The Occupation of Wilmington

Other events of 1968 would bring conflict and strife almost to Hanover’s very doorstep. In response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, small-scale rioting broke out in Wilmington, just as riots large and small occurred in dozens of cities across the nation. Wilmington’s rioters were for the most part teenagers, and the destruction they caused was limited to the burning or looting of a dozen or so small businesses in an area of the West Side, but the sight of columns of smoke rising into the air and of National Guard troops patrolling the city traumatized Delaware’s political leaders and many of its residents for years to come. The governor, over the objections of the mayor and many comunity leaders, kept the Guardsmen on limited patrols through the summer and into the winter; the armed troops would not leave until the day his successor took office the following January.

The Occupation of Wilmington, as this episode was called, caused scars on the city and its people that have lasted to this day. Some suburbanites grew fearful of traveling into Wilmington in broad daylight, even to attend church on Sunday morning.

Over the next few years businesses relocated, taking their employees, customers and tax payments with them. Although the trend to suburban shopping had already begun with the construction of shopping centers at the Merchandise Mart and Prices Corner, the occupation hastened the decline of Wilmington’s Market Street as the county’s merchandising center.

Even before 1968 there had been signs of “white flight,” and real estate agents talked obliquely of “changing neighborhoods” as places to be avoided. As the troops patrolled the streets a growing number of families looked to sell their city homes and move to the still-growing suburbs. The city placed restrictions on “For Sale” signs on homes in the city so as not to advertise the exodus, but the message was clear — remain in the city at your peril. Hanover, like all the city’s predominately white churches, faced the dual challenge of keeping its existing members from fleeing, and at the same time attracting members from the neighborhoods that were changing around them.

In 1970 the Hanover congregation called Joseph L. Perry as its pastor, looking for a man who could appeal to both the older and younger populations. Mr. Perry was brought in to design ways that the church could work within the local community, a requirement that was an important part of his ministry and of every pastor that has followed. Craft groups were created by local neighborhood women, most of whom were African-American, and potluck suppers were designed to bring church and neighborhood families to the table. A credit union was created with Christ Our King, a nearby Catholic church, to encourage saving by local residents and other work with Catholic organizations became an objective for the congregation.

John Cooper, an African-American music director, was recruited with an eye toward integrating the church through music. Mr. Cooper’s “High Church” sense of worship was appealing to many members, but the racial balance of Hanover changed very little.

The relationship between pastor and congregation began a slow transformation during these trying years as individual members worked hard to find a way to make the mission of the church, the needs of the congregation, and the changing demographics come together in a way that would ensure the future of Hanover. Membership continued to decline but there was a base of loyal people who felt that Hanover had a real mission in the community. Jeff Myers joined Rev. Perry in 1974 as associate pastor with a focus on young people and church school. He would be the last pastor to live in the manse next door and he would remain until 1977. (The manse was sold the following year; modern-day ministers preferred a housing allowance and the opportunity for home ownership.) By 1980 the pastor and the congregation came to the conclusion that it was time for a change in leadership. In the midst of the lowest attendance in Hanover history a new initiative began to gain strength — a movement that would threaten the very existence of the church. Several members began meeting with Westminster Church to discuss the possibility of a merger. Citing the decline in membership, a questionable location and a lack of momentum, they felt that the departure of Mr. Perry was the opportune time to join with a larger, growing church. The News Journal carried stories of the possible merger and Hanover members took sides on the issue.

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