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The Moors of Delaware

19th century sailing ship

Until 1975 Delaware driver licenses listed race: black, white, red, and Moor.

Moors, as in Moroccans? Well, yes and no.

Delaware, like its neighboring southern states, built its early economy on the backs of slaves. Right from the start skin color determined the haves and the have nots. If you were white skinned, of English descent, you got access to society’s offerings: the right to worship where you wished, the right to good education, the right to work where and how you wished. If you were dark skinned, of African descent, you didn’t.

But what about the children of intermarriage?

Then, as now, American culture has by default thrown those individuals to the bottom of the social ladder, unless their skin tone was light enough to “pass.”

In the case of educated, cultured immigrants who come to this country fleeing political turmoil in their homelands, this rigid hierarchy causes enormous resentment. And often the barriers raised against those immigrants cause them to circle the wagons, to retreat from a system stacked against them, marry within their own community, build their own churches and schools, and in general live apart from the oppressive dominant society as much as possible.

And that brings us back to the Moors of Delaware. Their origin story was kept orally within the community until an 1840s legal case forced it into court records.

Moorish girl in Delaware, 1930s
Delaware Public Archives

Levi Sokum, a member of the Moor community, was charged with selling powder and shot to Isaiah Harmon, another member, whom the prosecution contended was a mulatto. Delaware had a law on the books at the time forbidding sales of ammunition to blacks or mulattos. And so Sokum had to prove that despite his dark complexion he had no African blood in him.

In order to support his claim Sokum called to the witness stand one Lydia Clark, an older woman of the tribe who was versed in the details of the community’s beginnings.

She stated under oath that her 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.

The Smyrna Times picks up the trail in an 1896 overview of the Moors of Delaware:

“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.”

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