1845, the lighting and ventilation were poor, and the cells were not well constructed. The first escape took place in 1818 when a Black man, possibly a freedom seeker, absconded without much difficulty.3
Local and national decisions affecting Black Wilmingtonians and those seeking freedom from enslavement were discussed in public meetings at Old Town Hall, including the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850.4 While the Missouri Compromise shaped the extension of enslavement in distant parts of the nation, the Fugitive Slave Law was a more immediate concern for Black Delawareans.
By 1850, the abolition of slavery had become an increasingly divisive subject, and there was debate whether Old Town Hall was an appropriate venue for such discussions. In February of that yar, the Delaware Anti-Slavery Society announced that its annual meeting would be held there, with the well-known Quaker orator Lucretia Mott among the speakers. After first granting the society permission to use the building, the mayor, objecting to the speakers, called a special meeting of the city council to cancel the permission. The meeting took place, but not at Old Town Hall.5
The Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution gave African Americans freedom and citizenship and allowed Black men to vote. This nationwide change did not have immediate effects at Old Town Hall, but the groundwork had been laid. By the end of Old Town Hall’s years as the seat of city government, Black Delawareans sat in the council chamber as elected members. Thomas Postles led the way, elected in 1901 and 1905. In 1913, John O. Hopkins was elected to his first term. He served for 32 years and made the move from Old Town Hall to the then-new City County Building at Rodney Square.6
Old Town Hall was purchased by the Delaware Historical Society in 1917. Today, it can be visited during the same hours as for the Delaware History Museum and the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage.
1 Wilmington Borough Minutes, City Treasurer’s Records, and transcribed accounts in Delaware Historical Society archives do not indicate that African Americans worked on the building, but the accounts give only the names of the main contractors. They do not tell whom the contractors employed.
2 Wilmington Borough Minutes, Dec. 28, 1799; Monte A. Calvert, “The Abolition Society of Delaware, 1801–1807,” Delaware History 10 (1962–63): 300, 302.
3 Wilmington Borough Minutes, Mar. 2, 1818; Annette Woolard-Provine, Heart of Wilmington: The Life and Times of “Old” Town Hall (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1990), 8.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 Delaware Gazette, Jan. 10 and Jan. 14, 1845; Delaware State Journal, Jan. 10, 1845.6Wilmington Sunday Star, Jun. 2, 1901; Donn Devine, Leaders of Wilmington: Principal Officers of the City of Wilmington, Delaware, 1832–2007 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2007), 78–99.