Claymont High School was the first public school in Delaware to integrate in 1952, an historic fact that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated school desegregation. Its reward was to be closed by the Brandywine Board of Education in 1990 because of "racial imbalance" during the busing era.
Sometimes a single moment can capture the sense of an era.
Dan Harkins remembers such a defining moment that illustrated how ahead of its time Claymont had been in becoming the first high school in Delaware to integrate, two years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education.
It happened one night when his football team, the Claymont High School Indians, was returning home from a win in Maryland. Three buses of cheerleaders, athletes, marching band members, twirlers and color guard rolled into a hamburger joint on Rte. 40 in Maryland to celebrate.
“Everything went out on the grill. They thought it was bonanza night, and they were going to make a fortune,” Harkins said of the restaurant staff. “And we were all excited, ready to celebrate the victory.”
When the students began to settle in, restaurant staff informed them that the black players would have to eat their burgers on the bus, said Harkins, class of 1965.
Coach Bill Holstein told everyone to get back onto the buses.
As one, they left to celebrate together at a Rte. 13 restaurant in Delaware that didn’t discriminate.
“We all knew what was going on. We didn’t even question it,” said Harkins, of Claymont. “It was the right thing to do, and it showed what the 1952 moral choice meant.”
Alumni from that era and the decades that followed have been vocal about owning Claymont High’s peaceful integration as part of their heritage, part of their community’s identity, and, as one of two northern Delaware schools named in the landmark Brown vs. Board court order that ended desegregation nationwide.
That is why so many of them were dismayed, even infuriated when the Brandywine School District Board of Education closed the school due in part to “racial imbalance” in 1990.
As alumni look back, some say that decision was another defining moment for Claymont, the one they fault for the once vibrant town’s decline.
Others say Claymont’s problems were larger than that, and the closing was only one in a series of events that changed the face of their community. These men and women look to new solutions to revitalize their hometown.
From integration to
quotas to closing
Bernice “Sandy” (Byrd) Couch was one of the first 11 black students to integrate into Claymont in 1952, and the only one in her seventh grade class. The 1958 alumna said nobody gave her a hard time, and she had no sense of the history-making magnitude of her attendance there.
“I went to class. I had to study just like everybody else,” Couch said. “I was never treated any differently.”
In the decades that followed, the rest of northern Delaware struggled with the implications of Brown vs. Board, which had declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional.
Delaware became the first state to formally end its dual school system in 1967. However, within four years, the State Board of Education was under fire for segregation. It was sued by Wilmington students, who successfully argued that a 1968 statewide school district reorganization had effectively re-segregated northern Delaware’s schools when it separated Wilmington’s predominantly black school system from the suburbs’ predominantly white ones.
The decision in that case led to Northern New Castle County school closings, far-reaching pupil reassignment and mandatory busing to achieve racially balanced schools, beginning in 1978.
In 1990, the ripple effect of the order reached Claymont.
Despite its place in history as a frontrunner in peaceful integration, the Brandywine Board of Education closed it due to declining enrollment and a racial imbalance. Its population, which had the highest percentage of black students among Brandywine’s schools, was redistributed throughout the district’s other three high schools (Brandywine, Concord and Mount Pleasant), according to Dr. Raymond Wolters, a history professor at the University of Delaware.
“It was certainly a victim of busing because enrollment did drop after busing,” said House of Representatives Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith (R-Clair Manor). “The closing of Claymont High School was one of the greatest tragedies ever in this state. In Claymont, my constituents still feel like they were robbed.”
Ironically, it was the busing order that created Claymont’s overrepresentation of blacks. The high school had been racially diverse for decades, but became “racially identifiable” as Wilmington students, predominantly black, were bused to Claymont.
“I find the fact that we lost Claymont High School to the desegregation of New Castle County extremely ironic given its place in history,” said Jean (Morrison) Lee, class of 1976.
A town dies
Virginia (Tryon) Smilack, a 1965 alumna, called the closing the death of Claymont. She is the daughter of Dr. Sager Tryon, a Claymont Special School District Board of Education member during the integration era.
“It did not help Wilmington schools and it destroyed not only the school district but the town itself,” she said, because it was a community based on its schools.
Others see it differently. John DeCostanza, who has run Joe and Tony’s Automotive Service with his brother since the 1970s, said he doesn’t think Claymont has done any worse than elsewhere.
“We are subject to the same cyclical patters as everywhere,” he said. It has been a good place to have a shop, because people tend to be close knit and community oriented.
“I always thought this was a great place to do business,” he said. “People around here highly identify with Claymont and patronize local businesses.”
However, alumna Paula (Wyatt) Rineer (Class of 1965) said she felt her town allegiance dwindle without a high school to rally around. She wanted her children to have the same educational experiences she had. Since it could not happen in Claymont, she moved to Cecil County, Md., where schools are the center of the community. She said many of her classmates picked up and left for the same reason.
However, others say losing the high school was only one of a number of things over the years that damaged Claymont’s sense of community.
Brett Saddler, president of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation, a group founded to revitalize the community, said he can think of a lot of things that led to decline.
Interstate 95 cut the town off from the rest of Brandywine Hundred in the 1960s. Then there was the decline of local industry and loss of jobs, the destruction of culturally-significant historic structures through bad land use decisions and overdevelopment of low-income housing and construction of a second highway, I-495, that ripped through the community again, he said.
Don Forrest, a 1965 Claymont graduate who lives in San Francisco, said he can’t fully fault the school district. Fixing huge problems like discrimination is complicated, and no one can foresee mistakes made trying to fix them.
“At the time, the best solutions we could think of to break the color barriers included racial quotas. Did it help? Some, I think. Did it have to be done that way? We’ll never know,” Forrest said. “Did it achieve what it intended to achieve? Not as well as we had hoped. In my case, at least, going to school with kids of differing races saved me from fear of the unknown, and all the reactionary stuff that leads to.”
Barbara J. Pawelski nee Heffelfinger agreed.
“Choices are sometimes made that don’t particularly make sense, but it was long ago,” and good things have come of it, she said. A community center, with a variety of social services and community groups, is now housed in the old high school on Green Street. The newer high school building is now Claymont Elementary School.
Thomas Edwin Wroe, class of 1962, is less understanding. He called Claymont High’s closing, which he links to the 1978 busing order, as one of the most frightening things he’s ever seen as a public administrator, and a decision made in fright and ignorance that cost the children time and county dollars.
Busing brought city students and negative effects, some alumni said. Most were blacks from the city, but the problem wasn’t their skin color, it was their and their families’ understandable lack of buy-in to Claymont.
However, others felt that having regular contact with city students was good for them. 1984 graduates Tina Grossman, Dawn Henry, Bev Guinto, Gretchen Boyd, Martha Frizzell and Anna Whitlock, still get together once a month for dinner.
“We had a great rapport with the kids in the city,” Grossman said. They became so close that her black girlfriends stuck up for her when she was in trouble.
“I remember someone bothering me in school and one my friends said, ‘Don’t you mess with my sister.’”
Many who still live in Claymont are concerned about revitalizing the area. A few think bringing a neighborhood high school back to its old location would help, but most don’t think that’s the right or only answer.
“It’s great to have a historical landmark,” said Dr. James “Gil” Ryan, class of 1965. “But a child of any color who gets an inferior education has a big disadvantage. All our public schools should be good schools. Unless it’s a special (charter) school, there is no reason for a new Claymont High.”
Others disagree, saying neighborhood schools are what make communities like Claymont thrive. Whether Claymont High was to return or not, its alumni still have their memories and their alma mater’s indelible place in history.
“At our 40th reunion, there were a whole bunch of folks who still felt very much connected to one another and to Claymont High School,” Forrest said. “What made our class special was still there, and we each carry a part of it with us on into the future.”