Why the location of a historic Lewes fishing net reel entrenched in Black history is up for debate
Esthelda “Stell” Parker Selby remembers ordering hamburgers through a “peephole” at a restaurant in downtown Lewes, the employees sliding the food through that small window while white children could walk through the front door to sit down and order.
Growing up in Lewes in the 1960s, she remembers wearing out the soles of her new sneakers on the dance floor at Johnny Walker’s – a popular restaurant where Black families often found a sense of belonging when the beaches were still segregated.
And she remembers driving through town with her mother, who would carry around catalogs to sell clothes and shoes to the fishermen, all the while breathing in that distinct smell that blatantly reminded everyone that major fish processing plants were nearby.
“Certain times of the day you could smell it,” she said, laughing a little at the memory. “Everybody complained about it.”
At this time, Jim Crow laws segregated places like movie theaters, restaurants and churches. But Parker Selby said one of the spaces where those barriers disappeared was the docks in Lewes, where both Black and white men worked side by side in the menhaden fishing industry.
For decades, this fishing industry boosted the small town’s economy, and by 1953, Lewes was the largest seafood port in the country, according to the Lewes Historical Society.
“The menhaden fishing industry supported Lewes for over 80 years,” said Jim Abbott, executive director of the historical society. “It is what propelled this town.”
While the last fish processing plant closed in 1966, largely due to overfishing, the legacy of this industry remains, and an artifact from that time now stands at the corner of Shipcarpenter Street and West Third Street on the Lewes Historical Society’s campus.
Believed to be the only remaining menhaden fishing net reel left in the region, watermen used this 20-foot-long open wheel to dry the nets and examine them for repairs.
Now, though, this reel has become the source of debate in Lewes, and some community members are working to remind people of the great significance of this artifact.
Is the net reel here to stay?
Before the Lewes Historical Society relocated and restored the net reel, it had been sitting along the canal since the 1970s.
Abbott said it was clearly not being respected as a historic artifact in that location.
“It had no security, no lighting. There were signs that people had tried to burn it, there were burn marks in the timbers, missing timbers, and – although there was a fence around it – it was covered in weeds, cigarette lighters, matches (and) bottles,” he said. “It was obviously a destination after hours.”
As he considered moving the reel to the society’s campus on Shipcarpenter Street, Abbott said he consulted with the Lewes Historical Society’s Board of Trustees and even sought advice from the city, calling the mayor to confirm that he could move the artifact.
It was only once the society had begun preparations – laying down the oyster shells and the brick border at the foundation, as well as restoring the wood on the reel – that city officials said the society needed permission to move the reel there, according to Abbott.
“For 60 years, we have never had to call the city to obtain permission to exhibit,” he said.
When the historical society submitted an application last year, the city’s historic preservation architectural review commission unanimously voted to deny the request.
The commission's review indicated that the net reel did not match the rhythm and scale of the streetscape, according to Mayor Ted Becker. He said the city received letters from residents both in favor of and opposition to the placement of the net reel.
Abbott recalled one resident who wrote a letter to the Historical Society's Board of Trustees immediately after the net reel was installed.
“I had a neighbor come across the street, and put his index finger into my chest and tell me, 'How dare I place that on the lawn that he faces,'” he said.
The Lewes Historical Society has appealed that decision to the Board of Adjustment because the organization believes it does not require approval from the city since its campus falls under cultural/historical zoning.
Abbott clarified that the historical society would apply for a permit if it planned to construct a new building, for example – but this artifact is different.
“We’re just trying to be recognized for the skill and the professionalism that we have demonstrated from the beginning, and our job, our responsibility as a steward of history of this region,” he said.
Becker said the question being considered at the next Board of Adjustment meeting is: "Does [the city’s historic preservation architectural review commission] have a role in the review of anything that goes on the historical society’s grounds?"
This meeting was originally scheduled for Monday, but was canceled the week prior. It is now in the process of being rescheduled, according to the mayor.
"There’s no doubt that the net reel is of historical significance," Becker said. While the net reel was not exactly invisible along the canal, he said, its new location is a "more prominent spot."
He added that there are examples throughout town of this industry's role in bringing people together, such as a painting at the Beacon Motel that shows both Black and white men working together in fishing boats.
"It’s most unfortunate that we find ourselves here," he said, referring to the debate over the net reel's placement. "I’m looking forward to getting this resolved."
Telling diverse stories
The location of the net reel is more than just a convenient spot away from the canal though, Abbott said.
It is an opportunity to celebrate a unique part of African American history in Lewes.
The Rev. George Edwards, president of the African American Heritage Commission and pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Lewes, worked in the fish factories for more than a decade in the 1950s and 1960s.
"I worked down on the dock for some time, when the boats would come in, and it was just a sight to see a lot of the boats coming and loaded down with fish," Edwards said.
But what was most awe-inspiring to Edwards, who moved to Delaware from Georgia, was the way that Black and white workers came together in the fishing industry.
On the docks, in the boats and in the processing plants, race did not matter – everyone worked together, he said.
"When I came to Delaware, it was about the only place in Lewes that you found people working together as a group to get something done," Edwards said. "You wouldn’t think it was discrimination because it was just a group of people working together to get the job done.”
This was especially extraordinary for a time when many parts of life – from dining out to going to the movies – was still segregated in Lewes and elsewhere.
But at the fish plant, Edwards said the owner, Otis Smith, made sure life was different.
"He didn’t like the idea of having people separated," Edwards said. "You worked together on the boats, you worked together in the factory, so he decided to eliminate having two lunch rooms and made it one."
"You didn’t go into the restaurants in town and sit down with your family," he said. "But at (the factory), when we would eat lunch, if you were going to eat, you ate together.”
People traveled from all over to work in the fishing industry in Lewes, and Black and white workers alike were given the resources to afford homes in the area.
The men who worked in the net reel, standing in the interior section of the wheel and singing chanteys to walk in sync and rotate the wheel, were also predominantly Black. Because of these opportunities granted to workers of color, the community in Lewes began to reflect that diversity.
Where Shipcarpenter Square is now – a block of land off Park Avenue where historic homes have been transplanted – used to be "the center of Black life," according to Charlotte King, chair of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.
Others talk about how that area used to be a playground with ball fields where Black and white children played together. Edwards said he remembers the fish factory owner Otis Smith even donating some slides or swings to the park.
These blocks in downtown Lewes were also an area where the African American community thrived for a long time before gentrification and other societal pressures prompted many families to move.
Knowing this, Abbott said it seemed right to place the net reel so it faced this neighborhood that has value for the Black community.
“When I was thinking about the reel, and identifying it as a rare opportunity in a pre-Civil Rights America where Blacks and whites basically worked side by side," he said, "it made just perfect sense to place it on the grounds on this site to acknowledge the African American contributions to Lewes, and at the same time look at how it represented community, an all-inclusive community.”
Beyond this powerful connection to African American history though, King said the reel should be preserved because it represents the overall history of Lewes and its rise in prosperity.
"There’s something even more important than preserving it as Black history," she said. "It is Lewes history. Because it was really the beginning of wealth and these very expensive communities. It was also the beginning of affordable housing for both poor whites and poor Blacks."
Shining another light on the unity and diversity of workers in the menhaden fishing industry, King emphasized that German prisoners of war even worked on the net reel and in the fishing boats.
No matter where the menhaden fishing net reel is located, though, Parker Selby agreed with King: "History includes all people."
This passion for history was something Parker Selby's grandmother taught her, she said.
“We can’t forget from where we came,” she said.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.