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
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.
misgivings, there was no disruption nor even much publicity
about history-in-the-making around the seventh grader. But some
personal adjustment had to
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.
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
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
"We thank God that
Mrs. Dyson played a part in our lives," Hales-Friend said.
principal was just one in a cast of many heroes who brought
about peaceful integration and saw it advance with virtually no
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
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
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
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
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
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.