MLK Day prompts look at segregation in Delaware's schools
UPDATE: Friday, Jan. 17 at 12 p.m.
This story has been clarified that Dover High School began desegregation in 1954, and other schools in the district followed suit more gradually, achieving full integration by 1965.
“To put it figuratively in Biblical language, we've broken loose from the Egypt of slavery. We've moved through the wilderness of legal segregation and now we stand on the border of the Promised Land of integration.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said this in a speech at Monmouth College October 6, 1966, one year after full integration finally came to Dover schools. Dover High School was one of the first schools to admit African American students in 1954.
Although schools were supposed to be integrated in 1954 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, only 40% of Delaware’s had been desegregated in 1961, according to the Delaware Public Archives.
Jim Crow DNA
The roots of Delaware’s history with segregated schools run deep. The state’s only segregation law was for education, written into their revised constitution in 1897, said Bradley Skelcher, historian, author and retired history professor from Delaware State University.
“That became part of Delaware’s DNA it seemed,” he said.
It took decades for the General Assembly to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery: February 12, 1901, thirty years after it became the law of the land.
And segregation continued through the decades: Segregation issues in Dover helped spur changes in Delaware law.
When longtime Dover resident William L. Holden Jr. attended Booker T. Washington Junior High between 1941 and 1952, he played basketball, entertained crushes on schoolgirls and snuck goodies out of his peers’ lunch bags when they weren’t looking.
The "Junior High School" included grades 1-10 and drew students from Milford, Wyoming and Smyrna. Other African American schools did not offer classes past 8th or 9th grade. Some students from Harrington lived in boarding houses during the week in Dover, Holden said.
He stood far from what the renowned civil rights leader called “the border of the Promised Land of integration.
“There was no bus transportation in the city of Dover,” he said. “So, everybody that lived within the city limits had to walk.”
Still, the history of Booker T. Washington school goes back a century.
It was one of many African American schools statewide funded by Pierre S. du Pont in the early 1920s. The Wilmington entrepreneur and philanthropist funneled more than $6 million into construction to improve the buildings used by African American students.
Established in 1922, Booker T. Washington replaced two disheveled schoolhouses, one on Slaughter Street and the other on Division Street.
At the time, city school superintendent W.B. Thornburgh wrote about how 210 students and six teachers marched to their new home on Forest Street: “Monday, November 13, 1922, will be long remembered as a memorable day by the colored people of Dover,” he wrote. When an auditorium was added to the school in 1923, it became one of the only community centers for African Americans across the state.
As the population of African American students grew, the school expanded in the 1940s and later.
In 1952, Holden graduated with the last 10th-grade class at Booker T. Washington Junior High, because the new William Henry Comprehensive High School opened next door for grades 9 through 12.
There students could study everything from auto mechanics to agriculture to electrical engineering, Holden said. Another highlight was the introduction of a football and track team, which the junior high didn’t have.
Before William Henry High, African American students went to Delaware State University for their last two years.
Integration in Delaware
While opposition existed across the state, integration happened more smoothly in Dover than in school districts to the south, Skelcher said.
For example, racism dominated much of the Milford school district when white supremacist Bryant Bowles founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People and led a boycott to protest integration there.
“[Among] the board of education members there were some hardcore racists,” Skelcher said of Milford. “The school board expelled the black students and said, ‘You’re no longer welcome here.’”
At one time, African American students received threats of violence and required a police escort to school, he said.
The key to smooth integration in Dover was its proximity to the Air Force Base, which had been integrated since 1950, Skelcher said.
One story stood out to him: Marshall Arnell, one of the first African American students at Dover High School, played on the football team there. One day, Dover were playing (and defeating) a team from Sussex County. When the opposing team’s coach saw Arnell take his helmet off, he forfeited the game and took his team off the field.
“[After that,] they couldn’t play a sports game. They had to go to New Castle County to play,” Skelcher said.
Despite organized opposition and general harassment by peers and the community, integration in Delaware was generally peaceful, Skelcher said.
“At the end of the day, the whole idea was through integration we would achieve justice for all Americans, equality,” he said. “If you achieve it peacefully, most likely there would be a peaceful aftermath.”
The idea of conquering hate with love, light with the darkness, was part of the lasting effect of Martin Luther King’s legacy on the First State, Skelcher said.
“That’s what I think provided a guiding light for Delaware,” he said. “Martin Luther King Jr. provided an example of a stable and committed approach to achieving racial justice and equality through peaceful means.”
Preserving African American schools
After classes were integrated in 1965, Booker T. Washington Junior High became West Dover Elementary. The name changed back to Booker T. Washington Elementary in 1998. Principal Paige Morgan said it was important for the community and students.
“Throughout our school’s history, not only did members of our community rally for the integration of our public schools, they also rallied when our school’s name was changed … back to Booker T. Washington. It shows the dedication, support, pride, and commitment of our community to preserve our school’s history for our children,” she said.
In 2003 and 2004, William Henry High, now a middle school, and Booker T. Washington Elementary were given state historical markers.
Renovations at Booker T. Washington started in 2013 to reconstruct the historic section so it reflected the school’s original layout. The reconstruction was part of Capital School District’s efforts to expand three schools for their Kent County Community School programs for students with disabilities.
Superintendent Michael D. Thomas asked Holden to join the executive committee for construction, which met between 2013 and 2017.
“I was proud to be a part of that executive committee to safeguard some of the things that would have been destroyed,” said Holden. He is also the historian for the William Henry High alumni association. In 2017, the alumni held a 65th anniversary celebration.
Booker T. Washington Elementary reopened Jan. 5, 2017 and hosted a dedication July 31, 2017. Inside the school, on the side that faces Forest Street, is an extensive display of historic documents and memorabilia.
Students tour the historic areas of the building during their Black History Month programs, Morgan said. “We continue to take pride in the fact that former students continue to come back to rally and champion for the history and preservation of our school,” she said. “I hope that the school’s future educators and administrators continue to communicate and appreciate how special and significant our school truly is.
Skelcher has worked with the state to protect the physical buildings and histories of African American schools.
He believes the schools are central to Delaware history, its African American people and their fight for justice and equality. “They understood that education was their way to achieving equality,” he said. “Unfortunately a lot of white racists understood that. That struggle was a life and death struggle to advance a people.”
More of Holden’s story can be found at the Delaware Public Archives under the title Life in Dover’s Segregated Schools (ID number: 2005-098).