More than 150 people gathered Sept. 5 during a Menhaden Fish Net Reel Committee rally to show their support for the effort to keep the historic net reel on the Lewes Historical Society campus at the corner of West Third and Shipcarpenter streets.
The Lewes Historic Preservation Architectural Review Commission has ruled that the reel must be removed from the site, but it extended a deadline pending the outcome of a historical society appeal to the Lewes Board of Adjustment.
Menhaden fishing was the principal industry in Lewes for more than 90 years, beginning in the late 19th century and ending in 1966 when the supply of fish had been depleted. In the 1950s, Lewes was the nation's No. 1 fishing port. As many as 1,000 workers were either employed in or provided support services to the industry. The restored net reel is the only artifact on public display from that era.
Master of ceremonies Diaz Bonville said the committee in charge of the rally has two main reasons for supporting the Lewes Historical Society in its effort to fight the ruling that the net reel must be removed:
• The net reel is a historical symbol of an integrated industry which did not discriminate against blacks during the Jim Crow era when laws were in place to enforce segregation.
• The location at West Third and Shipcarpenter streets is in the heart of Lewes' historically Black neighborhood, with homes and businesses along Park Avenue owned by Black Lewes residents.
Debate spans a year
Over the past year since it was moved to the historical complex, the net reel has become a major topic of debate in Lewes. The HPARC ruling that the reel – classified as a structure – must be removed from the site has been put on hold awaiting a decision by the board of adjustment, which will meet at 10 a.m., Monday, Sept. 20, in the Rollins Community Center.
Neighbors submitted letters to the city objecting to the artifact’s placement, saying it did not fit in with the rhythm and scale of the streetscape. Commissioners agreed, adding that it does not meet requirements set forth in city code.
The historical society spent $30,000 to move and restore the net reel from its longtime location along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal near the Lightship Overfalls. The society did not seek permission for the placement from HPARC, whose members are appointed by Lewes Mayor and City Council. The council ruled that the commission has jurisdiction in the matter.
The society eventually filed an application to place the reel at the corner of West Third and Shipcarpenter streets. At its Sept. 1, 2020 meeting, the commission voted to deny the application and ordered the society to remove the reel.
Historical impact of industry
The rally featured five speakers who explained the role the fishing industry played in the history of Lewes and its importance to the lives of African Americans who worked there.
Many of the speakers have direct ties to the menhaden fishing industry.
The Rev. George Edwards, co-founder of Friendship Baptist Church, worked at Fish Products Co. for 11 years, until 1964. He also helped establish a church at Fort Miles, which was later moved to Fourth Street.
“The net reel was a very important part of the industry,” Edwards said, adding that the nets were taken off boats, washed and repaired, and stored in a net house on the dock.
“This is part of our history and I'd like to see it remain in Lewes,” Edwards added. “We have to keep history alive and remember it so we know where we came from.”
Tim Timmons, a 10-year Army veteran who works for the U.S. Postal Service, lived in factory housing while his father worked two shifts and his mother worked in the kitchen at the fish plants.
Timmons, a Cape graduate who now lives in Milford, said the fish factory is where people from all over came to work and support their families. “I lived this. It was a big part of my life. You can't change history; this is where it all started for many people, and this reel should be right here,” he said.
Robert Kennedy's parents worked for the two menhaden plants in Lewes. His father was general manager/comptroller, and his mother was the president's private secretary and an officer for the 21 fishing corporations in Lewes. He also worked at the plants during summers while in high school and college, including a stint as second engineer on two menhaden boats. He lives in Cape Shores on the site of one of the former plants.
Kennedy said there were two commercial menhaden plants in Lewes for more than 90 years, selling products locally and around the world. “This reel is the only remaining piece of equipment from those plants. It should be preserved and prominently displayed,” he said.
Esthelda “Stell” Ramona Parker Selby, a retired teacher and administrator who grew up in Milton and Lewes, said her mother sold clothing and shoes from a catalog and delivered the goods to workers at the plants. Selby remembers accompanying her mother on visits.
She said the area where the rally was taking place was the site of a vibrant African American community which contributed to the economy and society in Lewes.
“This reel is part of the preservation of history in Lewes, and if it's not here, it would be throwing away African American history,” she said.
“Blacks and whites worked side by side achieving the American dream,” said Bill Collick, a retired Lewes teacher, coach and administrator.
“The industry set a foundation for Lewes' growth, and the net reel serves as a pillar for commerce in Lewes. I urge you all to work together and with us to honor the complete history of Lewes,” Collick told the crowd. “Write the mayor and council, the commission and the board of adjustment. We can be the difference makers.”
Questions about commission
Rally director Alicia Jones, a lawyer who lives in Lewes, said gentrification has led to the loss of most of Lewes' African American history.
She said the Lewes Historical Society believes this may be the last remaining net reel in the nation. “Think of it as a national treasure to be celebrated and to be treated with respect,” she said.
Jones questioned the commission's role and authority. “This commission was formed by the city council and mayor, so should not the city have power over delegated entities?” she asked. “HPARC reports to no one and has never acknowledged Black history.”
She said the commission bowed down to the wishes of a few disgruntled neighbors and ignored a petition in support of the reel's location signed by 84 people.
“This decision is not about Shipcarpenter Square or street or West Third Street; it is about Delaware's dual history, and as such, the decision should be left to historians, not politicians or lobbying by elitist landed gentry. The net reel is one of the few physical, visible remembrances that says we were here too, and our future was tied to the lifespan of the menhaden fish industry,” Jones said.
What is the Jim Crow era?
So-called Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation were enacted at the federal level and by state and local governments from the late 19th century until 1965, when federal civil rights legislation was passed.
The laws mandated segregation of public places, schools and transportation, rest rooms, restaurants and drinking fountains. Other laws prohibited Blacks from serving jury duty or becoming lawyers and banned interracial marriage. Many hotels and theaters were also segregated.
In Delaware, Jim Crow laws were enacted in 1875 and were not challenged until 1963. The laws defined African Americans as second-class citizens.