Black History Month

Longtime Smyrna teacher witness to King's 'I Have a Dream Speech'

Barbara Wright has been with school district for 48 years

By Craig Horleman
Posted 2/27/21

SMYRNA — While most around the Smyrna area know Barbara Wright as a longtime teacher at Smyrna Middle School and a stalwart in the school district for 48 years, she can also be considered a …

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Black History Month

Longtime Smyrna teacher witness to King's 'I Have a Dream Speech'

Barbara Wright has been with school district for 48 years

Barbara Wright shows her March on Washington button from 1963 in her Smyrna Middle School classroom.
Barbara Wright shows her March on Washington button from 1963 in her Smyrna Middle School classroom.
Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — While most around the Smyrna area know Barbara Wright as a longtime teacher at Smyrna Middle School and a stalwart in the school district for 48 years, she can also be considered a civil rights crusader.

At just 13 years old, Mrs. Wright attended the 1963 March on Washington, the site of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She also was part of the first group of Black children to attend Smyrna Junior High School, which was then located in the current high school building.

Memories of the march

Officially called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the historic gathering took place Aug. 28, 1963. Some 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and more than 3,000 members of the press covered the event.

Speakers included future U.S. Rep. John Lewis, then of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, along with actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The march also featured musical performances from the likes of Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson.

The day ended with Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Mrs. Wright said the Black churches in and around Smyrna had booked buses to attend the March on Washington and were looking to bring some younger members, as well. She recalls that she and two other girls her age were picked to go.

“We had several older members who were members of the NAACP, and they talked about this big march and how they wanted to send a delegation, and they wanted to send some youths, as well. The three of us were all good friends, who they chose to take to represent our youth department,” she recalled.

She said that when they got there, they were lined up by states on the street and off they went.

“We didn’t know what to expect — how we’re going to be treated. We didn’t know if (we) were going to get back home, which of course, we did safely. Walking down the street, you could see on the sidelines signs, and they called us nasty names constantly, from the beginning all the way down,” she said.

Once they settled in, she said she remembers they were situated “way, way in the back,” but the event had a good sound system, so she could listen to everything, including the “Dream” speech.

“We could hear every word, but it really didn’t click in the importance of (the speech) until much later in my life,” Mrs. Wright said.

She still has a memento of the day — a red, white and blue button with the date of the march and the words, “I Am a Civil Rights Marcher.”

“I remember Mr. Hill (a member of their group). He was an older man. He bought the pins from a White man, and they were only 50 cents, and he said, ‘I’m going to buy each one of you these pins, so you can always remember this because you’re part of history,” she said.

“And at the time, we didn’t think too much over it. We just wanted to get home safely. So he gave us each one, and we put it on, and I still kept it because he said, ‘This was going to be part of history. Remember that.’ The color has not totally faded away, and you can read every letter, and every word stands right out. The only thing I lost was the pin, where you could attach your clothes to it.”

Growing up divided

Mrs. Wright is a lifelong Delawarean. She grew up in Smyrna, moved to Dover for 10 years when she first got married and then moved to Clayton, where she still lives.

She recalls a deeply divided Smyrna during her formative years.

“Around that time, Thomas D. Clayton School was at the south side of DuPont Highway, and that was the Black section. But if you went farther down, go past that red light, now you got into the White section at the time, and we didn’t associate there,” she said.

“The closest we ever got to the White section over there was attending Bethel AME Church. At that time, there was the armory, which is now the Boys & Girls Club, and right behind that was a White development when (we) were coming up.”

She particularly remembers very harsh treatment she and the other Black kids would receive during Halloween.

“We understood very well to stay in our own section. Don’t travel in the White section. But they never specifically told us why. Then, we said the best candy was in the White developments. So we got over there, and we understood why (we) were told to stay in our own section. We had doors slammed in our faces, got called the N-word and didn’t get any good candy,” she said.

Mrs. Wright, the second of 10 children, remembers being resigned to her and her siblings’ fate growing up.

“That’s the way it was. There was a restaurant, the Wagon Wheel, and the cooks in the kitchen were Black, but we couldn’t go inside at all. We had to go around to the back door. I can also remember being in stores and being followed like we were going to steal something. But I guess we just took it all for granted until we got older and learned better,” she said.

Desegregation days

School integration came to Smyrna when Mrs. Wright was in seventh grade. She explained that Black students attended Thomas D. Clayton until sixth grade and then were sent down to then-William Henry High School in Dover, which all Kent County Black students attended.

She said school officials decided they needed to save money on gas for the buses and offered Black students from Thomas D. Clayton a chance to attend Smyrna High School. Mrs. Wright said a large amount of students took them up on the offer, while others still opted to attend William Henry.

She said the first day of school was one of fear for her and her friends.

“We were scared because we didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

The transition was rough, and in the first couple of weeks, there was a defining moment that she will never forget.

“We were walking to school, and a bus came to a stop alongside us. A boy leaned out the window and spit at us. It landed right on my arm. When I turned around, his head was back in the bus, and the bus moved on. You don’t forget that. It was horrible,” she said.

Although Black students were now allowed to go to school with White students in the area, one distinction remained, Mrs. Wright explained. Her fellow Black students were still excluded from after-school activities, including Friday night dances.

“There was what was called the Century Club at the time. It was right next to the movie house, which was right across from the fire company,” she said.

“And we thought we could go there because we’re going to that school now. So we all got dressed up, and we went over there. But we were stopped right at the door. We didn’t make a scene or anything, and we left.”

Teaching legacy

Mrs. Wright graduated from Smyrna High School in 1967 and got a teaching degree from then-Delaware State College in Dover. She taught briefly in the Caesar Rodney School District, then at Smyrna High School and now Smyrna Middle School, where she’s been for the majority of her 48 years with the district. She teaches seventh-grade family consumer science (formerly known as home economics).

With the pandemic forcing students to learn from home the majority of the time, Mrs. Wright said these past couple of years have been her most challenging.

“I’m not a fan of Zoom teaching. I understand those students who have a problem. When this gets over, there’s got to be a time to catch these kids up. There’s too many who have fallen through the cracks and are behind. But we’re doing the best that we can,” Mrs. Wright said.

Stephanie Smeltzer, the principal of Smyrna Middle, said Mrs. Wright has been an invaluable part of the school for decades.

“When we think of our five community core values — compassion, integrity, perseverance, respect and responsibility — many of us think of one person who is the embodiment of these values, spanning nearly a half-century of service to our students. This person is Mrs. Barbara Wright,” she said in an email.

Ms. Smeltzer said Mrs. Wright is beloved throughout the school.

“Among all of our related course options available to seventh-grade students, Mrs. Wright’s course holds the distinction of being the top selection year in and year out. In fact, most students don’t request family consumer science. They simply tell us, ‘I want to take Mrs. Wright’s course,’” she said.

The principal added that she hopes Mrs. Wright can hit an important milestone with the district.

“We all look forward to the day that she reaches the 50-year mark. Annually, Mrs. Wright tells us, ‘One more year’ when it comes time to announce plans for the following school year, and we universally dread the day when she finally says, ‘This is the last year,’” Ms. Smeltzer said.

Mrs. Wright said that final year is coming, although she doesn’t exactly know when it will be.

“People say to me, ‘We won’t believe it until it happens.’ There are times when I say, ‘Oh, I think I can stay. I think I’ve got another year in me.’ And after 48 years, I’m still here. The time is coming. I’ll be honest with you. The time is coming,” she said.

She joked that the retirement letter is on her desk.

“I just haven’t turned it in yet. I even got one of those plastic folders for it,” said Mrs. Wright, who was named Smyrna Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2004-05.

She told her story on the district’s Facebook page recently for Black History Month. She thinks it’s important that her students know about the times that preceded them.

“Some students think we had it made back then. They need to go back to our history and find out. This is why you have it like this because of the struggles of others to get you to this point. So they need to be made aware of the fact that it wasn’t all peaches and cream like it may seem like today,” she said.

“And if you look at today and see some of the struggles going on, that might be a refresher that this is what we went through, and this is why we’re going to continue to fight that we don’t go back. Because we have just as much right to be here as others do.”