“True Story of Delaware’s Moors,” 1896 article

1896 Moors Article

True Story of Delaware’s Moors

Smyrna (Delaware) Press, 1 January 1896

Down in the southern end of Delaware, thickly settled, especially about Lewes, and scattered as far north as the boundary of KentCounty, one finds a race of men who have been a source of wonder and a puzzle to the historian of that state. They tell a curious story of Oriental origin, and cling to traditions which are wholly their own, and while they are known to this day as the Moors of Delaware, are an enigma to the general population in and about the state they inhabit. From a distance they look like the ordinary colored residents of the neighborhood, but a close inspection shows that they haven’t the slightest trace of Negro blood in their veins. Indeed, some of them are so fair and so ruddy that they are often mistaken for white men, and, in fact, this is how one day their fanciful story of descent from a captive Moor came to be ventilated in a court of justice in Sussex County, and their strange history for the first time given an air of credence.

After that such notable Delawareans as Judge George P. Fisher took a profound interest in these people. Chas. Brown, who owned large tracts in and about a place which was then called Moorton, after them, but which is now set down on the maps as Cheswold, bequeathed to them a piece of land on which to build a school. Other equally well-known men of affairs in the lower end of Delaware for the first time began to take an interest, as if they had found a curiosity to be proud of in their own native State.

Around the little town of Cheswold there is a settlement comprising about 200 of this peculiar race. They are now in an interesting stage of development. They have a church and school, manage their own affairs and are looked upon as the most industrious citizens of the place.

Cheswold is about sixty-eight miles from Philadelphia, and can be reached by the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is in the heart of Kent County, and the populace in and around Cheswold is an exact type of the race who inhabit the belt stretching away to the lower end of the state. Contrary to what one would expect who has been reared in a large city, and grown familiar with the colonization methods of various races, who segregate in sections which they afterward make their own, the Delaware Moors do not huddle together in any particular locality. They have no monopoly of any part of the town, and the agricultural and industrial pursuits that inject the only life into Cheswold are not controlled by the race.

One hardly knows on stepping from the train that there exists such a colony as the Delaware Moors in and about Cheswold, and it is only by assiduous questioning and a little personal exploration that at last he is brought face to face with certain unmistakable signs that shows that these people have made this place their own. A short walk to the end of the town soon tells the story. The “yaller” man, as he is called, is so in evidence, and before you take many steps you begin to find that he is pretty numerous, tills the soil, conducts business and carries on trade with his fair brethren, much like the members of any other civilized colony. Should you engage him in conversation you will find that the tone, together with the gesture and carriage, are of a race different from the colored people of the neighborhood. Should you desire to know aught of Cheswold and of the Moors he will gladly tell you, for every member of the tribe seems to be well acquainted with its history.
The town is a little collection of two or three-storied frame houses, with here and there a really pretentious dwelling, all clustered about a central avenue. The railroad runs through the eastern verge of the place, and on either side are comfortable dwellings, inhabited by workingmen, or in the case of one of them, by the pastor of the modest little church. Your Moorish friend will point to it from where he stands. It is the first yellow house from the grocery store on the main street, and directly opposite is the canning factory which, fully running, employs twenty or thirty men. The factory is an institution of Cheswold, for the surrounding country, with its many farms and bountiful crops, is famous for its mellow fruit.The most interesting place in the town, however, is the home of Cornelius Ridgeway, the patriarch of the colony. It is a yellow colored frame building, the first on the left as you turn form the railroad. He is a man of about sixty, has a bright face, and, you will soon see, is an industrious worker at shoe-making. Despite the lowliness of his calling he follows it as would a knight the tourney. There is a kindly look in his eye as you mention the race whose patriarch he is and whose history he knows by heart. He will gladly lay his work aside to take up the thread of the Moors’ history.

“There are some of them,” pointing to a couple of youths, fair of face and almost white, who are just leaving his shop. “Do they look like Negroes?”

The Delaware Moors, according to the story told by Cornelius and the other patriarchs, came into the history of the state over a hundred years ago, but they were never assigned a place until the trial of Levi Sokum, a member of the race, who was charge with selling powder and shot to Isaiah Harmon, another member of the race, whom the prosecution contended was a mulatto. There were no records of the tribe up to that time, and all that was known was handed down from father to son and told about by the old men of the race, who guarded the younger members of the flocks and zealously instilled into their minds the strange teaching that declared them to be of a purer strain than any of their neighbors, and forbade the young to play with, or the youths and maidens to intermarry with, those of another race. By the patriarchs it was preached about that their progenitors were a Moorish prince who had been sold into captivity because of troubles in his own dominion, and who, as fate would have it, was bought by a young Irish woman who herself was an exile, and was banished from a duchy in Spain that rightfully belonged to her and her impoverished father.

Senorita Requa, or Miss Reegan, as she was called by some, first came into the history of Delaware some years prior to the Revolutionary War, and settled on a big farm near Lewes. She had fabulous wealth, so the old man said, and to all she was as a sealed book. Many young men sought for her hand, but to all she turned a deaf ear, and shut herself up in her cloister-like mansion. Those who saw her said that she had a sweet and passive look, as if she had seen much sorrow and was resigned. Her affairs were managed by an old man who had known her before the days of adversity and who fled with her from the castled land of Spain. She had hundreds of slaves working for her and was reputed to be the wealthiest lady in Delaware.

One day a slave ship put in at Lewes and finding that she was in need of a slave she sent to the ship for one. It so happened that a handsome young fellow, straight in stature, noble in bearing and withal having a kingly look about him, was chosen and brought to the mansion of the mysterious lady. He walked with such an air and spoke with such a clear accent, and, above all, conversed in those dulcet tones which alone are Spanish, that the lady, who was seldom seen by men, called for him to be brought to her. There and then, in the most romantic way, he fell on his knees and told her in sweet Castilian tongue that he was an exiled Moorish prince who had fought in the Spanish War, gained renown, and because of his popularity was secretly carried off and sold to the slaver by friends of his uncle, who were jealous of his popularity and coveted the throne himself.

Whether or not his story was true, the heart of the exiled woman went out to that of the exiled Moor, and from that moment she loved her princely suitor. The result was a marriage and the children had the characteristics of the Moor and Hibernian, the voluptuous beauty of the one, the natural vivacity of the other.

When it became known that the mistress had married the man, who was looked upon as a Negro, the populace for miles around were incensed and the young men who had sought the lady’s hand, and had been slighted, cast many aspersion on her fair name. Hence it was that to this day there are stories in Delaware to the effect that the woman was an outcast favorite of the Spanish King, and like the celebrated Lola Montez, who held the King of Bavaria enthralled, had been compelled to flee because of the wrath of the nobles and the Queen. At any rate, the children of the pair were tabooed by the good society of Sussex County, and hence arose a curious state of affairs. The children, reared under the best tutors, for the exiled woman valued education, held themselves too good for the blacks, and were not allowed the society of the whites. It was because of this that a fusion of blood occurred between the Nanticoke Indians and the children of the curious fated pair took place. The aborigines had reached a high degree of civilization and among the young men of the tribe there were some who were educated. Hence it was that one of the children, a beautiful daughter, fell in love with an educated and well-to-do member of his tribe, who at that time inhabited that part of Delaware, were tillers of the soil, and had none of the evil habits common to the Indian race. This union was subsequently followed by the marriage of a Moor son with an Indian maiden, and so the blood of the Moor and the Indian became diffused, and the curious combination of races brought forth the Delaware Moor of today. In this way the Nanticoke Indians who were once numerous in Southern Delaware have entirely disappeared, but their descendants are these men who today are scorned by the whites.

The Moorish school at Cheswold is an object of no little interest. There is nothing lofty about it, but that the board which directs its affairs are a determined set of men may be shown by a little story which is told apropos of the school. The story shows the positive character of the Moors when their racial prejudices are aroused. Some time ago the school, which stands in a romantic spot about a mile from the village, was without a teacher, and the board sent to Superintendent Tindal, at Dover, to fill the vacancy. “Send us a teacher,” they said, “but under no circumstances let him be a black man.” Three days later, when G. G. Johnson, of Hamilton, Va., appeared to take charge of the little frame school one of the Moorish parents discerned that he was a Negro, and then there was a scene. All the Kent County Moors rose up in arms against the alleged outrage, and an indignant protest was sent to Superintendent Tindal. After Mr. Johnson returned to Virginia, Mr. Tindal was told that he might send an Indian or a white man, or preferably a Moor.

Cornelius, who is a member of the board, laughed heartily in speaking o£ the matter. He then dilated upon the queer customs of his people. They do not marry outside their tribe. They observe a color line with the Negro stricter than that of the out and out Southerner, and woe betide the Delaware Moorish maiden who so forgets her station as to manifest a weakness for a common black man. She is first warned, then chastised, then entreated, and finally, if she persists in loving him, is banished altogether from her father’s roof, and boycotted by the tribe forevermore.

The Moorish maidens spoken of by Cornelius are very pretty, and they have nothing of the heavy upper lip and other Negroid features indicative of a Negro. Two of them called to see Cornelius while he was talking, They stepped back with a modest courtesy on seeing that another person was in the room, and were about to retire when the old cobbler called them back. An excellent opportunity was thus afforded to scrutinize their features and study their characteristics. The least that can be said of them is that they are handsome. There is something in their soulful eyes which reminds one of a place beyond the seas, and when they speak the ripple of words is mellifluous, and not at all the plaintive jargon of the Southern “mammy” or the animated colored girl.

It is not often that one of them becomes enamored of a black man, for there are plenty of good looking Delaware Moors about to please them.

The Delaware Moor, one might be led to believe, would follow the doctrines handed down by their ancestors and accept the faith of Mohammed. Such is not the case, however. Their house of worship is not a mosque but a simple little frame Methodist Church. The building itself is picturesque. It stands out on the verge of the village, back from the road leading in the opposite direction from the school. Its architecture has nothing to suggest the beautiful, but every Sunday its wooden wall rings with melodious praises, as sent up in the good, clear tones of the sweet voiced Delaware Moors, and all that part of Kent County for miles around re-echoes with the heavenly adulation.

The structure was erected in l885, and by dint of hard scraping the Moors have managed to make the church their own, paying off a mortgage for $1100. The contractor who erected the building knocked off a few hundred dollars to begin with, and when the last joist was nailed up the jubilation was one long to be remembered for up to this time they had no fixed place of worship. Sometimes accepting the hospitality of the whites, they were relegated to the rear of their church together with the blacks, and this wounded their pride. The elders of their peculiar race finally put their heads together, and declared that unless they had a separate church for themselves the race might become disintegrated and it was this feeling that prompted them to secure a church of their own.

In many of the race the strain is almost pure white, while in some it is yellow, in others deep brown. One family in Kent County named Durham is as fair as any Caucasian, and its members resemble the Irish more than any other race. In others the difference between them and pure whites could never be told, and this is how it fell about in the case of Isaiah Harmon, of Sussex County, who bought the powder and shot from Levi Sokum, another Delaware Moor, which was aired in the Sussex County court and which established the fact that the tribe was not one of Negro blood, and gives a color of truth to the story told by the old Moors of Kent County.

In those days there was a law which forbade anyone from selling or loaning ammunition to a Negro or mulatto. Sokum had sold to Harmon a quarter pound of powder and a pound of shot, and the action was brought by some envious white men, who had a grudge against Sokum. When Harmon appeared in court that day, everyone looked at him in surprise expecting to find, at least, a man with “yaller” blood, if not the pure black blood. Instead, a young fellow, straight as an arrow and with a complexion that rivaled that of any Caucasian present was introduced as the defendant and set down by the prosecution as mulatto, or Negro, and that Harmon came of a race that was altogether distinct.

In order to support his claim an old woman of the tribe named Lydia Clark was called to the witness stand and questioned. she told the story of the origin of the Delaware Moor as given above, and showed conclusively that her kinsman was not of the Negro descent. According to her story the original progenitors appeared about twenty years before the Revolutionary War and the succeeding generations were confined principally to the southeast portions of Sussex Count, in and around Lewes, Millsboro, Georgetown and Milton.