Middletown, Delaware: A festival and a long history of freedomAug 18, 2023 11:31AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Thousands of people have enjoyed the Middletown Old Tyme Peach Festival, which dates back to 1993 and celebrates the agricultural heritage of the region, notably its peach production. This year’s event will center on Main Street and feature historical exhibits, crafts, food, live music, a peach pie contest and other activities for the entire family. Yet most people are not aware of a series of events in Middletown’s history which started more than two centuries ago and played a critical role in the plight of freedom seekers going through the state. The area was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and a monument to brave abolitionists involved in that effort now stands on the grounds of Middletown High School.
When she was a student at Middletown High School, Megan Marchio wanted to do something meaningful for her Senior Project. She decided to honor the efforts of John Hunn and John Alston, two Quaker farmers who helped numerous escaped slaves back in the mid-1800s coming through the area seeking shelter from their ‘owners.’
She said, “I really wanted to do something interesting—something that happened in Middletown and has a lot of meaning. I had heard about the Underground Railroad, but I didn’t know it was real.”
Over the subsequent months, she pursued plans to construct a monument to Hunn and Alston, honoring their selfless devotion to the slaves desperately hoping for freedom.
John Hunn came to the Middletown area from southern Kent County in 1836 to take over 200 acres of land which his family-owned. Although Delaware was a slave state, Hunn decided that he would assist slaves coming through the region. Hunn and Alston were not the only people who helped escaped slaves. Well known abolitionist Thomas Garrett helped many slaves across the Delaware state line and is estimated to have assisted more than 2,000 people in finding freedom. When Hunn assisted Samuel Burris in bringing slaves to his property, his neighbors noticed what was going on and reported him to the authorities. However, a local sheriff noticed a defect in his arrest paperwork and early in 1846 Hunn was released. Garrett became aware of his plight and called a coach to help Hunn escape over the border into Pennsylvania, a free state. The irate slaveholders sued both Hunn and Garrett for violating the Fugitive Slave Act and their trial was held at the New Castle Court House. The presiding judge, since it was a Federal case, was Roger Taney, a slaveholder himself. Taney, as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was later the author of the poorly decided Dred Scott Case, one of the worst decisions in Court history, which held that slaves had no rights as citizens. Both Hunn and Garrett were found guilty and fined severely for their actions. Hunn was forced to sell his farm and move back to his previous home in Camden, Delaware. Despite the guilty verdict, one of the jurors in the case went up to Garrett after the trial and actually apologized for his vote.
Marchio’s Senior Project finally came to life. Today the results of her efforts are on the grounds of Middletown High School, from which she graduated several years ago. Along Delaware Route 299 now stand two memorial benches and an historical marker recognizing Hunn and Alston for their selfless devotion to helping escaped slaves find shelter and freedom. The Toni Morrison Society funded the benches in their “Bench by the Road” program, which honors those people who assisted slaves many decades ago. The historical marker was erected in 2015 by the Delaware Public Archives. A portion of it states: “Near this location were the farms of John Alston (1794- 1872) and John Hunn (1818- 1894), cousins who shared the Quaker faith and were well documented operatives on Delaware’s Underground Railroad.”
John Hunn died in 1894. Before he passed away, he said openly, “I ask no other reward for any efforts made by me in the cause than to feel I have been of service to my fellow-men.” His impact on Delaware involved more than freeing escaping slaves. One of his sons, also named John, was later elected the state’s 51st Governor in 1901. Historians and others interested in the story of slavery can visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, which runs for roughly 95 miles from Maryland up through Odessa and Middletown to the state line with Pennsylvania. The Byway includes numerous locations throughout Delaware which are linked to the Underground Railroad.
As for Marchio, being part of this remembrance program is quite fulfilling. She said, “To know that we as a community did something that will be remembered feels great. We created a place where people can come and reflect and be inspired to have the courage to act with bravery…” The Middletown Historical Society is creating two exhibits illustrating different perspectives on this topic. According to project manager Abby Harting, the Society is hosting an art show titled “Fear to Freedom” featuring works by Appoquinimink High School students and an exhibit titled “Courage and Compassion” highlighting Hunn’s efforts. The exhibit opened on July 22 at 6 p.m. at the Academy, 216 North Broad Street, Middletown. For more information, contact the Society at [email protected].
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His 11 books focus mostly on the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest book is “Heritage of the Brandywine Valley”, showcasing the more than 300-year history of the region. Gene’s books are available on his website at www.GenePisasale.com and also on www.Amazon.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].