Delaware Civil Rights Advancement 2010-2019 – editorial
The following is an editorial by Dr. Sam Hoff, who the University’s Board of Trustees named Professor Emeritus last year:
CIVIL RIGHTS MILESTONES IN DELAWARE OVER LAST DECADE
by Dr. Samuel B. Hoff
Over the long history of the State of Delaware, there has been an inconsistent commitment to equality. That makes the decade which just ended especially gratifying to civil rights advocates. This article identifies and evaluates the top three milestones of the 2010s, including a slavery apology, passage of a same-sex marriage law, and the successful election and appointment of the first African American to the U.S. House of Representatives and Delaware Supreme Court.
Delaware’s schizophrenic past pertaining to slavery, actions during the Civil War, and the state’s more than 30-year delay in ratifying the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution continued into the 20th century with its support for racist policies. For example, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case on educational desegregation included a litigant from Delaware. In the 1990s, some members of the Delaware General Assembly attempted to discontinue affirmative action programs.
The contemporary impetus for a slavery apology dates to 1988, when the Federal government did the same for Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II. Following Virginia’s slavery apology initiative in 2007–timed to coincide with the state’s 400th founding–several states and both chambers of Congress passed resolutions on the topic. Within Delaware, in 2010 the Dover Human Relations Commission and the Faculty Senate at Delaware State University approved slavery apology resolutions, which led the Dover City Council to do likewise. After a six-year effort, the Delaware General Assembly passed a slavery apology resolution modeled after the Dover Human Relations Commission document. After the slavery apology signing by then-Governor Jack Markell on February 10, 2016, the pen used was later donated to a time capsule at DSU.
Being largely under control of states, marriage has always been treated somewhat differently among them. When same-sex marriage began to be discussed seriously in the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration backed the Defense of Marriage Act, which was designed to prevent those unions. In 2009, the Dover Human Relations Commission became the first public entity in the State of Delaware to consider a resolution supporting same-sex marriage, though only the chair of the commission approved that after prolonged discussion. Two years later, the Delaware
General Assembly approved a law which permitted civil unions, though not with the same rights afforded to couples in marriage. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, and in that same year Delaware passed a same-sex marriage law. Finally, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Over the years, Delaware has witnessed an increase in the number of African American elected officials at all levels. But it took a management consultant and nonprofit CEO, Lisa Blunt Rochester, to become the first black member of Congress from the state. She ran successfully for the lone U.S. House seat after John Carney stepped down to run for governor in 2016, and was reelected with 65 percent of the vote in 2018.
In 2019, former Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves was appointed to serve on the Delaware Supreme Court by Governor John Carney and subsequently confirmed by the Delaware Senate. Beginning her historic service on Jan. 1, she has the distinction of not only being the first African American to serve on Delaware’s high court, but the youngest to serve there as well.
Moving forward, Delaware certainly can do more to ensure equality and to prevent discrimination. The previous decade has provided the momentum for continued positive actions in this area.
Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at DSU. He chaired the Dover Human Relations Commission from 2005-2010.