West: News flash set off intense coverage in 1954


Andrew West is editor-in-chief of the Daily State News.

DOVER — Memories of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education remind us of our role in writing the first drafts of history.

The Delaware State News was in its first year as a daily paper when the news broke. And stories about the decision may have been the most read of continuing coverage that year for editor/owner Jack Smyth.

In his book, “From Diamonds to Deadlines,” Mr. Smyth shares his memories of the breaking news and the tumultuous times that followed.

He wrote:

“It was just past two o’clock on the afternoon of May 17, 1954.

“The DSN newsroom was quiet. All copy for that day’s edition was in the print shop. A dull weekend had produced no great lead story.

“Our Associated Press teletype setter had ceased sending advances. It was humming, indicating that the news cycle had ended.

“Suddenly, the bells attached to the machine began to ring. It was alerting editors across the nation that a prime story was coming.”

Jim Miller, the managing editor at the time, turned to see what was arriving.

The Associated Press flash read, “SUPREME COURT ENDS SEGREGATION.”

A bulletin followed from the wire service.

“The U.S. Supreme Court today, in an unanimous decision, ruled that separate schools for Whites and Negroes were unconstitutional because the Negro schools were not equal to White schools,” it read. “The high court made its decision by upholding the Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, case in appeal.”

“Jack, we have a big story here,” said Mr. Miller. “It’s sure to bring a striking reaction.”

Mr. Smyth understood the significance of the ruling, and he knew he had the “scoop.”

The Wilmington newspaper’s evening edition, which had a noon deadline, had already been printed.

The Delaware State News had a 4 p.m. deadline, so there was a scramble to get local reaction and remake what had been planned for the front page.

Mr. Smyth was able to reach George R. Miller, the superintendent of Delaware schools, after tracking him down in a New York City hotel. He was not aware of the breaking news — though he was very familiar with the Topeka case and a similar one that had been initiated in Delaware.

Mr. Smyth asked him how Delaware would respond.

“There is no way I can answer your question,” the superintendent said. “But there is little doubt that this will have a great impact on all public school systems.”

When the new school year arrived, integration was starting. Dover held community meetings and got off to a calm start.

However, down in Milford, there was great resistance, as 676 students walked out after learning that 11 Black students were enrolled at Milford High School.

Suddenly, reporters from all across the country and some from overseas had arrived to cover the story.

The Delaware State News covered a meeting that drew 1,500 people to the school’s auditorium. The crowd was demanding an end to integration.

At one point, it was estimated that 60% of Milford-area students were absent.

Delaware Gov. Caleb Boggs and the state’s school board stepped in to ensure the Black students were able to attend Milford schools. It led to local school board resignations, then a newly elected board tried again to stop integration.

While all this was happening at the schools, an “interloper” from Texas — Bryant Bowles — arrived in Delaware to stoke racist emotions, holding a rally that attracted 5,000 people to a small airfield between Milford and Harrington.

“Despite his fondness of a free press, Bowles was not getting reciprocal expressions from Delaware newspapers,” Mr. Smyth wrote. “Most, the State News included, while covering his disruptive activities, editorially demanded that this bigoted agitator be driven out of the state.”

Mr. Bowles left Delaware after being fined $300 for violating public school attendance laws.

There is much more to all of this, of course. If you’re fortunate to have time to go back and read old newspapers on microfilm at the Delaware Public Archives, there is a rich first draft of history that many readers would appreciate.

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