News

April 3, 2001

Senator Joseph Biden hailed the courage of a school board which nearly a century ago arranged for the admission of black students to Claymont School and lambasted one which nearly a decade ago shut down Claymont High School to the continued detriment of that community.

While current boards consider mustering public support for building programs and operating taxes a challenge, "a referendum is nothing compared to what they did here," he said. He referred to the decision to seek and then immediately comply with a Court of Chancery order to end supposed 'separate but equal' school segregation.

Biden spoke on Apr. 2 at the opening of a permanent exhibit dedicated to commemorating public education in Claymont in a conference room at the Claymont Community Center. The exhibit, originated and largely sponsored by Evelyn Tryon and her family, focuses on peaceful integration of the former Claymont School and includes memorabilia from the glory days of Claymont High. It is 

located on the second floor of 'Old Main', which housed the high school before what is now the Claymont Intermediate School was built.

The dedication occurred 49 years and one day after Chancellor Collins Seitz's decision, which preceded the order, was handed down.

Biden noted that Claymont -- alone among the school districts in southern and border states whose racial policies led eventually to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in1954 -- not only did not oppose integration but actively collaborated with Seitz and civil rights attorney Louis Redding to bring it about.

"Thank God, we had [their] vision and moral courage," Biden said.

Attesting today to the

Joseph Biden and Evelyn Tryon

correctness of the action taken in September, 1952,  by the board and administration of what then was a separate local school district in Delaware's northernmost community is its general acceptance, he said. "They moved an idea from the margin of what was thought to be right to become the popular wisdom."

That was by no means the case then, he added. "The leaders of this community were saying break down the walls. In no other community were they saying stop this unequal treatment."

Biden's own parents debated whether he should attend his elementary parochial school on the day that  11 black youngsters were to be admitted to Claymont School for fear of unrest and possible violence in the community. There were no disturbances.

Breaking what he said is a personal rule against getting involved in controversial local issues, Biden denounced the Brandywine school board for what he called "a tragic mistake" in the 1990 closure of the high school. The senator's wife, Jill, was a teacher there at the time.

The move, he said, "tore the heart and soul out of this community."

He added that  virtually everyone regards their high school years as the most significant four-year period of their lives. Referring to his high school days at Archmere Academy, a private prep school which also is in Claymont, he recited by name several student athletes with and against whom he played and some girls from the public school whom he knew socially.

"The rationale for closing [Claymont High] was its size; they said it was too small. I would rather we pay more money and have 10 high schools with 500 students than five high schools with 1,000 students," he said. That way there are twice as many athletes, band members and involved in other student activities.

Carrying both themes to the community of Claymont, the senator described it as "misunderstood."

"The image [others have] of Claymont is not the image I have of Claymont. It is viewed just as a steel town, a rough and tumble town. I say it is the most enlightened town in the state of Delaware and one of the most enlightened in the entire United States," he said.

Biden lived in Claymont during his childhood and is still closely associated with the community.

John Holton, executive director of the community center, said that the room and its display came about as part of an effort to tell and preserve the history of public education in Claymont for both outsiders and the children of those who experienced it personally. Integration and the high school constitute its main themes.

Significance of the display lies in the fact that "if your children are unaware of what you did, they are likely to forget what brought us to this point," Biden said.

It came about, Holton said, "because of the hard work and generosity" of Tryon and her family. She is the widow of Sager Tryon, a Claymont resident and an American Viscose Corp. research chemist popularly known as Doc. He was a member of the school board at the time of integration and was instrumental in that process.

Biden noted that Evelyn Tryon, 85, "has done more in her retirement [years] than the rest of us do in our careers." A teacher, she and Doc joined the Peace Corps after their retirements and worked in Fiji. She also has been a volunteer tutor and organist at Atonement United Methodist Church. Of particular note, Biden added, is the fact "she has helped a couple of generations with their moral compasses as well as their mathematics."

"Claymont wanted to do it so much but we had just a little window of time to do it in," Tryon recalled. There were about 36 hours between the time Seitz issued the court order to admit the black students and the time the state Board of Education and attorney general appealed his order. During those hours, Claymont superintendent Harvey Stahl registered and arranged for the students to report for class on opening day.

When state authorities, upon filing of the appeal, ordered that the youngsters be 'sent home', Stahl refused, explaining, "We're dealing here with the lives of children." The students remained and the first graduated from the high school in 1954, just a few months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down.

Tryon, a native of New York City who still lives in Claymont, recalled accepting on behalf of her husband a Supreme Court subpoena. "I was never so happy as when I took that subpoena. I was just thrilled that the Supreme Court of the United States sent someone to the little town of Claymont to deliver a subpoena to us," she said.

George Brown, the only member of that school board still living, said he and his three colleagues were unanimous about moving ahead with integration. He had come from northern New Jersey and "saw no reason" why white and what then were referred to as Negro or colored children should not attend the same schools. In fact, he said, he regarded the issue at the time as secondary in importance to the district's building program. 

The argument most compelling for him was testimony that the students had to literally pass by Claymont School on their way to attend Howard High School in Wilmington. "I knew that wasn't right," he said.

Bernice Byrd Couch, who entered seventh grade as the youngest of the admitted students, said she "was a little uneasy" on the first day -- not so much because she was making history but because the Claymont School building was so much bigger than the one-room State Line 'Colored' School she had attended. "I never really had any problems. I was the only black in my class, but I had friends there and we stayed friends for years," she said. Now living in Atlantic City, N.J., she recently attended a 40th anniversary reunion of her Claymont High School graduating class.

Couch agreed with Holton that it is unfortunate that today's history books use the famous photo of black students entering Little Rock (Ark.) High School under the protection of U.S. Army paratroops' bayonets and do not even mention that the same process had been accomplished years earlier in Claymont, Del., without a need for force.

"I get angry when I see that they ignore Claymont," she said. "More people ought to know that we were first."

2001. All rights reserved.

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