More than just a footnote to the history of the celebrated Brown vs. Board of Education decision which struck down school segregation and spawned the civil rights movement, what happened at Claymont Junior-Senior High School in 1952 played a significant role in determining the outcome of the case.

At a time when there was considerable uncertainty about how even an unanimous Supreme Court opinion would be received, the justices were aware that "something had been done and could be done," according to Jack Greenberg, the last surviving lawyer involved. As a member of the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he helped argue the case in both Delaware's Court of Chancery and the U.S. high court.

In that regard, he said, the Claymont experience could and should be regarded as pivotal, he said.

Greenberg was one of several speakers who offered some new insights into Delaware's role in Brown vs. Board at a symposium commemorating the 52nd annivesary of the integration of Claymont High and the 50th of the graduation of its first black students just a month after Supreme Court ruling was handed down in May of 1954.

The event, sponsored by the Claymont Community Center and the Delaware Heritage Commission, was held in the auditorium of what is now Claymont Intermediate School. The high school occupied the building during its final years. It was closed several years ago. When integration occurred, the junior-senior high school was next door in the building which now houses the community center.

As the national observance of the Brown vs. Board decision was winding down, the symposium was convened by Daniel Harkins and Virginia Smilack, both of whom graduated from Claymont High in the 1960s. Smilack is the daughter of Sager Tryon, a member of the board of the former Claymont Special School District at the time its high was integrated. Harkins said they did not want to let the

anniversary pass without Claymont receiving the recognition it is due.

Sandy Couch -- nee Bernice Byrd -- recalled that long-ago September when she and 10 other youngsters of color entered the building. The youngest of the group and the smallest in stature, she "didn't quite realize the significance" of what was happening. She admitted to having felt intimidated "not because I was going to a white school," but because she had just finished her sixth year of schooling in the one-room State Line School, which under Delaware's dual system of education was reserved for 'colored' children.

Despite some misgivings, there was no disruption nor even much publicity about history-in-the-making around the seventh grader. But some personal adjustment had to

Claymont High graduate Sandy Couch chats with Mike Dixon, a member of the steering committee which produced the Brown vs. Board of Education symposium focusing on the roles the school and community played in making history a half century ago.

be made. "Today I couldn't make it. I don't adjust as well today as I could when I was 11," Couch said.

There was never any question that she would go to Claymont High instead of commuting to Howard High in Wilmington. "Nobody asked my opinion. ... In those days when you were told to do something, you said, 'Yes, Ma'am'," she said.

Ruth Hales-Friend said that kind of discipline came naturally to any youngster who lived on Hickman Row and came under the tutelage of Pauline Dyson, principal and teacher at State Line School. "Pride was instilled in us -- or, if necessary, whipped into us," she said. "It wasn't abuse; it was done out of love." Hickman Row, which still exists, was then company housing for black employees of Worth Steel.

Dyson spent her time teaching children in six grades and moving them ahead "at our own pace," Hales-Friend said. It was effective, as demonstrated by the fact that many went on to succeed in high school and college -- and in life -- by being prepared to emerge from the underside of racially split society. She recalled that, to reach Howard, her school bus had to pass by or near Claymont, Mount Pleasant, P.S. du Pont and Brown Vocational high schools.

Dyson was able to overcome to some extent the effects of such experiences and the deprivation that 'colored' education entailed. Hales-Friend recalled, for instance, being taken by Dyson to the 1939 World Fair where she among the first of her generation to "see people coming through a piece of furniture" at the dawn of commercial television.

"We thank God that Mrs. Dyson played a part in our lives," Hales-Friend said.

The dedicated principal was just one in a cast of many heroes who brought about peaceful integration and saw it advance with virtually no untoward incidents.

One who until now has been nearly overlooked was Albert Young, who, as the state's attorney general, was required to argue against integration in three successively higher courts. His son, Alan Young, said his oath to uphold Delaware law countered his personal ideals. "My father was not a segregationist but, on the contrary, led the struggle for integration and equal justice," Alan Young told the symposium.

At the time the state Department of Public Instruction was in a quandary over whether to allow black students to attend Claymont High and Hockessin Elementary, which were defendants in the Delaware integration case, and Arden Elementary, which voluntarily accepted the local court ruling. The senior Young at first agreed with the education officials that their doing so might jeopardize their position during the appeal to the Supreme Court. But his son noted that he "flip-flopped" and decided they could remain in the schools when he realized their removal "would be a hardship for the Negro children involved."

"It's rare for a public official to admit he made a mistake, correct it immediately and move on," Alan Young said.

Later, he said, Albert Young countered Bryant Bowles, an outlander who led opposition to integrating Milford High School, despite threats on his life and the lives of members of his family. He rejected an invitation by his counterpart in Georgia to join in an effort to thwart the Supreme Court decision. Alan Young quoted Thurgood Marshall as referring to his father as "a man of courage."

Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who opened the symposium, recalled that she was a younger schoolgirl in Milford when that town was engulfed in a violent effort to block integration of the high school. "We have come a long way since then, but we have a long way to go to guarantee equal opportunity to all our children," she said.

Opposing Young in the Delaware case was Louis Redding, the state's first -- and for 27 years its only -- black lawyer. Irving Morris, who was one of Redding's colleagues and friends, said he "could have gone somewhere else ... with far greater assurance to acquire the recognition that he merited," but chose to practice in Delaware where "few at the bar welcomed him" and he received, at best, "grudging respect" during his career.

"We in our state would [have been] content in our old ways. Louis Redding came forward to help us," Morris said. "He helped us all, black and white, to overcome our prejudices."

Redding had the distinction of having won the only one of the five consolidated Brown vs. Board cases in which the lower court decision was upheld.

The first round of the Delaware case involved two cases -- Claymont and Hockessin -- and was decided in favor of integration by Chancellor Collins Seitz. The most significant element of his landmark decision clearly was his calling into question the then-accepted separate-but-equal doctrine which supported racial segregation. Like other jurists who found for plaintiffs in challenges to segregation, Seitz decided the Delaware cases on the basis of inequality.

He wrote in his opinion that he did so because the Delaware Court of Chancery lacked the authority to overrule 'separate'. But he made it clear that he would if he did have the authority. And he laid out his reasoning for taking that position. Because the Supreme Court decides cases on the basis of the record of trials and decisions in lower courts, that was before the high court when it was deciding the Brown vs. Board appeals.

"He called on the Supreme Court to re-examine 'separate but equal' on his finding of facts," Seitz's daughter, Virginia, told the symposium. "The Supreme Court accepted my father's invitation."

The high court was more reluctant to agree with the other significant point in Seitz's ruling, she noted. "He demanded immediate compliance" rather than rule, as other judges had, that black plaintiffs were, indeed, denied their constitutional rights by inferior facilities but their remedy was to wait until the appropriate authorities corrected the imbalance.

Seitz disagreed with that approach. "He did not see how the equal protection clause [of the U.S. constitution] could be read any other way," she said. The best the Supreme Court could do was to rule, after further arguments the following year, that the Brown vs. Board ruling should be obeyed "with all deliberate speed." It took another 15 years and a gradual change in public opinion for the process to be completed.

Smilack said that immediacy sat well with her father and his colleagues on the Claymont school board and the district administration headed by Harvey Stahl. Although previous recounting of the Claymont story strongly indicated that they actively sought racial integration, she dispelled any trace of doubt about that during her talk at the symposium.

She recalled that upon reading the news that Seitz had ordered the integration of the University of Delaware in 1950, Sager Tryon immediately telephoned Stahl and told him, with respect to Claymont, "Now is the time to do it."

"They wanted to integrate, but they wanted to do it legally," Smilack said. Considering the prohibitions in the Delaware constitution and school law, the only way that could be done was to invite a court suit. So they did, she said.

When Seitz's ruling was upheld by the Delaware Supreme Court, Stahl, with the unanimous backing of the four-member board, refused the initial order from the Department of Public Instruction to send the students home. His now-famous response: "We're dealing with human beings, people with feelings, not just a legal case.

Other members of the board were George Brown, Eugene Fletcher and Edward Rowles. Brown, the only one still alive, was unable to attend the symposium.

Greenberg called it ironic that, of all the civil rights advances since Brown vs. Board was decided, only "integration of schools has come to a halt and is beginning to decline."

He said that could be changed if the present generation of residents of communities like Claymont "would come together to embrace the principles" of the Delaware integration cases in the same way their forebears did in accepting integration of their high school.

Posted on September 19, 2004

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