As a grade-schooler, I knew some things about Black history. In music class, I learned all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In the school library, I read poetry from Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni. It was the 70s, after all.
In fourth grade I learned that my home state, Delaware, was a border state. That meant some people held slaves here from colonial times through the Civil War, though Delaware never seceded. We saw an old black-and-white movie about the notorious Patty Cannon, a White woman who kidnapped free Black people and sold them into slavery farther South. Most of the Black history I learned was history like that—Black history through a White lens.
Meanwhile, there was a great deal of local Black history I knew nothing about, though it would affect my life and the lives of a generation of schoolchildren in northern Delaware. I didn’t know that in the 1950s, a Black family who had lived just up the road from my parents’ house couldn’t send their children to the neighborhood high school. I didn’t know about Louis Redding, Delaware’s first Black lawyer and a crusader for civil rights, who took their case to court and won a ruling that their children were being denied equal protection under the law.
I didn’t know their lawsuit and a similar one by a family in Hockessin to the west became part of the Supreme Court case we now know as Brown v. Board of Education.
I didn’t know that history even while I was living its consequences. As a sixth-grader in the fall of 1978, I got on a bus from the suburb of North Hills and rode to Martin Luther King Elementary School on Wilmington’s East Side.
That was the year a court order finally pushed northern Delaware to make good on the Brown ruling and end the practice of segregated schooling.
Delaware’s desegregation plan was one of the most ambitious in the country, uniting 10 suburban districts and the city of Wilmington into one “superdistrict.” Later, that superdistrict would be quartered, with a chunk of the city and surrounding suburbs in each.
City students—mostly Black—would spend nine years of their K-12 schooling in the suburbs. Suburban students—mostly White—would spend three years in the city. I remember when the plan was first drafted, the timing was six and six. That seemed fair. But the final version had a 9-3 split, with city students taking buses far from home for more years. I wondered why, and no one ever explained it.
Desegregation Ended Apartheid But Didn’t Bring Equity
When it came time to get on the bus, some of my friends didn’t go with me. Their parents pulled them out of public school that year. Too disruptive, they said. Maybe too violent, they worried silently.
In fact, Wilmington’s efforts to end school segregation did not spur the violent White backlash that made Boston infamous. Looking back 60 years after the Brown ruling, Jeffrey Raffel, a University of Delaware professor who led preparations for the launch of the desegregation plan, told the Wilmington News-Journal that the plan met its fundamental goal, saying, “Did we eliminate apartheid? The answer is yes.” By 2001, Harvard researchers found that Delaware was one of the two most desegregated states in the nation.
But other consequences were more subtle and surprising. Entrenched White hostility to desegregation left its mark on Joe Biden, who started his Senate career open to busing as a means to end segregation, but became a staunch opponent after vocal constituents took him to task. (Emory University’s Brett Gadsden has written a book on the politics in play here.)
Those pressures, combined with the Supreme Court’s 1990 shift that gave lower courts power to determine that school districts had done all they could do to provide equal educational opportunity, have led to increasing re-segregation of Delaware schools. Delaware’s court order ended in 1995, and the General Assembly quickly passed a school choice law favoring neighborhood schools.
Separate Is Not Equal
Though I didn’t know the history that propelled me on a bus into Wilmington’s East Side back in 1978, I quickly learned that separate is not equal. I quickly learned about the differences in facilities, teachers and expectations assigned to White children versus Black.
Though a court order moved children into different buildings, it didn’t make the differences in teacher assignments and expectations magically disappear. Nor did it magically end differences in academic achievement, school dropout and college persistence—all of which are still with us today, even though Delaware’s student achievement grew at the third-fastest rate in the nation between 1990 and 2009.
It’s only within the last few years that Wilmington has begun to dig more deeply into its Black past and see its relevance for everyone. Last fall, the Delaware History Museum reopened after two years of renovations, including a new Center for African American Heritage. I look forward to taking my daughter there the next time we go to Grandma’s. And I hope we can all take a deeper look at the history of Delaware’s schools to help chart a course toward greater equity.