Henry James Marshall, a Baptist preacher who lived and died in Dover almost 80 years ago, was all but forgotten. Then, in February, Department of Transportation officials found his marble headstone under a bridge near Kenton while they were doing routine maintenance.
Charles Marshall of Dover stands next to the recovered tombstones of his grandfather, the Rev. Henry Marshall, and his wife Anna inside Second Baptist Church in Dover. The Rev. Marshall was born into slavery in 1865 and became the founder of Union Baptist Church in Dover. His marble tombstone was vandalized and stolen from Lakeview Cemetary and later recovered by DelDOT. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)
As officials began to research the name on the stone, a picture of the respected pastor and activist emerged.
He was a leader who stood up for his community -- a man who, in the post-Civil War era, paved the way for civil rights.
The Marshalls were buried at a cemetery they owned near Silver Lake, where the state furnished a new headstone for them.
DelDOT archeologist David Clarke said that the old headstones probably broke off at the base and were picked up by vandals, who eventually dumped them off the bridge.
They may have been sitting in the water for 30 or 40 years, Mr. Clarke said, preserved under the muck.
"The engraving can get weathered away and these headstones looked to be very, very fresh," he said.
After a June 9 dedication ceremenony, the old headstones were displayed this month in a glass case at Second Baptist Church on Loockerman Street.
And, starting Sept. 27, they will be featured in an exhibition about African-American faith at the Delaware History Museum in Wilmington.
'A true humanitarian'
The Rev. Marshall was born into a former slave family on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1873. He moved to Dover and, with a small band of believers, set up a small church in 1902 on Banks Lane called The Little Mission.
"The man was spiritual," said Terrance Burns of Frederica, who works for the Department of Historic and Cultural Affairs. For months he helped research the Rev. Marshall at the state Public Archives.
"The stories written about this man -- clean living man, a hard worker, wasn't into alcoholism or strong drink. He was the true humanitarian."
When he died in 1939 at age 69, his grandson, Charles Marshall, was only 3 years old.
He remembers hearing about his grandfather's reputation when he was growing up.
"Every so often somebody around town, a white person, would say, 'You're a Marshall?'" Mr. Marshall, now 81, recounted.
"I'd say, 'Yes sir. I'm a Marshall.' He would say, or she would say, 'Your grandfather is a great man.'
"I just kind of passed it off because during that time we didn't question white folks."
Now, Mr. Marshall said, he is starting to understand why his grandfather was so great.
The Rev. Marshall was the first black man to speak at Dover City Council. The minutes, dated December 1921, state that, standing alone, he requested "sewer, water and light lines be extended to his residence and the water line to his church."
The Rev. Marshall lived in a poor neighborhood -- and in those days, Mr. Marshall said, diseases spread quickly in the unsanitary conditions.
"He told city council, he said, 'Look, y'all gotta do something about this water system. He said, 'Look, I believe its killing the people. You know?'"
Mr. Burns's research shows that most folks in that area died between 55 and 68 years old then.
"What was going on? Was it bad water? Was it typhoid? We don't know. We really don't know."
In his research, Mr. Burns found numerous ways that the Rev. Marshall had cared for his community.
"All the people who have passed on, white, blacks, have said the same story," he said. "He always was respectful, and he always, no matter what color or race you were, he would help you out."
Pictures from the public archives show the Rev. Marshall sitting on a porch, watching children. His church doubled as a pantry, where he fed the poor.
And, with his horse and buggy, the Rev. Marshall gave folks rides around town. He picked parishioners up for church.
"Can't you imagine on a wagon when you're taking all these people to church? How far he had to go out? And in the pictures he was always dressed nice," Mr. Burns said.
"Think about the conditions. Muggy, hot. The winter time. What he did was phenomenal."
In those days, blacks could not go to Kent General Hospital, so the Rev. Marshall cared for the sick at his church.
Mid-wives came to the Little Mission to deliver babies -- Charles Marshall was born there.
And the Rev. Marshall cared for his people in death as well as life. In 1919, he bought land to serve as a cemetery for the low-income Baptist community in Dover, now part of three adjoining cemeteries off Madison Street near Silver Lake.
It was a place where, regardless of faith, the poor could expect a decent burial.
Source: Delaware NewsZap | Eleanor La Prade