A Georgian school building stands majestically in a scenic residential neighborhood in Wilmington’s Ninth Ward, its white columns and stone steps crisp against red brick. So stunning is the classic design and craftsmanship, artists have replicated the 1935 building and photographed it for greeting cards. Welcome to P.S. duPont High School, once part of the Wilmington school district.
A Georgian school building stands majestically in a scenic residential neighborhood in Wilmington’s Ninth Ward, its white columns and stone steps crisp against red brick. So stunning is the classic design and craftsmanship, artists have replicated the 1935 building and photographed it for greeting cards.
At one point the city’s largest high school with more than 1,500 students, P.S. duPont High was redeployed as an elementary school sometime after a 1978 U.S. District Court desegregation order closed schools across the county and mandated busing to redistribute the city’s predominantly black student population.
Alumni who remember the grand hallways, three-stories of classrooms and massive gymnasiums of P.S. still have a difficult time envisioning it as a place for 9 to 12-year olds.
“Sentimental or not, look at the place. It has high school written all over it,” said Bill Lawrence, of Greenville, a 1955 graduate.
From high academic standards, to close friendships, to sports and great teachers, good things happened at P.S., graduates said, and they hated to see it end. But despite the good, the years preceding its closing were fraught with racial tensions, and in Delaware places like P.S. fell victim to attempts to remedy the problem.
In 1968, the P.S. homecoming queen was black, but a Catholic boy wouldn’t dare date a Jewish girl, for fear of what the families would do, said P.S. alumnus John Flaherty. It was a school where black and white athletes played side by side, but Jewish teens had their fraternities and the greasers had theirs. It was a school where riots happened in the cafeteria, the National Guard patrolled the parking lot and city-wide curfews followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Amid that undercurrent of racial tension, in 1971, several Wilmington families filed suit against the Delaware State Board of Education. They argued that Delaware had re-segregated when Wilmington, which had become more than 90 percent black, was left out of a statewide school district reorganization in 1968. The court sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the legislature and state school board to find a solution that would re-integrate the schools.
The public, the state and the board of education resisted, but in 1978, a court order went into effect that closed or converted several schools, including those at P.S.
Former students, both black and white, recall the closing with mixed feelings.
Alumnus Daniel Young, who loved the fierce rivalry with the cross-town Wilmington High School Red Devils, couldn’t understand why the order had to happen, because no one really thought about their school’s shift from 95 percent white in 1957 to 95 percent black by his graduating year, 1973.
“We had problems like any other high school,” said Young, of Wilmington. “But our high school black kids, white kids or Jewish kids never worried about race. You know what we worried about? Beating Wilmington High, beating De La Warr, beating Howard or beating Sallies.”
Some alumni from earlier generations couldn’t understand either.
“When we went to school, we all knew that it wasn’t right that the black kids who lived a few blocks from us had to go to Howard High School,” said John W. “Jack” Hudson, a 1950 graduate who was a P.S. student during the dual-school system era. “So, they changed it. I’m just not sure that was the right move.”
Another 1973 grad, Wilmington City Councilman Charles Potter, said one of the problems with today’s integrated system is that cultures clash inside the schools, often at the expense of minorities.
“When our young people go to schools outside of the city, they can do something that’s (acceptable) within our culture and other people feel it’s taboo or out of line,” he said. “Then, they put names on them that never leave and they end up in alternative schools when all they needed was a strong, male figure to help straighten them out.”
At first, P.S. class of 1965 alumnus Arthur Goldman, of Brandywine Hundred, was delighted that the schools would be more equal.
“Then, after several years, it was apparent that busing was not achieving what it set out to accomplish. Children were spending up to three hours of the school day riding buses, and they seemed to segregate themselves at any school they were sent to,” he said.
What especially saddened some P.S. students was the way the closing was handled.
According to the New Castle County Planning Board of Education, its Pupil Assignment Committee was charged with deciding which schools to close or convert and where students would be assigned. With regard to the consolidation of 11 school districts into one, the committee said, “Former identities and alliances will diminish in time.”
While that didn’t bother some alumni, like Joseph Pennington (P.S. class of 1954), who said life goes on, others saw it differently.
“They threw out the big Dynamiter (mascot),” Young said. “It was in the trash, all broken and everything. That actually broke my heart. We used to touch the thing when we came out for football games. Everybody would touch it.
“The court order destroyed the cross-town rivalry. It destroyed the fact that the city of Wilmington had high schools,” he said. “When they were gone, they were gone. And when they left, you know what left with them? A sense of belonging, a sense of pride.”
Young remembers his teacher Wodeman Schock filling in for his father at a sports awards banquet. He remembers Willy Miranda, his Spanish teacher, and the two ended up working together at Brandywine High School. Young was the best man at Miranda’s wedding.
P.S. was a neighborhood school, and many alumni share a strong conviction that neighborhood schools are the best way to instill a sense of community.
Beverly (Sutton) Potter, a 1960 P.S. duPont grad, said she understood the shift in population made it necessary to put her alma mater into service as an elementary school. However, she said, “the changes brought about by taking children out of their neighborhoods has had more problems than advantages in my opinion.”
Jeffery Lewis, of Greenville a P.S. alumnus from the class of 1967, played baseball and football and was the yearbook literary editor.
“I think it was wrong to force racial quotas and it was a mistake to close P.S. There are still families and high school-aged kids living in the neighborhood that could benefit from the sense of community,” he said. “Educationally, P.S. prepared me for college and life. Socially, there were many kids from all walks of life and I had many friends, some with whom I am still close.” Today, Lewis is the first vice president and a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch.
While the court order was a well-intentioned, it really affected the concept of neighborhood schools, said Dr. Nick Manolakos, of Limestone Hills, a 1969 P.S. graduate. Today he is an administrator in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. He said he has worked to establish a strong sense of community in his schools, because “20 or 30 years later, we’re finding that personalized schools is one of the keys.”
Some alumni still hope that eventually, P.S. will come back as a high school, though the Brandywine School District has no current plans to do so.
“I’m still hopeful one day they’ll bring it back. We have a very strong community in the (Ninth Ward),” Potter said. “It would be even stronger when we are able to educate all of our children – black, white, Hispanic – in a unified way.”
State Rep. Dennis Williams, P.S. class of 1971, is skeptical about having city high schools because people are more mobile now. He also worries about how Wilmington would be able to support the local portion of expenses, a concern shared by Mayor James M. Baker. (The state usually pays for 70 percent of educational operations and 60 percent of major construction projects. Local taxes and federal money funds the rest of operating costs, and referenda authorize the Delaware Department of the Treasury to sell 20-year bonds that pay for the 40 percent local share of major construction projects.)
Even so, Williams, of Wilmington, said P.S., where he played baseball and football, was his second home, and thinks it would be good for the city to have community schools again. Because those types of schools weren’t around when his children went to school, they graduated from St. Mark’s High School in suburban Wilmington.
“You want to know why? Because I had no faith in the public schools.”
Potter would have sent his sons to P.S. but they attend Archmere Academy in Claymont instead.
“It’s a loss of community and being able to gather at place where you know a lot of the alumni and people,” he said. “It’s a proven fact that back then our graduation rate (in the black community) was at least 75 to 80 percent. Now we’re down to 30 percent or something. Something is drastically wrong that needs to be fixed.”