MILTON — Rosa Aiken Evans, 87, and her husband, Henry Evans Sr., 93, died within a day of each other last month after 67 years of marriage.
The longtime Milton residents were also pillars of the Black community Downstate in the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
Their daughter, Kia Evans, an external affairs officer working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Delaware’s response to COVID-19, sees education as an important part of their story.
“It was something that was kind of drilled into them by their parents based on the time period from which they came,” Ms. Evans said. “Their parents weren’t able to acquire that kind of education.”
She said her “father’s mother was very adamant about him continuing his education and going as far as he could go.”
Despite this, the Smyrna native joined the Army at 17 years old in 1944. According to his obituary, he fought in the Pacific arena of World War II in locales like the Philippines and Japan.
He completed his service in 1946 and returned to Smyrna, where he did not receive a warm welcome as an award-winning Black veteran, and quickly ended up in Philadelphia. There, he worked to finish his high school degree at Edward Bok Vocational Technical School as part of the GI Bill.
That’s where he met his wife-to-be, who was then known as Rosa Aiken. Rosa was born and raised on a plantation in Millhaven, Georgia, where her parents were sharecroppers. After finishing ninth grade, the highest level available for Black people in that community at the time, Rosa moved to Philadelphia with her aunt to finish high school at Edward Bok, where Mr. Evans was studying.
The couple met in an evening history class and hit it off. They got married in 1953 and began their family in Philadelphia.
Their daughter, Kia, said her mother was a deeply dedicated stay-at-home parent. She used the term “domestic engineer” when describing the care and support her mother provided to her children and her husband.
“Much different from how relationships are today, women were supporters,” she said. “My mom’s main goal was making sure her kids were taken care of.” Ms. Evans remembers asking her mother why she didn’t work when she was a child.
“You all are my job. This is what I do,” Rosa said at the time.
Mr. Evans continued his education in Philadelphia before the family ultimately departed the city for Milton. People had noticed his drawing skills since he was a little boy, and, in 1953, Mr. Evans graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art with a degree in advertising design.
But John Waters — a fellow artist, friend and protégé of Mr. Evans’ — said discrimination against Black folks meant he had to work as a janitor after graduating.
“He was working at Pathmark as a janitor, and one of the (store’s) creative directors one day told him, ‘We have this campaign, and we need someone to work up some sketches, and the person that usually does it is out,’” Mr. Waters said.
He asked Mr. Evans to fill in, and he performed with flying colors.
“Then, the president found out, and he liked it, so he moved all the way up to art director (for Pathmark),” he said. “It was amazing.”
In 1967, when Kia was a little girl, the family moved back to Mr. Evans’ home state and settled in Milton. There, the couple opened a screen-printing business that made billboards, T-shirts and other custom products.
“At that time, there were no businesses like that,” Ms. Evans said. “We were innovative with printing products for people all across the state.”
She said her mother “played a huge supporting role in helping my father establish our screen-printing business, which was known as ESSA Studio, the Evans Silk Screening Association.”
The studio printed a lot of signs and logos, including some that graced the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk and the nearby Summer House restaurant, as well as the promotional material and signage for Delaware State University’s annual gospel festival.
Mr. Evans was also known for calligraphy, which appeared on annual awards given out by the Delmarva Poultry Association.
Rosa also thrived in Delaware. She continued to take care of her children and took on an active role in the local community.
“She was always involved in so many things,” her daughter said. “She was really a person who thought that being involved with the community was important.”
One group Rosa was involved in was the Delaware Hosta Association, a group dedicated to the shade-resistant bushes.
“I used to tease her and say, ‘Mom, these are just bushes. Why are we going to look at these bushes?” Ms. Evans said.
“These are not just bushes,” Rosa would say at the time. “They’re very important plants, and they come from all over the world.”
Kia explained that “there are different variations of hostas that are hard to find. If you find these different variations of the plant, that’s kind of like finding gold.”
Her mother also had an affinity for bees.
“When I was a kid, we used to keep bees,” she said. “My mother was one of the first people to join the Delaware Beekeepers Association.”
Ms. Evans added that her mother was an entrepreneur, as well.
“When they would have Return Day in Georgetown, we would set up a stand over there and sell homemade cake and homemade lemonade, and we would sell out,” she said.
One year, the family met a woman involved with the American Kennel Club, which puts on dog shows around the country. She was very impressed with Rosa’s sweet treats.
Kia said she asked Rosa to “travel with them, providing cake and lemonade at the various shows. My mom couldn’t do it because she still had young children in school.”
Mr. Evans carried his dedication well into his adult life. After working with Delaware Technical Community College in both a teaching and design capacity, in 1969, he was afforded the opportunity to teach commercial art classes at Polytech High School, then known as Kent Vo-Tech Center.
That’s where he was named Kent County’s Teacher of the Year in 1985. It’s also where he met Mr. Waters.
“I met Mr. Evans about 51 years ago,” he said. “I was in my senior year (of) high school at Dover High,” where he was the president of the Art Club and helped design the school newspaper.
Mr. Waters had all the credits he needed to graduate, so his counselor encouraged him to take the new commercial art course at Vo-Tech. There, the two artists formed a close bond, which remained through the rest of Mr. Evans’ life.
“He was a mentor to me,” Mr. Waters said. “He got me accepted at the Philadelphia College of Art, which is the same college he went to. He helped me pick out my professors and get a four-year scholarship.”
Mr. Waters said that as a young Black man, it was transformative for him to see another Black man achieve such a high level of success in his field of choice.
“I didn’t know there was a Black man doing that type of work,” he said. “I had a vision that that was what I wanted to do, but I was really taken by what he was doing at that time. He has left a major impact on my life.”
Mr. Evans was successful in passing his trade onto Mr. Waters, who was a full-time artist in Philadelphia for 25 years. He moved back to Delaware in 1994 to care for his ailing mother and took a janitorial job at Goodwill, but when he retires next year, he’ll be back to doing art full time.
Ms. Evans said her parents will be remembered by people in the Milton community and beyond.
“My parents were individuals who, first of all, loved this community very much, and they’re connected to so many different people,” she said. “I think their legacy is one of instilling in youth the importance of pursuing education.” Mr. Waters was not the only former student of Mr. Evans’ who also felt this way.
“At my father’s funeral, there were so many people who showed up, people I didn’t even know, who spoke about how my father had inspired them to continue their education,” Ms. Evans said.
“I really do think that is their legacy — encouraging students to continue their education, to be the best they can be, with education really being the pinnacle for reaching achievement,” she said.