There was a time when local high school football teams were plentiful, the rivalries fierce, and the Thanksgiving Day games were the center of attention amid a myriad of high school colors, proudly displayed. Greater Wilmington had community schools before a 1978 busing order aimed at creating racial balances swept away a slice of Americana forever.
Editor’s note: In a special series on “The Lost High Schools” published in the fall of 2006, the Community News reported that only one school district, Wilmington, was excluded from the 1968 Educational Advancement Act that consolidated 49 school districts into 26 across the state.
In fact, there were three, large school districts excluded from consolidating without being subject to referenda (public votes by the residents of the districts). The other two districts were Alfred I. duPont (now a large part of the Brandywine School District) and Newark (now the majority of the Christina School District). The following story has been edited to reflect this correction.
There was a time when local high school football teams were plentiful, the rivalries fierce, and the Thanksgiving Day games were the center of attention amid a myriad of high school colors, proudly displayed.
It was an era of bobby socks, greasers and drive-in movies when the P.S. du Pont High School Dynamiters battled the cross-town Wilmington High School Red Devils for bragging rights in the city, while in New Castle, the De La Warr High School Lions challenged arch-rival William Penn High School.
It was also an era when institutionalized segregation was being challenged in neighborhoods and in the nation’s high court, often framed as battles over equal access to public education.
In Delaware, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, a conglomeration of lawsuits that included two New Castle County schools, was only the first step in a fierce, decades-long battle to implement integration plans that were just and feasible.
For a quarter century after Brown vs. Board, northern Delaware’s schools, students and communities lived through tension and upheaval as they moved from the segregation of the 1950s to integration in the 1960s, to legal battles contending that schools had re-segregated in the 1970s.
The year 1978 was pivotal, as the State Board of Education exhausted its last appeal and the courts ordered a sweeping re-integration plan. What came to be known as “the busing order” was unprecedented, and changed the face of public education in northern Delaware with racial quotas, sweeping pupil reassignments, school closings and reconfigurations, and bus rides up to an hour each way.The New Castle County Planning Board of Education created by court order was composed of President Gilbert S. Scarborough, Vice President William H. Clark, Mary DiVirgilio, Wendell Howell and Earl J. Reed Jr., with George V. Kirk serving as the chief administrator and executive secretary, according to the “Plan for Desegregation and Reorganization of Eleven Districts in New Castle County to Meet Requirements of District Court Order of August 5, 1977.” The reorganization of schools was approved by the planning board of education in meetings held between August 10, 1977 and September 28, 1977.
Widespread loss of confidence in the public schools and resistance to busing in the 1980s gave rise to a reversal of the busing order and sparked the charter school movement in the 1990s, and finally led to a legislative reaffirmation of neighborhood schools in 2000.
Amid the battle of ideals for achieving social justice, were students caught in the middle of legal wrangling, who just wanted to live out their high school careers as normal children. But for some of them who endured closures and reassignments, gone were the traditions of proud neighborhood schools, their homecomings, their theater productions, sports and proms.
With the stroke of a pen, a slice of Americana in Northern New Castle County began to disappear with the conversion of De La Warr, Conrad, and P.S. duPont High schools into junior high and elementary schools.
People who lived through the era agree the effort to right the wrongs of past discrimination turned education in northern Delaware on its head. But none felt the disruption as keenly as the class of 1979, who suddenly found themselves classmates with former rivals their final year of high school.
“We had Conrad (High School) rings, but ended up with Wilmington High diplomas,” said Jim Kelley, who was moved to Wilmington his senior year.
How and why did it happen? What were its effects, both intended and unintended on northern Delaware’s school children and their communities?
Legislation that segregated
In 1956, just two years after Brown vs. Board, black students in downstate Clayton filed suit against their school district for refusing to admit them. As a result, the U.S. District Court ordered the Delaware State Board of Education to submit and implement a statewide desegregation plan. The case, called Evans vs. Buchanan, referred to the last name of the first plaintiff (Evans), and Buchanan, the last name of the president of the State Board of Education.
By 1967, the Board of Education had dismantled the last of the black school districts, and the federal Office of Civil Rights commended Delaware as the first Southern or border state to formally end its dual-school system. Although Wilmington’s Howard High School remained virtually all black, students from other area high schools recalled peaceful integration and friendships built across racial lines.
However, the story didn’t end there.
The next year, in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination – with riots in Wilmington’s streets, 21 buildings burned to the ground, 40 injured, 154 arrests and Delaware’s entire National Guard of 2,800 mobilized to patrol Wilmington for nine months – the State Legislature enacted “The Educational Advancement Act of 1968.”
The Act, which restructured the state’s 49 districts into 26 in 1969, also laid the groundwork for re-opening Evans vs. Buchanan in 1971. That year, plaintiffs argued that the Act had effectively re-segregated Northern New Castle County schools when it disallowed Wilmington (which had shifted from 73 percent white in 1954 to 79 percent black by 1971) from consolidating with the suburban districts, which were 90 percent white.
Wilmington was one of three, large school districts excluded from consolidating without being subject to referenda (public votes by the residents of the districts). The other two districts were Alfred I. duPont (now a large part of the Brandywine School District) and Newark (now part of the Christina School District).
Some felt such provisions were aimed at keeping the increasingly black city children out of the predominantly white suburbs. Among those were five black Wilmington families – encouraged by Marilyn Harwick, a white mother who withdrew her children from city schools as blacks became a majority and performance declined – who filed suit, according to University of Delaware history professor Dr. Raymond Wolters, who wrote “The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation.”
Others in Wilmington saw no problem with the Act, as most cities have school districts contiguous with their borders, not only large ones like Philadelphia and New York City, but also towns like Smyrna, Del., Elkton, Md., and Avon Grove, Pa.
Still others thought interfering with the Act would damage the black community’s newly gained political power, since by 1971 the seven-member Wilmington Board of Education had gained a black majority for the first time, Wolters said in an interview with the Community News.
“For the first time, blacks had their own school board and many blacks felt they should build up the schools,” Wolters said.
Two black board members, Hermania Garrett and Robert Mitchell, wanted nothing to do with the lawsuit. However, the other two black board members, Lloyd Casson and Roy Wagstaff – also initially apprehensive about the suit – ultimately voted with the three white board members, led by Janet Greenwell, to pursue integration through metropolitan dispersion.
Jea Street, today a New Castle County councilman, was just getting his start as a community activist at the time as the first executive director of the Parent Education Resource Center, an office created by the Wilmington Home School Community Council to help transition through the impending desegregation.
Street, a 1970 Wilmington High graduate, said he was one of the few black leaders at the time who openly opposed metropolitan dispersion from the start. Bebe Coker and William “Hicks” Anderson were the others.
“At that time, there were several schools of thought among Wilmington families and leaders. However, the vast majority supported desegregation,” Street said. “Why? The elders in the community, my mother included, recalled how under the segregated system, separate but equal wasn’t – how they would get the used books after the white schools were done with them. Those feelings never go away.”
A look of sadness comes over Coker’s face when she thinks about how it all turned out.
“We penalized the schools when we should have gone after the housing laws,” Coker said, referring to realtors’ practice –propagated by state and federal guidebooks – of steering clients to neighborhoods according to race.
A question of scope
In a July 12, 1974 decision on Evans vs. Buchanan, a three-judge panel comprised of Circuit Judge John J. Gibbons, District Judge Caleb M. Wright Jr. and District Judge Caleb R. Layton ordered the State Board of Education to submit plans to desegregate Northern New Castle County’s schools, according to court records.
The three-judge panel wrestled over whether the remedy must be county-wide or could be resolved within Wilmington’s district. Gibbons and Wright held it must incorporate areas beyond Wilmington. Layton dissented, saying the court’s findings had had no basis for an inter-district remedy.
But the story didn’t end with that judgment, either.
People understood the court’s opinion would likely lead to district consolidation and busing, and there was widespread opposition that delayed implementation of the plan four more years.
For example, the General Assembly was ordered by the court to enact legislation to end segregation but it failed to do so. The suburban public showed their opposition with demonstrations, there was white flight from the city and enrollment in private schools increased.
Some suburbanites formed the Positive Action Committee Inc. (PAC). The group, supporting Layton’s minority opinion, argued that since suburban districts admitted students regardless of race and had done nothing to keep blacks out of their districts, they should not be included in the remedy to Wilmington’s problem, said founder and president James Venema. PAC grew to a dues paying membership of 12,500.
“It had become a case where judges were writing law instead of interpreting law,” Venema said. “We had integration. The whole concept here was racial balancing.”
With the support of groups like PAC, the defendant Delaware State Board of Education and intervening defendant school districts filed more than 10 appeals.
However, not every suburban district agreed with PAC.
DeLaWarr, a district south of Wilmington that had shifted from a white majority in the 1960s to a black majority by the time of the suit, argued that unless the whole county was included most school districts named in the suit would never be integrated.
Judges Gibbons and Wright supported the DeLaWarr plan, which would lead to a singular, county-wide school district. Layton dissented in part again, saying while inter-district busing was necessary, consolidating 11 districts with 80,000 students into one was too drastic.
Layton also said the court erred in adopting racial quotas, which a higher court later upheld.
In June, 1976, the District Court’s three-judge panel was dissolved and Judge Murray Schwartz was appointed to handle the remedy phase of the case.Eleven school districts consolidated into one by Judge Murray Schwartz:
Alfred I. du Pont, Alexis I. du Pont, Claymont, Conrad, DeLaWarr, Marshallton-McKean, Mount Pleasant, New Castle-Gunning Bedford, Newark, Stanton and Wilmington were consolidated into the New Castle County School District.
During this phase, the defendants continued to appeal and seek stays and the General Assembly failed to enact legislation. However, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal, and their options were eventually exhausted. Schwartz’s order to consolidate 11 school districts into one stood.
Throughout the process, Schwartz emphasized that the court did not have the expertise or inclination to micromanage school systems, and called on the State Legislature and the State Board of Education to come up with solutions.
However, he still had to deal the problem of quotas, which the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled unconstitutional. Without quotas, how could you measure whether integration had been successful? With them, you were breaking the law. His solution was to redefine pupil reassignment in terms of how many years a student would be bused out of their neighborhood.
People opposed to busing, like Venema, said Schwartz got away with quotas without calling them quotas.
Schwartz also created a temporary board, the New Castle County Planning Board of Education, to work out the details to implement the solution. The group was empowered to reassign students and to convert and close schools to achieve the desired racial mix. The first solution the planning board devised included converting or closing several schools—including all of the city’s traditional high schools.
The problem with the solution was that it was a one-way plan. Only Wilmington students would be bused out of their home districts into to the suburbs and not vise-versa, a solution that would essentially place the burden of fixing the problem on its victims, according to court documents.
Planning Board member Wendell Howell opposed it and came up with another alternative, which came to be known as the “9-3 Plan.” It called for city students to be bused for nine years of their 12-year education into the suburbs and suburban students to be bused into the city for three. The plan also preserved, for the time being, Wilmington and Howard High schools.
However, it did not spare De La Warr High School in New Castle, which had a black majority by then, predominantly white Henry C. Conrad High School near Newport, and P.S. duPont High School in Wilmington, which had recently turned predominantly black.
The 1977 plan, called the “Plan for Desegregation of Eleven Districts in New Castle County,” aimed to bring unity to the region.
“No existing district will continue in name or function,” it stated. “Former identities and alliances will diminish in time. In three years, the student identity problems will be eliminated.”
Although the Planning Board of Education intended for its solution to help end racial tensions, residual effects would be seen for years to come across the county. White flight eventually led to the closing of Wilmington High, and ironically, Claymont High, the first school in the state to integrate – two years before Brown vs. Board.
Wolters said New Castle County education fell victim to the philosophy espoused by Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman, who in his 1966 “Equality of Educational Opportunity” report said that blacks would benefit if they were in majority white, middle class classrooms. Coleman recanted his report in 1975 when busing accelerated white flight, according to Johns Hopkins Magazine.
Wilmington High School graduate Donald P. Patton, now principal of Kirk Middle School in Newark, said it was a racist assumption to believe that the Wilmington School District could not survive or thrive if given the chance.
“I don’t get this notion that black students can’t learn at all black schools. That is old, limited thinking,” Patton said. “Any time you can keep students in their own neighborhood they are better off, and that includes city students. I know teachers are committed to work with students in after school activities, but kids can’t stay. They ride buses home and their parents aren’t around to chauffeur them.”
But Howell said it was not about eliminating a predominantly black system.
“You don’t just go to school with white kids to learn better. If you are a black school district in a black, bourgeois town where you can get the resources you need for quality of education, you won’t aspire to change the school district at all,” he said. “I said that in court.”Next week:
• The lingering effects of the 1978 busing order: racial imbalance and declining enrollment close Claymont High in 1990. Graduates call it “the death of Claymont.”
• Remembering Claymont High School