Editor’s note: This commentary is based on a presentation by Dr. Muhammad at Preservation Delaware Inc.’s recent conference and meeting.
The DuPont Schools Oral History Project was initiated in September 2020 and was concluded in June 2021. The project was a concerted effort prompted by the actions of the newly formed African American Cultural Resources Task Force of Delaware (AATF), that I conceived and formed in March 2020, under the auspices of Preservation Delaware. The basis for the project grew from the deliberate actions of AATF to create an opportunity to examine African American historical sites and places, and bring them to the attention of the public.
Our ongoing discussions among AATF members uncovered two prominent features of African American culture in Delaware — churches and schools.
It was the overwhelming decision of the task force to focus our attention on the DuPont Colored Schools, which represented the most prominent history of African American education in Delaware. The project selected six schools from an eligible pool of 20, which were standing structures, currently in use and supported by an alumni or community group. Those six were Hockessin Colored School No. 107-C and Howard High School in New Castle County; Delaware State College High School (State College for Colored Students High School) and Thomas D. Clayton School in Kent County; and Rabbit’s Ferry School No. 201-C and Richard Allen School in Sussex County. The selection of these schools was based on a five-point criterion.
After selecting the schools, a determination was made to secure four oral history interviews from each school. At the conclusion of this project, we successfully interviewed 26 individuals during 33 interviews, which were secured from a random list of 45 potential informants. Of the 26, all were former students, and 10 of them had become teachers; however, none of the teachers taught at any of the six schools we had selected for this project, and none of the 26 was a member of the DuPont Colored Schools communities we had targeted. Nevertheless, with additional funding and time, we could tackle the 14 remaining eligible schools that were initially identified for this oral history project, plus increase our interview list to six interviews per school rather than four.
The questions for the interviews were derived from three proposed themes, based on the goals and deliverables requested by Delaware’s Historical & Cultural Affairs Division, which funded this project. The themes were:
These interviews, which lasted an average of 70 minutes, gave us some valued insights into the lives these people lived as students in a mandated segregated school system. Rather than sounding bitter or angered of this “Jim Crow” practice, they were thankful and grateful to their teachers and administrators for their attentiveness and professionalism. The information and lived experiences these former students gave us are valued memories that need to be treasured and shared for now and for the future.
Some of the main topics shared included memories of old, torn, secondhand books passed down from the White schools. Their admiration and thankfulness to their teachers who were always described as caring, professional and well-dressed. The closeness enjoyed within their school communities, as well as in their churches and neighborhoods. Lastly, their dominance in sports, and the cultural shock several of them experienced when they transitioned from segregated colored schools into integrated schools with teachers who did not like them or try to help them.
The lessons learned by many of these educational pioneers helped pave the way for several success stores coming out of many African American communities here in Delaware. Additionally, we are forever gifted with their memories in their own words. Their recorded words are the most significant accomplishment of this project, and we look forward to sharing it widely.
Dr. Abdullah R. Muhammad is founder of the African American Cultural Resources Task Force of Delaware, project director for the DuPont Schools Oral History Project and board member for the John Dickinson Plantation Advisory Committee. His books are available at the Delaware History Museum, Delaware Shoppes in Dover, Old Swedes Historic Site, and on Amazon.