Milford African Americans Helped Form City

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by Terry Rogers

When discussing Black History Month, much attention is paid to those who fought for civil rights and freedoms for all in the United States. People like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and others who forged the way for equal rights earned a special place in history. There are also many other African Americans who impacted this community as well as the surrounding area.

According to “Historical Etchings of Milford, Del, and Vicinity” by George Hynson, a Frenchman named Shivellier built a large frame house on Walnut Street and, after his death, the building housed shops before being moved to a lot on Front Street. Mr. Shivellier had other property in Milford, but he died without heirs. At the time of his death, he owned a slave named Dublin, who is described in the book as “coal black.” Dublin was given building lots on the corner of Walnut and Second Street as well as on Walnut Street near Second Street. Dublin lived on the corner property in a little shack that was about ten feet square. He worked at shaving bark and was described as a proud, aristocratic man.

Like most of the bark shavers, he carried a little brown jug of whiskey with him to work each day, and it was often empty at sundown. When the Temperance movement began, however, he and his colleagues put the jugs in baskets, carrying them on their shoulders. Upon his death, it was discovered Dublin had bequeathed the corner house and lot to Governor Peter Causey and the other lot to Reverend Trusten P. McColley, two of the wealthiest men in Milford.

The railroad arrived in Milford in 1859 and, for many years, Clark’s Tavern, a small frame house, was the only building at the terminal other than the ticket office, according to “A History of Milford, Delaware” compiled by the Milford Historical Society. Train travel was very popular with people using trains to get from one small town to another. In fact, Mrs. Clara Small, who was the wife of Lincoln’s founder, Col. Abel Small, travelled by train every Saturday from Lincoln to Milford to do her shopping, returning back to Milford by train in the afternoon. Traveling salesmen and other visitors stepped off the cars, some to do business in Milford while others waited for the next train to carry them to another destination.

At most stations, it was difficult to get something to eat in the short time the train was stopped. This was not the case in Milford, however. Mary Shockley, described as a “light-complexioned negress” in the book, appeared every day during early train times. She was immaculately clean with her hair wrapped in a white turban. She carried a small tray bearing cakes in three kinds – sugar, ginger and plain – in the shape of a horse. She also offered persimmon beer she brewed herself. Passengers came to know her well and looked forward to grabbing a snack at the Milford train station provided by Ms. Shockley.

In the 1870s, Billy Polk, an African American, became a necessity for any respectable funeral in the City of Milford. Billy, who was, at one time, valet to General VanVorst, had a very stately walk. When someone of stature died in Milford, Billy, dressed in a frock coat with white gloves and a hat, carried a silver tray with a folded slip of paper in an envelope. He would knock on the door of those who were invited to the funeral, allow them to read the invitation and then leave to make his next call.

The Milford Yankees were a Negro baseball league, managed by Frank Fountain. There is a legend that the great Satchel Paige played a game in Milford. One of the members of the Yankees was George Brown. He attended Delaware State College and was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1951. He injured his knee while serving in the Army in Korea, which effectively ended his career.

These African American citizens contributed greatly to the character of Milford today. Although their actions may seem small compared to those who fought for freedoms, they added to the history and culture that made Milford the diverse town it is today.