New Museum To Preserve Delaware Underground Railroad History

CAMDEN, Del. (AP) — An idea that started more than a decade ago to help preserve centuries of Kent County history is a million steps closer to reality in Camden.

The county has received a $500,000 federal grant for a proposed museum at the historic farmhouse at Brecknock Park – and has committed another $500,000.

County Commissioner Jody Sweeney said the idea for the museum started more than 10 years ago with Lucreatia Wilson, curator of the Star Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church and Museum near Camden.

The county was already working to stabilize and weatherproof the house at the park, “and Lucreatia picked up on that and said it would be the perfect vehicle to showcase the county’s history.”

Wilson has gathered hundreds of artifacts and books at the church museum, mostly focusing on the life of freed and enslaved African Americans, the Underground Railroad in Kent County and inventions by African Americans.

She started the museum with friends at the church 34 years ago, but the other members of the group have all died. Wilson said it’s been difficult to find new volunteers who have time to learn about all the artifacts and give tours.

Now 81, she wants to ensure the history is preserved in the area because she’d like to move to be closer to her son’s family in another state.

“I’d love to see this museum created while I’m still alive,” Wilson said.

In addition to displays in the historic home, she would like the county to use another building at the park to illustrate how slaves lived.

Sweeney has also been working with the Friends of Historic Camden on museum ideas.

“The final plans aren’t set in stone,” he said. “We still have some negotiating to do on Levy Court. We want to show the area’s role in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad and what Harriet Tubman did here, along with how agriculture and industry shaped the county.”

The Camden area has several ties to the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom in the north.

Star Hill AME Church started as Star of the East Church in the 1860s.

“Members of the church are believed to have participated in the activities of the Underground Railroad, and the church’s name is attributed to the symbol of the star as a guide for escaping slaves,” according to the Delaware State Archives’ historic marker.

The Camden Friends Meeting House built in 1805 was “a hub of anti-slavery minded individuals who assisted countless slaves in their quest for freedom,” according to the Visit Delaware website.

Wilson said “station masters” harbored escaped slaves and guided them north to other safe stops.

One of the station masters was John Hunn, according to the National Park Service. He was an abolitionist and Quaker who lost his farm in his effort to help fugitives from slavery. Years later, his son of the same name would become governor of Delaware.

Both are buried at the Camden Friends Meeting site.

Sweeney said the finished museum is probably a few years away, but obtaining the funding was the biggest hurdle.

The $500,000 federal grant came from the National Park Service’s Saving America’s Treasures program. The application was written by Jeremy Sheppard, director of community services for Kent County Parks, Recreation and Library.

Sheppard said the county has been working to preserve the house since 1994 after taking over ownership of the property, a gift from Elizabeth Howell Goggin in her will. She donated her family’s home and 86-acre farm just west of Route 13 on Old Camden Road with instructions to use them for “recreational, educational, conservation, and wildlife and historic preservation purposes.”

Sheppard said Brecknock Park is already “the jewel of Kent County,” with the park, programs about nature and the mill that once operated at the site.

But the historic home has rarely been open to the public.

On the National Historic Register, the house dates back to the mid-1700s but has had three additions.

The county plans to hire an architect to assess restoration priorities for the house.

Sweeney said the museum will be shaped in part by Wilson.

“She has gathered many artifacts and it was her vision to house the site here to promote Kent County history,” he said.