After years of community complaints and a national reckoning over racism, the whipping post is now gone from the Old Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown, Del., where it stood for decades.
The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs extracted the post with a jackhammer Wednesday, when News Journal reporters captured dozens of residents celebrating its long-awaited removal. Delaware was the last state to outlaw whipping posts, in 1972, and this was the state’s last public whipping post still standing.
Before the whipping post was installed near the historic courthouse’s grounds in 1993, it came from the Sussex Correctional Institution. The warden had donated it to the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. The correctional facility opened in 1931, but when the whipping post was erected remains unknown.
As protests continue across the country, authorities have taken down statues honoring colonizers, enslavers, and Confederate leaders. In Center City, the Frank Rizzo statue was removed because it evoked police brutality. In Georgetown, when the cultural affairs agency moved the whipping post to a storage facility, it was the removal of a different kind of monument — to corporal punishment.
According to the oft-cited 1947 book Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post, 1,600 people were whipped at posts in Delaware between 1900 and 1945. As the News Journal points out, lashes were given even for petty offenses. The practice included the use of cat o’ nine tails on bare backs, a gruesome multi-pronged whip that was also used during enslavement. Two-thirds of those punished were Black, although fewer than one-sixth of Delaware residents were Black.
The Inquirer spoke with Stephanie Lampkin, director of the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage in Wilmington for background on the Delaware whipping posts, and how this moment fits into the state’s history. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How would you explain this whipping post and why Delawareans pushed for its removal?
The whipping post is one of those symbols that has had a history tied to unequal criminal punishment toward Black men and women in disproportionate numbers.
Even now, given the timeline for which it was used, there are people in the community who will remember seeing people punished on the whipping post. And so it instills, again, that excessive violence — that racial violence — is ingrained in our national history, which includes Delaware. And it very much speaks to many of the issues behind these international social uprisings that we are experiencing at this moment.
It’s been written that whipping posts in Delaware reflect a history of colonial corporal punishment. What is the relationship between these whipping posts and Delaware history, including enslavement?
Even after Emancipation and moving into the Reconstruction period, whipping was one form of a campaign of racial terrorism. So you also had mob violence, lynching; you had the destruction of Black homes and churches and businesses. And then there was also this whipping post that, again, was in use until it was formally [banned] in the 20th century in 1972.
One of the important themes that we share in our exhibitions and through our programs is that within these moments Black Delawareans have always continued and consistently have been persistent in rebuilding families, creating social and political organizations, pursuing education. So all of these forms to continue this type of violent oppression has been met with protest, and resilience and consistently fighting for survival.
What do you make of the removal of the whipping post during this moment when so many monuments that people associate with racial violence are coming down?
When you think about the statues and monuments, as symbols of different ideologies, and the fact that they served as rallying points for bigotry, you would read some of the inscriptions on some and it would be in celebration of Confederate soldiers. What do these say about our values today? When you’re looking at these elements, you have to consider the fact that they do not reflect— or, in fact, fly directly in the face of — our values for equality and justice.
There have been shocked reactions that the whipping post was still standing, and also that the practice went on for so long. Why do you think so few people know about this brutality that Black Delawareans experienced?
That’s actually what is driving a project that is under development through the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, along with our partners … so that more people are aware of Delaware’s role and Delaware’s history in regards to Black political activism, Black protests and racial violence.
Part of it is also documentation. Delaware was not required to record lynchings that happened in the state. Whereas there were Southern states that did. That also contributes to, again, this question of “How are those stories being preserved?”
What are some aspects of Black history in Delaware that might not always be understood?
So, the center just had a great Juneteenth program. But I think one thing that we have to keep in mind is the delay in the [ratifying] of the Reconstruction amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — which happened in 1901.
It only kind of reinforces that there was no sense of urgency.
What do you think this moment means for healing from racial trauma for Black Delawareans?
I think that’s why it’s so important to tell these stories. These moments happened. In some cases they continue to happen. People will remember these moments, or experienced these moments. I think when that happens, when you can truly have those moments of truth telling in history, that can lead to healing because it’s not ignored, it’s not swept under the rug. It’s there. And people will have to grapple with it. And through that, there can be healing.