On the First Friday of each month the Historical Society of Kent County in Chestertown hosts the history happy hour, a special time for blending a social mixer with local history. Guests at these well attended programs sip on wine and snack on light refreshments, before an informative and enjoyable lecture gets underway. We attend many of these popular events because of the quality of the speakers.
This month, Dr. Steve Newton of Delaware State University presented a carefully researched and powerfully delivered examination of the story of Obie Evans, a member of the United States Colored Troops. The military history professor’s powerful analysis examined the problems of acceptance of African-Americans in the Union Army and the problems of violence in the post-Civil War era border state, through the presentation of this wounded veteran’s story.
The speaker shared an absorbing narrative about the journey of Evans from a slave to murder victim in his quest for independence. Living in the Fredericksburg area, this freedom seeker claimed his independence under the Emancipation Proclamation, and eventually joined the 20th division, Company E, of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). On July 30, 1864, the private was badly wounded during the Battle of the Crater, outside Petersburg, VA. Three years later, he had made his way to Delaware, but on July 24, 1867, residents of Leipsic found his body hanging from a willow tree.
Until a systematic investigation of Delaware lynchings was undertaken by Yohuru Williams, formerly a Delaware State University professor, the state’s history books reported that an incident at the New Castle County Workhouse in 1903 was the only incident in the First State. Questioning this assumption, Professor Williams launched an investigation and did an extensive search of primary documents. In time, he uncovered at least three documentable lynchings during and immediately after the Civil War.
When Dr. Newtown noted his colleague had built the foundation for this new interpretation, he was asked how Delaware Historians lost track of this terrible crime. He responded that a title published by a historian in the first few decades of the 20th century romanticized the situation for African-Americans, reporting the Greenbank Workhouse Lynching was an abnormality as relations in the state were good.
Subsequent writers used what he termed the “authority rule.” They simply accepted what had been presented as the authoritative narrative without considering the face validity of the point or presenting facts and so additional critical evaluation of the assumption wasn’t done. As time went on the event faded from memory.
We are pleased that we caught this thoughtful, engaging program as Dr. Newton presented a largely untold story and made several points about the need to share the narratives of underrepresented people. Most of the men serving in the Civil War have not been represented in our histories and don’t have a voice in our present works, as the majority of materials come from the perspective of political and military leaders and those able to create the written record.
Thanks Dr. Newton for giving us lots to think about and thank you Historical Society of Kent County for regularly offering these well attended and enjoyable programs.