The land where Middletown High School is located once served as a refuge for men and women fleeing slavery in the American South, according to historians. Now, through the efforts of a young student and a handful of community members, that piece of Middletown history will be preserved with a memorial that will be unveiled in April.
The memorial will commemorate Middletown as one of the stops of the Delaware Underground Railroad, which was a series of secret escape routes that runaway slaves – mainly from the Eastern Shore of Maryland – used for their journey to Pennsylvania and other points north where slavery was outlawed.
Two park benches and a state historical marker will be placed near the sign for Middletown High School, along Del. Route 299 which will serve as reminders of that period of Delaware history. The project was originally the brainchild of former Appoquinimink School District superintendent Dr. Tony Marchio, who retired in 2011.
Fast forward four years later, and Marchio’s idea of commemorating Middletown’s stop of the Delaware Underground Railroad was picked up by his niece, Megan Marchio, 17, a senior at Middletown High School who with the help of historians, teachers, and community leaders is close to making the project a reality.
“I really wanted to do something interesting – something that happened in Middletown and has a lot of meaning,” Megan Marchio told the Transcript. “I had heard about the Underground Railroad, but I didn’t know it was real.”
The history of the Underground Railroad in Middletown
In 1836, a man by the name of John Hunn came from Camden in southern Kent County to Middletown to take over 200 acres that had belonged to his family – land which included the area where Middletown High School is located.
According to Robin Krawitz, a historic preservation professor at Delaware State University, Hunn and his cousin, John Alston, another Middletown farmer, were Quakers.
“Quakers were staunchly against slavery,” Krawitz said. “By the 1840s no slave people were under the control of Quakers anywhere.”
Delaware was a slave state from the late 1700s until 1862, but Quakers had been active in helping runaway slaves escape to Pennsylvania and other points north before slavery was outlawed in 1863.
Hunn’s efforts to help runaway slaves began 10 years after settling in Middletown. At the same time, another Quaker, William Corbit, of Odessa, was offering safe harbor to slaves there.
“Middletown was a place to get through on the way to the north. It was the second Underground Railroad stop in the state,” Krawitz said. “At these safe houses families could get rest and stay for a while until the coast was clear.”
In 1845, Hunn was hiding Samuel Hawkins, a free man, and his enslaved wife and children. The family had escaped from a farm in Queen Anne’s County in Maryland.
Hunn’s neighbors, who were slave owners, had taken notice of his activities and the runaway slaves on his property. Slavehunters looking for the Hawkins found them at Hunn’s farm and threw Hunn in jail.
“He was prosecuted by the slave owners and Hunn pleaded guilty,” Krawitz said. “He had to pay huge, heinous fines because he committed a federal crime.”
By 1850, Hunn had to sell his farm due to the penalties that were imposed on him. He and his family moved back to Camden to live with his cousins who continued helping runaway slaves.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Hunn and his family moved to the Sea Islands, off the coast of South Carolina, in a Quaker effort to help establish a school for free blacks that lived there, according to Krawitz.
Years later, one of Hunn’s sons, also named John, returned to live and work in Delaware and eventually became the state’s 51st governor in 1901.
John Hunn Sr. died in 1894. Historians like Krawitz believe that he had helped about 200 runaway slaves escape to free states in his lifetime.
More than a senior project
Megan Marchio told the Transcript that learning about the work of the Hunn family and the bravery of the Hawkins family was inspirational, and that there was no hesitation to take on the task of placing a memorial on her school’s campus as her last high school endeavor.
“Megan’s project is the epitome of what the senior project is all about,” said Dr. Voni Perrine, one of the assistant principals at Middletown High School. “It’s a proud moment of Middletown history and that history can be brought back to life for the youth and everyone in the community.”
Middletown resident and gospel singer, Anthony Johnson, had been trying to also create a memorial to commemorate the town as a stop of the Underground Railroad for a long time. He had conversations with his Rotarian friend, Dr. Tony Marchio, about the project, but the timing had not been right.
Last year, Johnson said he observed an older gentleman who needed some assistance trying to enter a local restaurant and he went over the help. That gentleman was with his son, Bob Hershey, the Appoquinimink School District’s facilities supervisor. Hershey and Johnson started a brief conversation.
“I asked him to put me in touch with Mr. Matthew Burrows – the school’s superintendent—so I could talk to him about the memorial. That’s when Bob told me that there was a student at Middletown High School already working on the project,” Johnson recalls. “I felt like there was a force bringing us all together.”
Johnson, along with Krawitz, and two other educators – Harvey Zendt and Elizabeth Roach – began to meet as a committee to help Marchio on her senior project.
“We collaborated on the project together as a team and the project became bigger and bigger,” Marchio recalls.
The project went from having just one bench to having two placed at Middletown High School, which were donated by the literary non-profit, Toni Morrison Society. The committee was also able to get the state to recognize the spot with a historical marker.
“I’m so glad to be part of the committee, part of the process, and be part of a story that speaks to our generation,” Johnson said. “This is also a story about doing what’s right despite the risks and the consequences.”
Marchio said that there has been a lot of cooperation to make the project happen and all that is left to work on is the program for the ceremony on April 17 – the date when the two park benches and the historical marker will be unveiled.
“To know that we as a community did something that will be remembered feels great,” Marchio said. “We created a place where people can come and reflect and, be inspired to have the courage to act with bravery like the Hawkins and the Hunns did.”