The 1968 Occupation of Black Wilmington

Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delaware, 2012 (Photo: Ron Cogswell, Flickr).

On April 8, 1968, several hundred residents of Wilmington, the largest city in the state of Delaware, marched through the streets in solemn remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr., whose funeral was held the following day in Atlanta, Georgia. Roughly 1,500 mourned that day, as they streamed in from various corners of the city—including all the city’s high schools—to converge on Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington. As the day’s events came to an end, some mourners expressed their grief and rage in the same way that many across the country had since King’s assassination four days prior—they unleashed violence on the symbols and systems closest to them that had enacted violence against them and against Black America more broadly. This uprising did not end the way the others had. At its close, this city, in which African Americans constituted roughly 40% of the populace, came under a nine-month occupation, “the longest military occupation of a U.S. city since the Civil War.”

Such a distinction might tempt a view of the occupation as anomalous, and surely, this little-known history of Wilmington is a case apart in many ways. Yet, it also helps us to see the through-lines of the “disregard for black life”, legal-system failures, trauma, and hyper-policing that draw together nearly every Black-led uprising of the mid-twentieth century. The occupation of Wilmington was an extended version of a logic at play across the country. Rather than hearing the grievances and grief of Black citizens after they were pushed past their breaking point, the state sealed off those citizens even further and policed them even more intensely.

State officials set the stage for an occupation in 1967. In early August Governor Charles Terry pushed Delaware’s General Assembly to approve amendments to the state’s code that set mandatory minimum sentencing of three years for convictions related to explosive devices, expanded the governor’s powers to declare a state of emergency, and allowed for “imposing criminal penalties for riots” on August 4, 1967.1

This legislation facilitated the occupation. As the mourning crowds dispersed from Rodney Square on April 8, 1968, some smaller groups of individuals began throwing rocks and bottles while some looted stores. A two-day disturbance followed. Fires broke out on the city’s westside, and rumors of snipers swirled. The Delaware National Guard was called in. By the time the uprising had been squelched, around 400 persons had been arrested, at least thirty persons were injured, and at least fifteen buildings had been burnt down.2 As the people left the streets, National Guardsmen remained—for nine months. Even after Wilmington Mayor John Babiarz requested their removal in early May, Governor Terry dug his heels in. The National Guard would stay “until people are no longer frightened or afraid,” he pronounced.3 Roughly fifty troops would stay and ride nightly in “radio-equipped jeeps” with Delaware State Troopers, who were authorized to carry out arrests.

Wilmingtonians knew immediately that the purpose of this occupation was to police the city’s Black folks. On April 29th, white National Guardsmen Joseph Murray shot an African American man, thirty-five-year old Douglas Henry. Henry died four hours after the shooting and Murray was not charged. After reports of faulty guns amongst the Guardsmen circulated, the NAACP and others argued that the safety of Black Wilmingtonians was obviously less assured under occupation.

In May, Terry expanded the occupation to include the campus of historically Black Delaware State College in Dover (fifty miles from Wilmington) following nonviolent student protests. Before the end of May, Terry closed the campus entirely, cancelled final exams, and kept Guardsmen on patrol.

Meanwhile, armed patrols in Wilmington over the summer came with constant harassment. When two reporters toured the city in July, Guardsmen threatened them or gave them the finger as they tried to take photos. One child told them, “They [Guardsmen] point their guns at you and call you black motherf***r.” Jet magazine reported that “a camera hobbyist” warned its own photographer, “You’d better not go out there and take any pictures. When I did, they pulled me over, snatched my camera and destroyed my film.” One resident told Jet, “I’ve seen them make insulting sexual remarks at Black women so many times, I can’t recall them all.” Two activist groups reported that police entered a home without a warrant as several Black minors were having a party, searched the home, arrested those present, and at police quarters forced the girls “to strip in front of male officers.”

Despite the fear and intimidation wrought by the troops, Wilmingtonians fought back. In the spring of 1968, local groups, newspapers, citizens, and churches took part in efforts to urge Governor Terry to withdraw the Guard. Because public gatherings were still barred, many turned to print sources and penned letters to Terry. In response to the shooting death of Douglas Henry, Wilmington NAACP President Roy Wagstaff warned Terry that “the reputation of your good office has been marred.” The War on Poverty-funded People’s Settlement Association related the concerns of many when it wrote that the Guard constituted “excessive force, selectively applied to ghetto residents.”

As Delaware State students faced repression, students at the majority-white University of Delaware came to their defense. Black students at the University of Delaware demanded the “immediate withdrawal of all military troops and personnel from the city of Wilmington,” calling the troops “an unnecessary intimidation of the Black community.” The University’s Student Government Association indicated to Terry that his “excessive and unnecessary control” had produced “ill feeling.”

Terry consistently maintained that most interlocutors wished the Guard to remain, and in late August he seized upon an arrest as “proof” that the Guard continued to be necessary. On August 31st, six young Black men, members of the Wilmington Youth Emergency Action Council (WYEAC), were carrying out their usual target practice at Cherry Island Marsh when they were arrested for using firearms within city limits. After a raid on WYEAC offices revealed more ammunition, the uphill battle against the occupation became steeper. Meanwhile, over the course of the occupation, but especially following the August arrests, roughly 140 WYEAC members were arrested.

Yet, as racist abuse from the Guard continued apace, Black Wilmington and its allies galvanized. Operation Free Streets aimed to see the Guard removed and got its start in October after a Guardsman hurled racial epithets at two Black teenagers. The organization was constituted by groups such as WYEAC, the People’s Settlement, and the Interdenominational Ministers’ Union of Wilmington. It held rallies and circulated a petition to remove the Guard on the grounds of it being unnecessary, expensive and “an embarrassment to city government.”4

As the Wilimington occupation began to garner national attention—including a spot on NBC’s Hunt-Brinkley Report in early October—this local mobilization gained friends outside of the state. The National Federation of Settlements wrote to Terry in support of removing troops. The Detroit-based People Against Racism joined with the Philadelphia-based National Emergency Committee Against Repression in Wilmington to raise awareness and circulate facts nationally, particularly to white leftists.

On November 5th, Terry lost his re-election bid by less than 2,500 votes to Republican challenger Russell Peterson, who later recalled “the National Guard on the streets was by far the biggest issue in my campaign.” Because Peterson refused to say whether or not he would remove the Guard, national and local groups amped up the pressure. Operation Free Streets burnt its petitions in a gesture that symbolized the futility of being heard by the state. White-led groups delivered messages and press releases to Delaware delegates and “performed guerrilla theater acts” around Christmas.5

Many of these groups came together in their final effort on January 21, 1969—inauguration day for Peterson. All that pressure may have made the difference. Within a week of his election, Peterson fired the head of the National Guard and dismissed the troops.

This summer, the artist Hank Willis Thomas commemorated the Wilmington occupation in a piece entitled Black Survival Guide, or How to Life Through a Police Riot. The piece is comprised of fourteen panels in which photographic negatives of the occupation are overlaid with text taken from the actual Black Survival Guide written in the 1960s. In its urgent tone and clear directives, this text repudiates any sense that an occupation could not happen—is not happening—elsewhere. A flash photograph of the panel reveals the positive print—and the 1968 occupation of Wilmington and the efforts against it.

  1.  Simone Austin, “In the Shadow of Martin Luther King Jr’s Assassination,” in Simone Austin (ed) Wilmington 1968 Sourcebook (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2018): 25. Much of the details included in this piece is derived from this source.
  2.  “Massive fires mark disorder,” The Morning News, 10 April 1968: 1.
  3.  Quoted in Austin, 29.
  4. “Operation Free Streets,” The People’s Pulse (Oct. 1968), 2
  5. Austin, 31-2.
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Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​