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Photo Credit: http://mchhistory.blogspot.com/
Written by Leland Ware
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
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
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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