By Laura Walter
It’s entirely possible that studying Delaware history is what keeps Sylvester “Syl” Woolford young. Born in 1943, his voice is still bright and energetic, and he always has a fascinating story ready. But he lived and worked all his life before delving into history in the mid-1960s and becoming a sought-after lecturer today.
“I am 79 years old. I’m not senile yet! I’m an accountant, not a historian. I didn’t make history until I was 65. It gets into your brain cells, if you are storing new knowledge… so I am using new parts of the brain.
Woolford grew up in a tight-knit black community near Newark, went to school, assisted in integration, earned an MBA, and retired from his job. When the City of Newark released an extensive 250-year history, Woolford saw no people mentioned like his grandmother, who held the highly respected position of school teacher in the 1890s (a big deal in the black community).
Woolford realized that he needed to learn the stories that were important to him so he could shed light on stories that weren’t being told.
“There’s a huge vacuum in African American history — not just access to African American history in the general public and public libraries, for example, but it hasn’t even been studied,” he said.
“We’re a very young country” and Woolford is researching corners that “a lot of people just haven’t explored.” By asking to look at the incidents from another angle, Woolford is pursuing a more complete view of history, including the experience of his ancestors. After all, family history research is one of today’s greatest hobbies.
“I come to this new thing, but it’s a new level of awareness that American history should not only record the history of the rich and powerful, but also be about… Indigenous, Black, and other ethnic groups who came to the United States .”
Now, his resume includes Delaware Heritage Commission; Wilmington University History Committee; Guest speaker from the University of Delaware; Friends of the Delaware Public Archives; the Historic Preservation Fund; and the Delaware Chapter of the Afro-American Genealogical Society. In 2022, New Castle County proclaimed June 30, 2022 as “Syl Woolford Day”.
Though he jokes that history work gives him something to do, Delawareans have taken note of his storytelling, enthusiasm, and expertise. He is a frequent guest lecturer throughout the state.
Speaking at Dover Public Library this month, he will be speaking on Brown v. Board of Education and all the information that most people don’t know about the historic desegregation case, including the fact that Delaware had its own lawsuits that were involved in the case all the way up to the Supreme court.
“Since I was a child, Brown v. Board was Linda Brown in Topeka, Kansas who sued the Topeka board to integrate Kansas schools. That’s the story and you get an ‘A’ for that answer,” Woolford said. Board was the consolidation of seven different cases in five different states… there were actually two cases here in Delaware.”
Many of these were challenges that simply required Plessy v. Ferguson was accepted. “America lived under the illusion” that separate education could be considered equal, so families of color started suing.
“These are the changes we need to make for a more equal society,” Woolford mused. “Why would anyone know about something that happened 70 years ago? One reason is: you don’t know what happened 70 years ago, and sometimes the same things are happening now.”
Woolford estimates that he can offer several 400 lectures on various topics and angles. He especially loves finding old black newspapers and publications. “Did the black press focus on things the white press did not? Yes, yes, yes,” he laughed.
“If you go back to the first newspaper, Freedom’s Journal of 1827… you have an incredibly different view of history. I want to read the black press because I want to hear what black people think about America…and about slavery.”
Here is an example of Woolford’s use of old documents to reframe reality.
“I lectured at the University of Delaware and stumbled upon something while I was doing my research.” Records say fewer than 2,000 people were enslaved in Delaware before the Civil War. But rather than lose cheap labor, Woolford said some slave owners were delayed by official labor. Instead of full freedom, they turned workers into indentured servants: more work without pay. For example, “If you give me another 20 years of indentured servitude, then you are free… There are records of these [delayed] tamper documents. So if you showed up for the census in 1850, there were black people listed as “free,” but they still had another 10, 20 years before they were free, and that changes the Delaware history books. There were only 1,600 slaves, but there may have been 2,000 to 5,000 blacks who were indentured,” Woolford recently suggested to a class of graduate students. “Go back and read the census records and these manumission records. Go back and find out when they were really free.
Syl Woolford presents ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’ at Dover Public Library on 21st February at 6pm