Commentary: Ten Delaware State students confronted ‘separate but equal’

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When it comes to dismantling the thick wall of segregation in education, it is often forgotten that a group of 10 former Delaware State College (now University) students, along with two attorneys and a courageous judge, made the first inroads on the undergraduate level.

Before the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the 10 students were plaintiffs in another precedent-setting case — 1950’s Parker v. University of Delaware — which ended with a ruling that determined that an undergraduate institution of higher education had to enroll African Americans.

Without those students — Brooks M. Parker, Lillian F. Coleman, Helen M. Handy, Roy K. Holland, Homer V. Minus, Daniel N. Moody, Thomas M. Paul, Jane M. Robinson, James C. Scott and Irving J. Williams — there would not have been a Parker v. UD.

The 10 students attended Delaware State College in the same year that Delaware’s only Black college lost its accreditation — the result of years of inadequate funding support by the state of Delaware. The school had seen a dramatic rise in its enrollment due to the arrival of World War II veterans and their GI Bill education benefits, which caused the student population on campus to almost triple from 132 students in 1942 to 387 in 1948.

It had been 20 years since the previous state appropriations for new construction on campus. The absence of building infrastructure expansion to accommodate the enrollment growth led to overcrowding in its dormitories, dining facility and classrooms. In addition, inadequate levels of state funding to support the operations led to underpaid professors who were difficult to retain after a few years, deferred maintenance on buildings in terrible need of repair and vast shortcomings in the area of student services and academics.

At the end of 1949 — a year that included a student strike, a hearing convened by Gov. Elbert Carvel to look into the management of the college and the dismissal of the college’s president, Dr. Howard Gregg — the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools revoked Delaware State’s accreditation Jan. 1, 1950.

The loss of accreditation led around 30 students to seek enrollment at UD, which summarily rejected their applications because of their race. The rebuffed students sought and received the assistance of legendary Delaware attorney Louis Redding — the first, and at the time only, Black attorney in the First State — as well as from the local and national NAACP. In March 1950, Redding and co-counsel Jack Greenberg filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 of the students.

Heard in the Delaware Court of Chancery, the presiding Vice Chancellor Collins S. Seitz did not examine the case to determine if the “separate but equal” legal doctrine was unconstitutional. For the judge, it was a simple question of whether Delaware State’s educational offerings were equal to that of UD’s.

Vice Chancellor Seitz considered the case earnestly, even traveling to both campuses to review the facilities and obtain information about the curriculum offerings. He found that the course offerings, the physical facilities, the library collections and the faculty corps were vastly inferior at Delaware State. He also noted the impact of DSC’s loss of accreditation. Ultimately, the judge ruled that the students were not provided the equality in education in accordance with “separate but equal” and that their denial by UD due to the students’ race was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and as such, UD had to permit the enrollment of the former DSC students and others who were “similar situated” (meaning any Black student in Delaware who desired to pursue a higher education).

Not all of the 10 students enrolled at UD, but of those who did, Ms. Handy (later Powell) of Seaford earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1952 and was the first African American to earn a UD degree as an undergraduate; Homer Minus of Felton earned a Bachelor of Science in medical technology in 1953, later earned a doctorate in dentistry and operated a practice in Philadelphia and Dover before his passing in 2018; and Mr. Holland of Lewes earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1958 and became an education administrator in New Jersey.

In addition to winning the legal fight to enroll in UD, the students and their attorneys struck one of the first effective blows against “separate but equal,” with a clear demonstration in the higher-education arena of the shortcomings of a legal doctrine that relied upon the government to make equality in education at priority.

The court victory also helped change the First State’s thinking about its relationship with Delaware State College. Thus, the 1950s saw an increase in state funding in support of the college’s operations budget, as well as a $2.5 million appropriation for construction that gave the campus a new gymnasium, an administration building, a men’s dormitory and faculty housing. That financial support along with the leadership of DSC President Jerome H. Holland led to the reaccreditation of Delaware State in 1957.

Since 1950 to the present, the state of Delaware has been a faithful partner in the growth of Delaware State, demonstrated in the most recent decade by the state-funded Inspire Scholarship, as well as significant financial support for the construction of an Optical Science Center for Applied Research and the purchase of a new fleet of airplanes for the university’s Aviation Program.

The momentum that transformed the university’s relationship with the state began with those 10 DSC students.

Carlos Holmes is director of News Services and historian for Delaware State University.