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‘The Trail to Desegregation’

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Student project highlights Delaware connections to Brown v. Board of Education decision

Karen Ingram, a graduating student in UD’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, stands before the Louis L. Redding House and Museum in Wilmington. Ingram created a bus tour that traces Delaware's crucial role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which was handed down 70 years ago. Redding, the state’s first Black attorney, was part of the legal team that argued the case.

Two Delaware schools played an important role in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools 70 years ago and marked a turning point in America’s civil rights movement.

A capstone project by Karen M. Ingram, a graduating student in the University of Delaware’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, highlights local connections — two legal cases and four local sites — that contributed to the May 17, 1954, decision.

Ingram created a bus tour titled “The Trail to Desegregation: A Journey to Freedom and Equality” that tells the story of this era by bringing participants to the places in which the events occurred. The sold-out tour takes place Saturday, May 18. Stops include Redding House Museum and Community Center, Howard High School of Technology, Claymont High School/Community Center, and Hockessin Colored School #107C.

Delaware’s connections to Brown v. Board of Education

Delaware, a former slave state, and its schools remained segregated well into the 20th century. Between 1920 and 1931, 90 schools throughout the state were built for African American and Native American students. Delaware philanthropist Pierre Samuel du Pont funded the campaign to rebuild the schools — an investment that came more than 20 years after the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling stating that segregation was legal, as long as the separate spaces were equal.

It was against Delaware law to transport non-white children on a school bus with white students. Black children often had to attend schools that were farther from their homes, even if there was a white school nearby. Despite the fact that they paid taxes and assessments for school bus transportation, Black parents also had to pay for their children to be bused to the “colored” schools.

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​Howard High School is one of the first stops on the bus tour. Student Ethel Louise Belton had to make a 20-mile round trip ride on public transportation to attend the school, even though Claymont High School was only blocks from her home. Redding represented her parents in a case against the state​

In 1951, the families of Ethel Louise Belton and Shirley Barbara Bulah hired Louis L. Redding, the state’s first Black attorney, to represent them in two separate cases as they sued the state for refusing to provide state-funded transportation for their children to attend the schools closest to their homes. Although she lived only blocks from Claymont High School, Belton was required to attend Howard High School, a 20-mile round trip on public transportation. Bulah, 7, attended Hockessin Colored School #107-C (the C stood for colored) even though a school for white children was much closer.

The cases — Bulah v. Gebhart and Gebhart vs. Belton — combined with three others to form Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

Making the project a reality

Ingram worked for Redding in 1968 as a Goldey-Beacom College co-op student and again later as his full-time legal secretary.

“He was a phenomenal man, and I admire him more all the time,” she said.

Rather than write a thesis for the MALS program, Ingram decided to create a project that honored Redding’s legacy.

The puzzle pieces began to come together when Ingram realized the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling fell during her last semester at UD. Ingram, a member of the Delaware Historical Society’s Board of Trustees, presented the bus tour project idea to Ivan Henderson, the society’s executive director, who agreed to work with her to develop it into a public program.

“One thing led to another,” she said. “It was serendipity.”

Several organizations supported the project, including the Delaware Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Delaware Heritage Commission, the Delaware Historical Society and its Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, the City of Wilmington, and Garland Thompson of State Farm Insurance Company.​

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​Also on the tour, Hockessin School #107C was one of the 90 DuPont “Colored” Schools built across the state in the 1920s to educate African American and Native American children. One of those children, Shirley Barbara Bulah, was at the center of a court case brought by her parents and represented by​ Redding.

“I hope people will learn from this tour … what it took for us to integrate schools, the challenges the families went through as they were faced with ridicule, loss of employment, estrangement from their communities … They were brave school children, and their families’ advocacy is to be commended,” Ingram said. “People of my generation know what we went through, but I want those who come after us to learn the whole story of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation and of Louis L. Redding, the crusader. It was a struggle then and something we often take for granted today.”

Julie McGee, associate professor of Africana studies and art history and Ingram’s adviser, said everyone benefits from learning about the history highlighted in Ingram’s project.

“Karen’s dedication to this project has been nothing short of extraordinary, and her relationships with key participants in Delaware’s desegregation history well-positioned her to be an advocate for this bus tour,” McGee said. “She lined up a dream team and was able to make this project a reality.”

Earning a master’s degree was an item on Ingram’s bucket list, but she’s not stopping there.

“I have no plans to work,” she said with a laugh. “At 76, I don’t need to. I am considering getting my Ph.D., though … in literature or history. I’d like to focus on Africana studies. UD has a program for those over age 60 and you can get a degree for free, so why not pursue it?”

About the MALS program

The MALS program is an interdisciplinary master’s degree program that can be completed on a part-time basis. Classes are small seminars featuring lively discussions about topics ranging from what it means to be human to how we understand the world around us. Students can shape their own curriculum to pursue their passions once they have completed the introductory and core courses. Learn more about the MALS program on its website.​

Article by Brenda Lange 

Photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Center for Historic Architecture and Design 

May 16, 2024

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