On the anniversary of the historic Supreme Court case that ultimately eliminated segregation of America's school system, Brown v. The Board of Education, Delaware officials gathered in front of one of the First State's own landmarks to celebrate the special role the state played in laying ground work for the case.
"If you were looking at the news media and you followed my father around between 1950 and 1952, when you read his speeches during that time, and his radio broadcasts, you will see a man that was passionate to change the course of history and race relations in Delaware," said Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Delaware Collins J. Seitz Jr.
Seitz's father, also Collins Seitz, was on the Court of Chancery at the time, and issued a decision in two cases brought and rolled into one Bulah v. Gebhart and Belton v. Gebhart. In the former, Sarah Bulah desired only to have a bus carrying white children which passed her home each day to stop and pick up her daughter Shirley and drive her to the Hockessin Colored School #107, the site where officials held their ceremony Monday, May 17, 2021. In the latter, parents wanted their children to be permitted to attend Claymont High School, instead of being forced to attend Howard High School.
Delaware's State Board of Education members were specifically named in the suits brought by Attorney Louis Redding, first among them Francis B. Gebhart.
"The unique role that Delaware played in the Brown versus Board of Education case is this: in my father's decision, he was a state court judge...he was able to make an observation which was cited extensively in Brown versus Board of Education," Seitz said. "Regardless of whether black students are provided equal opportunities in their schools as opposed to white schools, segregation itself results in unequal treatment under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That was the basis for the Brown versus Board of Education case by the United States Supreme Court."
It was the first time a local court sided with the plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit.
Hockessin Colored School #107 is now undergoing a transformation into a center for diversity, inclusion, and social equity, through a National Parks grant, and former student James "Sonny" Knott, now a member of the board for a group seeking to preserve its historical significance, spoke about how far his former one-room school has come and the role it will play in shaping the future as a symbol of all the inequality he's seen overcome in his lifetime.
"Those of us who went to that school, and there's only a few of us left now, we are very excited about what is going to happen. We walked through those doors years ago--my first trip through the door was in 1937, and I stayed there five years because while it's a one-room school, as you all know, there were six grades. People get excited when I talk to them. I volunteer at Delcastle [High] School and the teachers come and talk to me, 'What was it like?' It's hard to explain what it was like, but we made it. And those of us who are still here, whatever we are doing in our life, that is good. But I start here. But I start here with the six grades, and the one teacher, and all the shortcomings that we had."
Reflecting on how far the country has come and Delaware's role in desegregation, Governor John Carney verbalized a proclamation on behalf of the school children present at the event and for all those who couldn't join him Monday, which in part read:
"Whereas the United States Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Brown versus Board of Education on May 17--I think that's today--1954, declaring the segregation of public schools to be unlawful in the United States of America; now therefore, We, John Carney, Governor, and Bethany Hall Long, Lieutenant Governor, do hereby declare May 17, 2021, as Brown versus Board of Education Day in the State of Delaware, and urge all Delawareans to recognize this historic and momentous occasion in which our great state played a significant role. Thank you all for making it happen and thank you for recognizing that the future is in our power to make the change necessary."
All of Delaware's federal delegation was on hand alongside local, county, and state officials to help mark the occasion, and US Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons and US Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester spoke on the importance of reflecting on the day.
"I applaud you for not just looking at the past, but thinking about the present and the future, because that's what this moment is about. This is the day that the Lord has made. But I also think about the fact that, across this country, there are places and people that are trying to diminish, shorten, shrink Black history, right now in our country. So the effort that you are making here is bigger than just this one school. It is for all of us. I am so proud," the congresswoman said. "As we celebrate this school and the legacy and the history that Delaware has put forth, it also reminds us that we've got work to do. Work to do. We are on the battlefield to get some work done."