Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hockessin Colored School #107C

Hockessin Colored School #107C
In my opinion, there are many interesting and significant historical sites in Mill Creek Hundred. Most, though, are significant only in a local context, and not much more. However, one site in Hockessin -- recently almost lost -- bucks that trend. Not only was it born of one of the greatest philanthropic crusades in early 20th Century Delaware, it had a contributing role in probably the most important court case of the century, too. Although it's been in the news quite a bit the past year or so, many people probably don't know very much about the Hockessin Colored School #107C. The story of this plain-looking little brick building -- especially its beginning and its end -- is really the story of a few principled individuals trying to better the futures of children overlooked and mostly disregarded at the time.

To fully understand "107C" we have to go back a little, to the 1800's. Beginning in the 1820's, the schools in MCH and the rest of Delaware were controlled and mostly funded locally, by local school boards, with minimal assistance from the state. This, though, was for the white schools. Black children had far fewer options. Before the Civil War, there were very few schools in Delaware for African-Americans. In the years following the war some organizations, most notably the Delaware Association for the Moral Improvement and Education of the Colored People, did establish and fund black schools. And while these schools seemed always on the verge of exhausting their limited funding, these efforts did help to prompt an 1875 state law that taxed African-Americans for the support of their local school. In 1881 the state began contributing funding for black schools, and in 1897 this support was raised to be equal to that of white schools. Unfortunately, schools still relied mostly on local school taxes, so even with increased state support the black schools were still noticeably inferior.

In MCH, it seems there were only ever two black schools -- one in Marshallton and one in Hockessin. When the first Hockessin Colored School was built is unclear, but one was definitely in place by 1879, as a report from the time shows that it had a maximum of 22 students during the 1879-80 school year, but was only open for 2 months. Information on these early schools is sketchy, but I believe that there likely were a total of three Hockessin Colored Schools. First was the early school noted in the 1880 report. Next, a second school was built about 1900, and may have been a beneficiary of the increased state funding starting in 1897. That school, seen below in a picture from the 1920's, may be the core of a house still standing north of Grant Avenue, along a now-abandoned stretch of the Wilmington and Western tracks. If I squint hard enough, I can see the raised tracks behind the school.

Old Hockessin Colored School
This school, although probably one of the better ones in the state at the time, was still woefully inadequate for a proper education. By the 1910's, many people had come to realize that the system for educating the state's African-American children -- along with the schools themselves -- was in serious need of reform. One man, though, stood up to "put his money where his mouth was" -- Pierre S. DuPont. Between 1919 and 1940, P.S. DuPont gave over $6 million of his own money towards education in Delaware, most of it for the construction of new African-American schools. For more information about P.S. DuPont and his philanthropy, check out this paper from Hagley, or the NRHP form for the Iron Hill School near Newark.

Obviously (or I wouldn't have been writing about him), one of the schools built by Pierre S. DuPont was a new "colored" school in Hockessin, the Hockessin Colored School #107C (the "C" designated it as a colored school). Although it was still a one-room school, it was vastly superior to the one it replaced. The new school, opened in 1920, was a one and a half story brick building facing Mill Creek Road, just south of Grant Avenue. It stands next to the Chippey African Union Methodist Church, the historically black church that stands on the site of, and has its roots in, the 19th Century Chippey Chapel. In fact (and not surprisingly), the entire area around the 107C school was home to many African-Americans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. For this reason, the Hockessin Heritage Foundation has stated as one of its goals to create a museum highlighting this aspect of Hockessin's history.

If the story of the 107C school was nothing more than this, it would still be significant to the history of MCH. Just the structure alone is impressive. Considering it was built for children who many in the state didn't give much thought to educating at all, it was a very nice school. At its dedication, Dr. Joseph H. Odell, the head of the organization through which Pierre S. DuPont worked, said he believed 107C to be the best one-teacher school ever built. It does compare well with contemporary white schools, such as the #33 Brandywine Springs School, and is better than pretty much any of the older white schools. However, as nice as the building itself was, it was still legally separate from the white school system. And though Plessy v. Ferguson said it had to be "equal", it clearly wasn't. This fact set the stage, a few years later, for 107C's connection to national significance mentioned at the top of the post.

1941 Insurance Valuation of 107C

In 1950, one of the students attending 107C was Shirley Bulah, whose mother Sarah would not be satisfied with the status quo. After being denied admission for her daughter to the much larger white #29 Hockessin School, Mrs. Bulah tried a simpler request. While no transportation was provided for African-American students, every day the bus to the white school went right past the Bulah's vegetable stand at the corner of Valley and Limestone Roads. Sarah Bulah asked that Shirley be allowed to ride this bus to her own school, but since Delaware law prohibited black and white students riding on the same bus, her request was denied.

Mrs. Bulah's next course of action was to contact Wilmington lawyer Louis Redding, Delaware's first African-American lawyer, who had been looking for cases to test the state's segregated school system. In 1951 Bulah v. Gebhart was combined with another case concerning Claymont High School, and the following year became the first cases in the US to ever successfully challenge legally segregated schools. Two years later, the Delaware cases were consolidated with four others to become Brown v. Board of Education, arguably the most significant court case of the 20th Century. The little brick schoolhouse in Hockessin played an integral part in ending the shameful practice of segregated education in America.

Although a great positive for society, the end of segregated schools also meant the end of 107C, at least as a school. After several years of slow integration, the Hockessin Colored School #107C closed its doors in 1959. That same year, partially at the insistance of Lillian Mitchell (wife of John C. Mitchell and resident of Ocasson), the building was saved and became the home of the Hockessin Community Center. Recently, the school was nearly lost by HCC, but thanks to the efforts of many concerned citizens, the historic structure has remained in their hands. Whether it becomes a museum, remains a community center, or both, at least we know that this nationally important piece of history will remain to remind all of us how far our society has come, and hopefully its spirit will help us see what remains to be done.

3 comments:

  1. Played Little League baseball in the late 1950's and 1960's and there was a team that was from Hokessin. I remember a good friend from that Hokessin team that was a great baseball player. If Ron Woolfolk or any one else that remembers him is following this blog Please respond.

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  2. My uncle grew up also playing LL in Hockessin. Remember seeing a team picture with former pro baseball player Dave May, who passed away in October. If I remember correctly the team was a little older than LL, maybe Legion ball.

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  3. Do you know the location of School #29 that Shirley Bulah would have attended? Is the building still there? I believe the original School 29 became the Lamborn Library and is now office space. That school closed in the early 30s and a new school was built.

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