Then & Now: Black History Highlights features Rodney Hotel and Aunt Mary’s

“Then & Now: Black History Highlights of Delaware” is a collaboration between Carlton Hall, a historian-architectural historian with the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural AffairsState Historic Preservation Office, and Desiree May, the Division’s social media lead, to highlight Black-owned businesses, figures and trades of our history while shining a light on Black-owned businesses, figures and trades of today. We know the importance of learning from our past and how our history impacts our now and the future, so let’s dive in!

THEN: The Rodney Hotel known as “The Rodney”

The Rodney Hotel was Black-owned beginning in 1944, after it was purchased by Walter Weather, who paid $6,000 for the two acres of land with the hotel already on the property, according to the New Castle deed record from 1944. Weatherly was an African American living in Chester, Pennsylvania, who was originally from Salisbury, Maryland. The individuals interviewed said the Rodney Hotel was referred to as “The Rodney.”

This image shows a black and white photograph of the Rodney Hotel that the last owners had at the property.
This image shows a photograph of the Rodney Hotel that the last owners had at the property. Photo courtesy of Barbara & Melvin Cook.

The Rodney was the most popular Delaware listing in the Green Book. The Rodney Hotel also included a restaurant located near the town of Townsend in southern New Castle County that welcomed African Americans during the segregation years of 1890-1965. People of color knew that they could stop there to use the restroom while traveling along Dupont Highway. There were not a lot of friendly rest stops on Dupont Highway during the late 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s for people of color. Hamburgers, hotdogs and soul food that included pigs’ feet were served there. 

The Rodney also had a dancehall and jukebox. Students from Delaware State College, now called Delaware State University, frequently visited the hotel and restaurant. Teenagers from the nearby area also came to The Rodney to eat, socialize, hang out and dance. The Rodney Hotel was destroyed by a fire on the evening of Aug. 1, 1965.

NOW: Aunt Mary’s Soul Food Kitchen & Violetta’s Event Space

Aunt Mary’s Kitchen is a Black-owned soul food restaurant that currently has two locations in Milford and Dover as well as a food truck in Wilmington. The business began in 2015 when owner Mary Zachery — a.k.a. “Aunt Mary” — made food and platters out of her home and passed out flyers to local barbershops and storefronts to promote her passion for making food. 

Image shows the Aunt Mary's storefront.
Aunt Mary’s now has two locations in Delaware.

In 2016, the leg work began to open a storefront and by January 2018, the Milford location was open for business. Recently, Aunt Mary’s expanded to their Dover location in November 2020. Some of their featured dishes include stuffed chicken or stuffed fish with crab meat, baked mac and cheese, sweet potatoes and collard greens.

Operations Manager Jermaine Zachery noted that the main goal is to “give inspiration and show people that they can overcome adversity.” The Rodney, similar to Aunt Mary’s brand, was created to be a safe space for Black people and locals to eat good food, celebrate and have fun. 

Image shows an example of colorful artwork, which is a modern remake of the popular "Sugar Shack" dancing scene by Ernie Barners, that can be found at Aunt Mary's.
Aunt Mary’s restaurant features artwork in the dining area that is a modern remake of the popular “Sugar Shack” dancing scene by Ernie Barnes.

Currently, the restaurant hosts quarterly events for the public such as paint nights, music nights, and more. Goals for the future include expanding operation hours from 12-8 p.m. seven days a week to 8 a.m.- 10 p.m. to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner. Zachery said in the next few years they plan to sell products such as their ‘garlic butter drip’ sauce in their restaurants and possibly even stores.

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