A nearly-forgotten African American settlement was the setting for these short stories.
Few free black villages figure in literature. Polktown is an exception.
Poketown People by Ella Middleton Tybout was published in 1904 by J.B. Lippincott. Today, the book is considered collectible Delawareana.
What did Tybout set out to do? In common with dozens of other writers of the day, she wanted to chronicle picturesque and amusing rural characters. She chose residents of the Delaware City area, African Americans who worked for her family.
Her 13 stories drew on the free African Americans Tybout encountered when she was young: domestics, farm laborers and pastors. As she was writing, she surely imagined specific people. To think it is history is tempting, but none of the characters has been identified with a Polktown resident, and the stories aren’t fixed in time by reference to historical events.
She grew up on Hamburg Road and her fictional tales, evoking her childhood in the 1880s and 90s, were set in nearby Polktown. They appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1901-03 and were collected into Poketown People in 1904. They are in a particular place and era. But they are not history.
According to her introduction, “I recall with affection certain dark-skinned friends of my childhood, whose patience and unfailing kindness endeared them to me then and deserve recognition from me now. These sketches are simply intended to depict the Negro as I have known him or her with their eccentricities, superstitions, strange code of morality, and curious practical application of religion to every-day life. The higher education of the Negro is fast obliterating the types I have described. There are still some left, however, and to them and the memory of others who helped to make my childhood happy, I dedicate this little volume.”
A century later, it’s hard to understand what made these stories so humorous. But it would be unfair to doubt her sincerity. She grew up among whites and blacks. Part of her affection for her companions may have been due to having no father: George Maxwell Tybout, buried in St. Georges Cemetery, died the year she was born.
But in 1900 Tybout fell neatly in with the times and sincerity is not enough. For decades an entire category of American fiction had been focused on exotic types with their peculiar speech (ruralites, sailors or fishermen, pioneers, cowboys). Bernard A. Drew has labeled these stories of African Americans, usually by white writers, “Jim Crow era” fiction.
His 2015 book “Black Stereotypes in Popular Series Fiction, 1851-1955” examines 29 authors and their characters in particular and summarizes 72 others, including Tybout, mostly “a sea of white writers who clung as long as they could to stereotype.”
For example, characters often spoke uneducated dialect. It is one thing to write “Poketown” –Delawareans say it that way. Tybout uses phonetic speech throughout: for example, “Whut kin’ ob a bolt am a thundahbolt?” asks one boy.
This was before audio recording. On one hand she was conveying an accent common in rural, especially southern, America. In her 1902 story in New England Magazine, “The Price of an Angel,” she tried to capture a New England rural accent in print.
On the other, this was designed to amuse a white audience. Phonetically rendered African American talk was a well-established stereotype by 1900.
Tybout’s stories (“parables”) have a Biblical component. Much of the material concerns Biblical characters and references, another stock Jim Crow literary device.
A church called “Little Bethel” figures prominently, sometimes competing for parishioners with an upstart church, Zion. That’s no surprise considering the central role churches held, and still hold, in African American communities
To be sure, there was a church in Polktown. But the tales aren’t history and should not be confused with the true African American cultural experience in late-1800s Delaware City.
That stereotypes are in play is not a new idea. In 1931, book reviewer Wilson Jefferson wrote of author Roark Bradford’s tales, “This false approach towards the wealth of material in negro life is made intentionally … these authors know that a majority of their readers have never come into intimate contact with [African Americans and] conclude that it is easier and more remunerative to cater to this empty half knowledge than to attempt to relate the black man artistically to that humanity which is the world.”
So young Ella Tybout may have heard the themes in her stories. She may have been well-acquainted with her free African American neighbors. But later, “Poketown life” is embellished in the telling for mainly white readers.
Only one of the 13 stories can be traced to local folk tales. Tybout’s sketch of Delaware’s Fiddler’s Bridge legend involves a preacher and domestic shenanigans rather than a proper haunting.
The legend was still told in the mid-20th century. I heard it from my father, Patrick O’Donnell Jr., on car trips as we passed south of St. Georges. It involves an African American fiddler (maybe drunk, maybe mad) who would sit on the railing and play until, one night, he fell into the creek and drowned.
From then on, tossing a dime over at midnight would summon the musical ghost.
Fiddler’s Bridge, unlike Little Bethel, can be located. It is on Route 13 over tiny Scott’s Run, a creek that runs into the C&D Canal. It’s overwhelmed today by the Route 1 Biddles Plaza tollbooths and recent construction on the extended Route 301. The old bridge is long gone.
Who was Tybout?
Ella Middleton Tybout was born in 1871, near today’s Hamburg Road and Route 9, and died in 1952 in Pennsylvania. The family estates Bellevue and Stockton were west of Route 9 north of Red Lion Creek. A now-missing state historical marker was placed on Hamburg Road in 2001.
Starting in 1901, she published in popular magazines like Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Frank Leslie’s Monthly and New England Magazine. She later wrote several novels, for example, “The Smuggler” and “The Wife of the Secretary of State.”