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, the Delaware Shoppes in Dover, the Old Swedes Historic Site and on Amazon.
Editor’s note: Portions of this commentary are excerpted from the original report, which can be found on the history.delaware.gov website. 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.”
Whenever a report on a group of people is being compiled, most often there is a need to denote commonalities, differences, repeated themes and shared experiences. Well, the DuPont Colored Schools Oral History Project report was no different. It was natural to want to hear and know from our narrators their individual recollections of common themes and experiences shared by many. Even though the 26 individuals we interviewed went to several different DuPont Schools during different time periods, it was remarkable to hear firsthand how much of their experiences remained a constant between the schools and the schools’ staffs.
There were several common themes that formed the backbone of those oral history narratives. One of those themes that was highly anticipated, and came as no surprise, was the repeated discussion from all former students (except for one) of having to use torn, marked-up, secondhand books and other used classroom materials. They lamented and often questioned, why, if their education was so important, did they have to use books and materials that had the appearance of things to be discarded? Nearly all those students who bemoaned the use of secondhand/used books were quick to add that their teachers did not allow them to use that as an excuse for failing to learn.
Many of those former students, mostly in their elementary school years (first through eighth grades), talked about walking to school because busing from the school district was not available to them. Many of the students who had to walk lived near their schools; however, those who lived in outlying, rural areas had the longest and most difficult walks. Several spoke of having to watch yellow school buses filled with White kids pass them, going to schools that had to pass their schools. This occurred most often in Kent and Sussex counties, although the most well-known case of school buses passing walking Black students occurred in the Hockessin community of New Castle County. Two of the individuals we interviewed are related to the two girls who were at the center of the court battles for ending discriminatory school busing practices.
Other interviewees spoke of the large number of African American students who never attended a secondary school (ninth-12th grade) because of the difficulty of getting to the school. For many decades, there was only one high school for African American students — Howard High School in Wilmington. After the State College for Colored Students was established in Dover in 1890, Pierre du Pont was at the forefront of erecting a building on that campus to house the second high school in the state — Delaware State College High School (first known as the State College for Colored Students Preparatory School). Yet, despite those inequalities, African and Native Americans willingly or unwillingly accepted those behaviors as part of life for them. This benign acceptance probably stemmed from a crucial fact often hidden or dismissive of its existence, a legal notion that was quoted to me by our first narrator, Dr. Reba Ross Hollingsworth (age 95): “Black folks only needed to have ‘enough education to read, write and count a bit!”’ Therefore, there was no unified state effort to build high schools for Black students.”
A common theme that boosted the spirits of those students, as well as our own spirits, was the respect, admiration and obedience those students had and paid to their teachers. The overall feeling among those alumni was the love and admiration they had for their teachers because they knew that teachers cared about them and their futures. Here are a few comments made by those students to express their respect and admiration for their teachers:
Clara Ingram (age 96) had this to say about her time at Howard — “The teachers at Howard High … were very interested in you. I really enjoyed (them). I just wished I could have gone there at an earlier age.”
Maurice Pritchett (age 78) said this about his teachers at Howard — “You had teachers who were right there. They were so nice and kind and very serious and well dressed. They exemplified professionalism on a daily basis. And that’s why I remember so much about the school. The men wore ties. They were neatly (dressed). And that was very inspirational to me. They cared about you.”
Hilda Bulah Morris (age 97, sister to Shirley Bulah) had this to say about her teachers at Hockessin — “We had some good Black teachers. They went to the Black colleges, and they were conscientious, more so than what it was when they desegregated, and they went to the White school.”
Dr. Fern Bliss-Morgan (age 77) said this about her teachers at Rabbit’s Ferry School No. 201C — “So, it was just like we were a big family. We would go to church, and we all went to the same church. And if she (Ms. Norwood) wasn’t singing in the choir, I sat with Ms. Norwood in church. So, it was like she was our big sister and our mother. But when we were in school she was our teacher.”
Ms. Alice Coleman (age 76) had this to say about her teachers at the Thomas D. Clayton School — “Well, the teachers at that point always dressed really nice. And they carried themselves in, I call it a professional (manner). They looked good. They spoke well. And they were good role models.”
Some of the unforgettable interviews we conducted highlighted the amazing memories of some very senior narrators. Bear in mind that the ages I’m stating in this article were from 2021. Our first two interviews were with Dr. Reba Ross Hollingsworth (age 95) and a very youthful Susan Young Browne (age 103). Both of these ladies attended Delaware State College High School when it was still called the State College for Colored Students Preparatory School. These ladies were contemporaries — Ms. Browne shared her years at the college level, while Dr. Hollingsworth was finishing her years at the high school level. Both ladies could remember their teachers as far back as first grade! Here’s some examples of their amazing memories:
Dr. Hollingsworth gives a chronology of her early schools — “I started first grade at the Lincoln School. It was the elementary school from grades one through six, and I started there in September and went until mid-November, before my parents moved into Milford. When we moved to Milford, I attended Milford Colored School No. 3C. That was later named Benjamin Banneker, but that was after I left.”
Susan Browne remembering her elementary school years in a one-room schoolhouse — “When I was in elementary school, my teacher was very encouraging, and I decided that I’d like to be an elementary schoolteacher. Her name was Mrs. Elizabeth Shockley, and she lived in Milford.”
Ms. Browne remembering her time at the State College for Colored Students Preparatory School — “Well, I was a high school boarder, and the matron was very strict, so that’s (what) we had. I think our classes started at 8 o’clock. And they went from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. We had breakfast at 7 o’clock, and then, of course, as you say, in high school, you had a choice of choosing the subjects. There were certain subjects you had to take, and then, you had other subjects you could choose from. At that time, most of us in high school had come from the country, and we did not have electricity, and we did not have running water, and we did not have heated houses, so boarding school was really a lovely place for us to be.”
There is so much more I would like to share; however, there’s not enough room in this article to cover it all. As such, I would encourage you to read the full report on the history.delaware.gov website and experience some of the amazing stories these former students have shared.