But it was not a
routine meeting. It was Jan. 15, 1951, and there was an impediment: The youngsters were of
a darker hue that their prospective classmates. They were, in
the parlance of the time, Negroes.
superintendent Harvey Stahl has no choice. State law was clear
on the subject. Such students has 'their own' schools. No matter
that 'their' schools, Howard High and Carver Vocational, were
about nine miles away in Wilmington and that property tax their
parents paid helped finance operation of Claymont High, which
was within walking distance.
That meeting was one
of several starting points around the nation along paths which
to a veritable social revolution ending nearly a century of legal
apartheid and three centuries of perceived
sub-human status imposed upon blacks by slavery.
As preparations go
commemorating in May the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme
Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education
(of Topeka, Kan.), relatively few Delaware residents
are aware of the state's pivotal role in ending not only
racial segregation in education but also knocking down the
'separate but equal' prop which supported a broad range of
discrimination ranging from genteel to murderous.
lawsuits -- one involving Claymont High and the other elementary
School No. 29 in Hockessin -- were combined with seven cases
from other jurisdictions and brought before the Supreme Court.
While historic focus since then has been directed mainly toward the Kansas case
and those from southern states, Delaware's has the distinction
of being the only one in which lower court decisions were
upheld, rather than overturned.
As a result of the
decision in the Claymont suit, the school on Green Street was
the first formerly segregated public high school in a border or
southern state to be integrated. It awarded diplomas to its
first black graduates less than a month after the Supreme Court
An even more
substantive distinction lies in the near-rejection of 'separate
but equal' by the first-level Delaware judge. In his recorded
opinion Chancellor Collins Seitz acknowledged that Delaware
Court of Chancery
could not "reject a principle of United States constitutional
law which has been adopted by fair implication by the highest
court of the land." But, he went on to say, "I believe the
'separate but equal' doctrine in education should be rejected,
but I also believe its rejection must come from that court." Two
years and one month later, the Supreme Court did just that.
Most, if not all, of
the other judges who ruled against the status quo decreed that
bringing unequal 'colored' schools up to parity would satisfy the
law and they gave authorities considerable amounts of time to come up with a plan to do
so. Seitz ruled that, since the separate schools were grossly unequal,
they should be integrated "immediately."
In a talk a few
before an American Association of Retired Persons group, the
late Evelyn Tryon, widow of Sager Tryon, a Claymont school board
member in the early 1950s, said another distinction was that,
when the issue was joined, the board and Stahl "wanted to admit
the students." Because of that, the local school
authorities encouraged the filing of the suit.
That is hinted at in
minutes from board meetings at the time which now repose in the
state archives. Although the minutes-taker followed the
still-prevalent practice among public agencies of not
recording anything that would actually chronicle the temper and
nature of deliberation at the sessions, it is possible to read
History was made on
Green Street when 11 black children walked up this path an
into Claymont High School in September, 1952, two years
before Brown v. Board of Education struck down the
'separate but equal' doctrine that had segregated public
education. The building now houses the Claymont Community
the skimpy lines.
Stahl reported on
the session with the children and some of their parents at a meeting of the board on Jan. 29, recounting
that the parent-spokeswoman for the group quickly cut to the
chase by declaring that the group "understood the matter
perfectly well, but that they just wanted to enter a formal
application." They and he evidently knew that was intended to
provide grounds for a lawsuit.
The board then
decided to assure that there would be no question about whether
a serious effort to obtain admission of the students was made.
It voted to send, over the signature of Eugene Fletcher, its
president, identical formal letters of rejection to the parents. The key paragraph: "Therefore under the
requirements of our Delaware state constitution and the existing
school laws, your child is not now eligible to enroll in the
Claymont Special School District high school for white
In addition to
Fletcher and Tryon, the vice president, Edward Rowles and George
Brown were members of the school board. They were all present at
the meeting and there is no indication in the minutes of any
The expected suit
was filed in Court of Chancery in July, but minutes of board
sessions during the summer of 1951 contain no references to it.
The board, meanwhile was active doing what local school boards
do -- planning a referendum and succeeding in obtaining voter
approval for a bond issue to finance school expansions;
reluctantly raising the price of milk served in cafeterias by a
penny to 6¢ a half pint; and authorizing an alumni group to use
the high school gymnasium for basketball games.
It was not until
Oct. 11, 1951, that the history-making suit emerges in the
board's extant public record. It was reported that evening that,
in response to a request for cooperation from state school
superintendent George Miller, Stephen Wright, of Hampton
Institute, and Paul Lawrence, of Howard University, had been
welcomed to the high school in order to conduct "a complete
study of [its] facilities and educational opportunities." Wright
and Lawrence were called to testify as expert witnesses.
Stahl appeared as a
witness on Oct. 24. That was noted, but the minutes do not
report on what he said.
attorney general Albert Young, and lawyers Louis Redding and
Jack Greenberg, who represented the parent plaintiffs, visited
the building on Oct. 30.
Seitz's decision was
handed down on Apr. 1, 1952,
Except with regard
to the lengths to which it went in attacking the underpinnings
of segregation, its conclusion came as no surprise. Then vice
chancellor, he earlier had put his judicial career in jeopardy
by ruling that the University of Delaware
had to accept black applicants who otherwise would be denied an
equal college education in the state. In later years Seitz
publicly acknowledged personal views in support of racial
justice and credited Redding, a black Wilmington-based lawyer,
with providing, though the manner in which he presented the
Claymont and Hockessin cases, the opportunity to advance those
feelings as a matter of law.
But the case was far
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