A local historian, Sylvester Woolford, has been busy making interesting discoveries about Delaware’s African-American history. When the retired executive started he found that there wasn’t much to work with in the published literature, so he began piecing together the untold narrative. That intensive undertaking involved prowling through old graveyards, listening to stories of community tradition bearers, paging through aging newspapers, and poking into courthouse records. Out of all of this came one of his first studies, the United States Colored Troops, which Syl presented in a talk at the Delaware Archives a couple of years ago.
While figuring out how to navigate through special collections and the archives, he learned how to interpret centuries old manuscripts that unlocked the past while also noting the great need to fill the gaps in the state’s history. This caused the curious retiree to expand the scope of his inquiries. One of those additional studies was the “Iron Hill Genealogy Project,” which focused on the rural black community near the Mason Dixon Line south of Newark.
I recently caught the Iron Hill talk at the Wilmington Public Library, where he outlined research methods and findings. After determining what was already known, he asked residents to rummage through attics and open old shoe boxes in search of clues that could help detail a mostly undocumented past. A significant amount of oral history related to the school was already archived, so he drew on that. Another component involved weeks of work at the Delaware Archives, pouring over deeds, tax assessments, slave records, manumissions, poll taxes, census registers and other centuries old documents from the federal and state government.
Scrutinizing these scraps of paper, letters, newspaper clippings, official documents, equity filings, and much more, the puzzle came together. And Syl recently shared the community narrative in an engaging talk with an interested audience at the Wilmington Free Library. The settlement got its start in 1841 when three freedmen men bought 50 acres of land. The church opened, the population grew, and the school was built in the 1920s. When the talk was over, he patiently fielded questions about the village, what caused him to start this work, and the methods of the professions.
His scholarship is sound as the retired executive approached the research question with a precise tenured professor’s like style. The methods and strategies, all self-taught, were there, including patience, a precise research strategy, attention-to-detail, knowledge of public records and triangulation of findings. His work has already led to new knowledge about the African-American community in Delaware, as he fills in an important gaps in the state’s heritage and culture. Thank you Mr. Woolford for sharing your professional scholarship that shows others how to approach these subjects.
There is one more chance in February to hear the Iron Hill Genealogy Project. It’s being presented at the Dover LIbrary this Tuesday evening, Feb. 28, 2012. It’s an excellent chance to learn more about the community or to gain insight on how to go about your own research from a professional who has learned the methods in the field.