As nation grapples with symbols and equality, Delaware to remove public whipping post


Xerxes Wilson

Delaware was the last state to stop tying people to whipping posts and lashing their bare backs as criminal punishment, so recently that witnessing a beating is still a memory for some. 

On Wednesday, less than 50 years after Delaware rid its laws of the punishment, the whipping post displayed on public property in Georgetown for decades will be pulled from the ground and tucked in a warehouse.

State officials said the eight-foot tall concrete post standing beside the historic Sussex County Courthouse on The Circle will be removed "in recognition of the violence and racial discrimination that its display signified to many Delawareans."

The post was first used to bind people for beatings at what is now the Sussex Correctional Institution. Delaware whipped people, disproportionately Black people, until 1952 for many crimes ranging from petty theft to rape in what often were public displays outside local jails and prisons.

The post in Georgetown was put on display on The Circle in 1993, about two decades after Delaware formally remove whippings from its criminal justice laws in 1972. Since then, it has been referenced as an attraction in articles and advertisements about the town's history.

It's believed to be the last such post on display outside a museum or education building in the state. Some see it as a monument to brutality carried out under the law. 

"People should not have to ride by and be reminded of the atrocities that people faced at some points in Delaware’s history," said Jane Hovington, a Georgetown resident who has advocated for the post's removal.

Hovington, who is also treasurer for the Delaware NAACP, said advocates began lobbying state officials to take down the post months before the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis Police Officer in May. 

Floyd's death set off protests against police brutality and publicly celebrated symbols that are at odds with racial equality. This weekend, Mississippi lawmakers agreed to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state's flag after decades of ebbing and rising protests.

Closer to home, Delaware officials removed the statue of Caesar Rodney, famously a signer of the Declaration of Independence and infamously a slaveholder, from its iconic overlook of Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington. That was shortly after removing the city's statue honoring Christopher Columbus on Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Advocates like Reba Hollingsworth, a native Delawarean, Dover resident and educator, say "inhumane" relics like the post belong in a museum, not displayed in public nor destroyed. 

"Down the road, after I am long gone, people will not believe some of the things that did occur in that period," Hollingsworth said in a telephone interview Monday. "If you put them in museums and teach Black history, they will understand some of these things." 

In her 90s, Hollingsworth's recollection of Delaware's relationship with the whipping post began in the 1930s. She was living with her family in Milford. He father used to take her and her siblings on errands. 

One Saturday, when she was around 10, their trip took them within sight of the old Kent County Jail at New and Water Streets in Dover where a crowd had gathered. They approached and peered through a wire mesh fence and saw a man shackled against a post

I remember the silence of the crowd and each time (the warden) would give him the lash he would count the number of lashes," said Hollingsworth, who is vice chair of the state's Heritage Commission.

She remembers the man, who was white, would wince and cry out. 

"It was the lashes I remember and the cracking on this man’s naked back," she said. 

By then, Delaware's use of the post was already the subject of dark awe and ridicule in the newspapers of other states. Thirty years before that, most states had abolished the punishment and regarded it as inhumane and ineffective in deterring crime, according to the writings of longtime Delaware reporter Bill Frank. 

The practice was brought with Delaware's earliest European settlers and lasted more than three centuries. The first recorded whipping took place in 1654 for the crime of "seditious utterances against the British rule in the Delaware Valley,"

Frank wrote. 

Most often, custom dictated that a cat-o'-nine tails — a broomstick-like handle with nine 2-foot-long leather thongs — was used to administer the beatings. They were sometimes doled out for what many would consider petty crimes like stealing a chicken and often accompanied a prison sentence. 

For a period, both men, women and children as young as 10, were flogged. Later the law was changed so, in addition to men, only black women would be lashed. In 1889, the whipping of women was outlawed altogether, Frank wrote. 

There is no official count of how many people were flogged by the government in Delaware.

Robert Caldwell, former head of the sociology department at the University of Delaware, wrote "Red Hannah, Delaware's Whipping Post," which published in 1947 and looked at 45 years of data on whippings in the First State. 

He found that between 1900 and 1945, 1,604 whippings were administered by the law in Delaware.

People off all races were subject to flogging, but like prison populations of Delaware and the United States today, Black people disproportionately found themselves subject to that punishment. 

Caldwell wrote that some 68 percent of those beaten were Black during a period when Black people comprised less than 20 percent of the state's population. The flogged were most often farm hands or unskilled laborers, were often whipped multiple times and were also not less likely to commit another crime — undercutting the idea that the post was a deterrent, Caldwell argued. 

Hollingsworth said family members would talk about it. She recalls how it was often poor people accused of petty property crimes that got the lash. She described the post as a "negative symbol for Black people."

"When you see it all the time, it is just a reminder of a hateful past," she said. 

Use of the post was frequently debated in Delaware for at least a century, but even as other states had abandoned it, Delaware politicians clung to the whip. 

The post in Georgetown is currently accompanied by an informational placard

that soft-plays the prominence of the punishment in Delaware, advocates for its removal note.

It states the last whipping in Sussex County occurred in 1903. In reality, the last person to receive the government-sanctioned lash in the southern most county was in 1950, according to The News Journal archives.  

The Georgetown Historical Society, which was responsible for erecting the post, did not return a phone call seeking comment. 

The final lashes were administered by Delaware in 1952, when a prisoner was tied to a post in the yard of the New Castle County Workhouse, Greenbank Park today, and whipped 20 times for beating a woman.

A judge again sentenced a man to a whipping in the 1960s, casting Delaware as the subject of another round of out-of-state pillorying. Ultimately, and after a protracted legal battle, the man was spared the lash.  

The law remained on the books until then-Gov. Russell Peterson signed a complete revision of Delaware's Criminal Code, the last overhaul to occur, in 1972, banishing the post to history. 

Museum displays have featured different Delaware whipping posts since then. That's the likely future for the Georgetown post. Tim Slavin, director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said the post is appropriate for the state's collection of artifacts. 

"It’s quite another thing to allow a whipping post to remain in place along a busy public street – a cold, deadpan display that does not adequately account for the traumatic legacy it represents," Slavin said in a written statement through a spokesperson. 

While not on public display, posts that were part of Delaware's history are still around. The last post used in Kent County is already a part of the state's collection in a warehouse in Dover.

A reporter and photographer for The News Journal touring an abandoned farm house on the grounds of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna earlier this year encountered a long-forgotten whipping post from Kent County's jail in the building's basement

The last post used in New Castle County doubled as a support post for a shed at the county workhouse, a closed prison facility off Kirkwood Highway west of Wilmington.

At least a portion of it was sold at an auction for the Smyrna-Clayton Heritage Association in 2006, according to Delaware State University political science professor Samuel Hoff. He said he won the auction for a piece of it, which is now displayed in the Law Studies Office at Delaware State University. 

While the post is making a quiet exit from public display, activists continue to pressure the Georgetown Historical Society to remove a confederate flag from a 6-foot-tall stone monument honoring Confederate soldiers outside the Marvel Museum on private property in the town

HISTORY OR HATE? As historical monuments fall nationwide, Delaware grapples with what these symbols represent

Hollingsworth said removal of the post is a "sign of the times" as the public becomes more aware its past. She said it should accompany education toward a more full understanding of the state's heritage and action to right wrongs. 

"All of this needs to be continued. There ought to be bigger actions," she said. "There must be dialog.

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