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SPPA Professor Leland Ware discusses the importance of saving a Delaware landmark

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A historic landmark in Hockessin must be preserved

 

Photo Credit: http://mchhistory.blogspot.com/

Written by Leland Ware 

11:28 PM, Jan. 16, 2012

The building that housed Hockessin Colored School 107 has become the subject of considerable community concern. In the 1950s the building was one of the two Delaware schools involved in Brown v. Board of Education. The Hockessin Community Center, the organization that owns the building, defaulted on a debt it owes for work on the facility. A fundraising effort has been launched by a group of local leaders to save the building.

Some background will explain why the building is such an important site of Delaware's history. The Brown decision included consolidated cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Kansas. Civil Rights attorney Louis L. Redding represented the plaintiffs in the two Delaware cases, Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart. Hockessin Colored School 107 was involved in the Bulah case.

In the early 1950s Hockessin was a rural village. It had a whites-only school with lush grounds, a well appointed building with a nurse's office and an auditorium. Colored School No. 107, in contrast, was a two-room school with broken fixtures. There was no auditorium or nurse's office -- just a first aid kit for emergencies.

Transportation was not provided for pupils in School 107. Sarah Bulah watched every morning and afternoon as a school bus drove past her house to take white children to their "pretty little school on the hill," while she had to drive her daughter to the dilapidated and deteriorating "colored" school in the village.

Bulah eventually contacted Louis Redding who filed a suit on her behalf along with another case involving a school in Claymont.

During the dramatic trial of the two cases, Redding presented the testimony of fourteen expert witnesses. Segregation, they said, produced frustration, apathy, and hostility in black school children. A psychologist, Kenneth Clark, presented the results of his "doll studies" in which black children displayed a preference for white dolls and reacted negatively to black dolls.

Under Redding's withering cross-examination, the state's primary witness was forced to acknowledge that his own doctoral dissertation concluded that the unequal educational facilities placed black students at a substantial disadvantage.

After three days of testimony, Chancellor Collins Seitz visited the schools to compare the black and white schools. On April 1, 1952, a ruling was issued. Seitz found that "state-imposed segregation in education itself results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated."

The U.S. Supreme Court had approved racial segregation in an 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson. Seitz wrote that he was compelled by Plessy to hold that segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. But, he also considered whether the state had complied with Plessy by providing equal facilities for black students. After completing a detailed comparison, Seitz ruled that the facilities for black students were, every respect, inferior to those provided to whites. Delaware had failed to comply with Plessy's equivalency requirement. As a consequence, Seitz took the unusual step of ordering the immediate admission of black students to the white schools. The state's Attorney General appealed, but the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling. These were the only cases in which the black students prevailed at the state court level.

The Delaware cases were consolidated with cases from the other jurisdictions in the U. S, Supreme Court. In May of 1954 the Court issued its decision in the school desegregation cases holding, for the first time, that segregation itself violated the Constitution. Brown was among the most important Supreme Court cases of the 20th century. The building that housed Hockessin Colored School 107 is a landmark that must be preserved as an important site in Delaware's and America's history.

The Hockessin Community Center still owes a substantial debt for construction work. A fundraising effort is under way to save the building, but time is limited. Members of the public can donate to the fund online at www.delcf.org or send checks payable to Delaware Community Foundation, 100 W. 10th St., Suite 115, PO Box 1636, Wilmington, DE 19899. Donors should note "Colored School #107 Fund" in the memo line.

Leland Ware is the Louis L. Redding Professor at the University of Delaware.

Originally published by The News Journal.

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