Guest Commentary: Delving into the DuPont Schools Oral History Project


Editor’s note: Portions of this commentary are excerpted from the original report, which can be found here. Also, the report’s authors note that “for historical accuracy, the term “Colored” is used throughout this report with no deliberate attempt to use it as a substitute for African American or Native American. It was a general term used to identify schools and/or institutions for non-white Americans.”

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.

The DuPont Colored Schools Oral History Project was the result of several months of a concerted team effort of the African American Cultural Resources Task Force (AATF) that was conceived and formed in March 2020.

The formation of AATF under the auspices of Preservation Delaware, Inc. created an opportunity to examine African American historical sites and places and bring them to the attention of the public. The first meeting on April 29, 2020 set the parameters for on-going discussions to follow. Our discussions uncovered two prominent features of African American culture in Delaware  — African American churches and schools. Of the two, we all agreed that African American schools played a prominent role in our state and in our nation’s history due to the connection to the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.

With that in mind, and considering the social climate prior to 1954, we turned our attention to the most conspicuous of African American schools in our state — the DuPont Colored Schools. Not only were the 80 DuPont Colored Schools that were built or significantly renovated in the 1920’s an overwhelming change in African American education in this state, but also they succored substantial social and economic improvements for African American communities throughout Delaware. Nothing has added to the betterment of a community like an improved educational opportunity! History has shown time and again that education is the great equalizer for those seeking equality and equal rights. With this social construct as our guide and a good working relationship with the State Historic Preservation Officers, we were able to establish a base from which to move forward.

The purpose and goal of this project was to collect oral histories from former students, teachers, and other members of the DuPont Colored School community. Oral histories were collected from a random pool of individuals connected to the alumni associations or community groups of selected DuPont Colored Schools from all three counties in Delaware.

Due to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic at the time we were “greenlighted” to begin the Project, we found it necessary to use an online approach in conducting our interviews, by utilizing popular online platforms such as Zoom, FreeConferenceCall and Rev. All interviews had to be conducted on a one-on-one basis using a standardized list of open-ended questions. These questions formed the basis for obtaining useful information, as well as allowing participants room to expound on their experiences and recollections. Developing those questions was paramount to the success of the project.

Prior to drafting those probing questions, we developed three themes on which to base our line of questioning. Those themes — daily routines of a student’s life at a DuPont Colored School, the relationship between school and community, and a comparative examination of attending segregated DuPont Schools versus later integrated schools — formed the basis for our inquiry. Task force members were the think tank for the project. They accepted the themes with a proviso that more specific subthemes be included to extrapolate specific details dealing with the “daily routines of a student’s life.” They wanted interviewers to get details on what was taught to students and what subjects received the most attention.

In drafting the questions, we invited each member to draft a list of standard questions that the group could evaluate and compile into an effective list of questions able to expound upon the three themes. A subcommittee comprised of 12 was formed, from the active 16-member group, to evaluate and compile the questions. After meeting for a few weeks, the subcommittee drafted a total of 65 standard open-ended questions under 3 categories — students, teachers, and community members — and successfully combined many into one multi-line question, while others were eliminated based on redundancy. We successfully whittled down the list from 65 to 47 questions, realizing that not all questions would be asked of everyone being interviewed.

Our final draft consisted of an interviewer’s introduction, 26 student questions, 16 teacher questions, and 5 community member questions for a total of 47 open-ended questions. It is important to note that when these questions were being drafted, we expected to interview former students, former teachers, and community members of DuPont Colored Schools. We were able to interview the students and teachers; however, all the community members we were hoping to interview were no longer living.

While the subcommittee was working on drafting the questionnaire for our informants, Mike McGrath and I formed a two-man interview committee to hire highly qualified graduate students working as oral historians, qualitative researchers, ethnographers or those working in any field of historical research. We concluded early on that we did not have the funds to hire professional oral historians and that highly qualified grad or undergrad students were our best option. Fortunate for us, a member of the task force was a professional oral historian who was not only willing to work with us on the project but also willing to help train student interns.

Moving forward with the interviews during the early days of the pandemic, we realized that we had to conduct virtual interviews. This was uncharted territory not only for our team but also for our professional oral historian. We successfully hired four undergrad students, two from Delaware State University and two from the University of Delaware — two seniors, one junior and a sophomore. The interns participated in a mandatory training period of three four-hour days, with five instructors and several days of role-playing. During this period, they were taught the interview process that consisted of three primary steps:

  1. Contacting potential participants to ascertain their interest and eligibility for the project.
  2. Next, conducting pre-interviews to confirm eligibility and to schedule the interview.
  3. Lastly, sending the scheduled date, time and platform for the interview; the list of questions; and a consent form to be completed, signed and returned.

On the day of the interview, the interns were instructed to confirm the appointment 30 minutes before the appointment time. From a list of 45 potential informants, we successfully interviewed 26 individuals with a total of 33 interviews, which was based on schools attended. Of the 26 individuals interviewed, all were former students, 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 were community members from the DuPont Colored School communities we had targeted.

At the conclusion of the interview, narrators were asked if they had anyone they could refer to participate or if they had any memorabilia, ephemera or documents they would be willing to share or donate to this project.

In a future commentary, we will share some of the more memorable interviews we conducted, including an interview with the only centenarian, who was just two months shy of her 103rd birthday. Not only did she possess an extraordinary memory but also she demonstrated uncommon physical health and amazing physical agility! For her 102nd birthday, she bought a new 2020 Subaru Impreza.

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