The Peter Spencer Legacy
Peter Spencer was a great American hero. Peter Spencer was a great Delaware hero. Peter Spencer was a great Wilmington hero. His name should be mentioned along with the names of the nation’s founding fathers, Caesar Rodney of Delaware fame, as well as in the company of Louis Redding, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King and others.
Spencer was perhaps the first civil rights leader in the nation, making a stand on The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution, for the freedom of religion, for the freedom of assembly, and for the right to free speech. His legacy left an impact on our state, the nation, and particularly the struggle for freedom among African Americans. He started the first independently incorporated church organization for African Americans in the entire nation right here in Wilmington, Delaware. Spencer was a well-rounded man, who had a school attached to many of the 31 churches he started. He was a man of law applying to the State of Delaware to incorporate a church organization. Spencer biographer, Dr. Lewis Baldwin, Vanderbilt University, suggests, for reasons I will explain below, that Wilmington was a kind of Mecca for African American religious freedom as the beginning place of what is called the Black Church.
In 1813, 200 years ago, yet merely 22 years after The First Amendment was enacted, Peter Spencer set out to incorporate the African Union Church as a legally established organization. The church may have been the first legally incorporated African American entity of any kind in the entire United States. It certainly was the first African American Church to stand for the religious freedom ushered in by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There were several other African American local churches at the time that were not yet independent of their larger majority white denominations. Thus, Spencer made a real stand for independence and freedom—hallmarks of the American ideal—that would have an impact and challenge to the nation for the next 200 years. One year later in 1814 Spencer took another stand on The First Amendment, this time the right to peaceable assembly, when he launched the Big Quarterly Festival modeled after the religious festivals of his Judeo-Christian faith. The content of the festival may have been religious, however the overarching goal for Peter Spencer was of a civil rights nature, fundamentally, The First Amendment right to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and the right to free speech. The Big Quarterly always culminated on the last Sunday of August, and as a result has for the last 200 years been affectionately known to townspeople and the pilgrims who traveled here as the August Quarterly Festival.
The AQ Festival attracted thousands to Wilmington on the last Sunday of August. It became a destination place for African Americans celebrating freedom, sharing in solidarity with one another, and looking for relatives lost or sold in the institution of slavery. An amazing part of the AQ Festival legend is that those who held men and women captive in the brutal institution of slavery in Southern Delaware and on the Eastern Shores of Maryland would allow some to go free for the last weekend of August to attend the festival in Wilmington. Thus, making it a destination for anyone who had lost loved ones they might meet up with at the Quarterly. Also, Underground Railroad conductors like Harriet Tubman and station masters like Thomas Garrett would meet with enslaved men and women at the AQ to plan future escapes. The AQ became more than a symbol, but a vehicle for freedom in the African American community, both enslaved and free men and women of African descent. The August Quarterly Festival is as much an icon for freedom as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (150 years) and the March on Washington in 1963 (50 years ago).
Those who see the August Quarterly festival merely as a religious festival or religious holiday miss the point. It is so much more. It is a celebration of all that is America, particularly the civil rights of all, granting to citizens the freedom of religion, the freedom of assembly and the right to free speech (also the right to a free press). Delaware is known as the First State, and here is another first we can be proud of, Peter Spencer and the August Quarterly Festival. Where would the nation be without the church in the struggle towards freedom (MLK was a product of the prophetic church that Spencer started and represented)? Where would our ideals of freedom and liberty be without the right to peaceable assembly? What would the concept of freedom be like without the right to free speech, even if that free speech at times was religious in tone?
Peter Spencer is as much a great American hero as the founding fathers of the nation. He is as much a Delaware icon as Caesar Rodney, George Read, Gunning Bedford, and John Dickinson. He should be remembered with the likes of Louis Redding in Black Delaware history and with Martin Luther King, Jr. in national African American history. For Americans, the August Quarterly Festival, as a stand for the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is like the nation’s Independence Day—July 4, when we remind ourselves and one another of the ideals we hold dear as Americans. One of those ideals is the freedom to exercise whatever religion we deem called to, including the right to no religion at all.
Peter Spencer and August Quarterly are not just religious icons, but belong to the City of Wilmington, the State of Delaware, and even the nation.