Market Street in Wilmington is on the Hariett Tubman Underground Railroad byway. The signs are easy to miss, but they’re there, a quiet reminder of the street’s significance as a place of Black resistance.
In 1968, Market Street was at the center of demonstrations in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that would be known as the Riots of ‘68. The unrest lead to nine months of National Guard occupation of Wilmington that the city never fully recovered from.
On May 30, unrest came to Market Street again, as the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis led to widespread protests across the country, fueled by anger, not over a single killing, but a cycle of killing Black people in the United States — including the 2015 police killing of Jeremy McDole in Wilmington — and other forms of systemic racism against Black people.
I’m from Wilmington. I’ve seen downtown go through a lot of changes. As a teenager in the 1980s, I would walk around downtown after school. There wasn’t really anything to do but walk around. The banking boom brought commuters to town by day. At night, the city closed down. It was clear, downtown was serving predominantly white commuters and not the community that lived there.
I watched as downtown Wilmington became, for a relatively brief time, MBNA town. New construction, new jobs, new people drawn to the city — but none of it was truly for the Black community that lived here.
“Revitalization,” for years, meant making Wilmington a place where white people want to be. If we’re being real, some of those efforts have failed because they didn’t consider the Black community. And when the under-resourced Black community didn’t leave when shiny businesses meant for white (or at least well-off) people came in, Market Street kept its reputation as a place white people want to avoid.
Meanwhile, Black children are demonized every day by school segregation that is no longer just self-imposed, but supported by schools districts that, via prominent Delaware companies and parents, create “elite” charter and magnet schools that can cherrypick students, inevitably shutting out under-resourced Black and Latinx students. In 2014, the Delaware ACLU filed a complaint to the Department of Education citing civil rights violations, naming Wilmington Charter School, Newark Charter School and Sussex Academy as schools that use a “special interest” clause to give preferential treatment to white applicants. After it was filed, it disappeared into the ether.
Simply put, there isn’t enough empathy for Black communities. That’s a problem. It allows for systemic violence against Black people to happen, and it allows it to be swept under the rug if it isn’t loudly challenged. It revises and erases history so it repeats, over and over again.
Changing something that is so ingrained is hard. Revitalization can and should include the existing community. Fancy restaurants are nice, but we need more places for young people to go on Market Street, too. More Black business owners need access to space. If the presence of Black people, in a neighborhood, on a street or in a school causes people to perceive it as “bad,” things are not going to get better.
There are exceptions to exclusion downtown: Christina Cultural Arts Center, WIN Factory and Wilmington Green Box, to name a few. Revitalization efforts over the last few years have become a little more inclusive, but we still hear more about drawing people to Wilmington from out of state to enhance the city than resourcing the people who already live here.
Someday Market Street may exist as a shrine to past injustices. There can be no question that we’re not there yet.