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EDITORIAL: The past is the prologue to our future

Katie Tabeling
Editor Katie Tabeling muses on the rich history that lives in northern Delaware, as well as Wilmington's unique role in Brown v. Board of Education and Women's Suffrage activism.

Editor Katie Tabeling muses on the rich history that lives in northern Delaware, as well as Wilmington’s unique role in Brown v. Board of Education and Women’s Suffrage activism. PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

The other day I was walking back to my car, parked on Wilmington street, and I noticed a sign in front of an unsuspecting brick house. Like the dozens of historic markers across the state, it was metal with raised text and in clear, uppercase typeface.

This one was different – this sign was purple.

“VOTES FOR WOMEN. Alice Dunbar-Nelson 1875-1935. Teacher, Author, Civil Rights Leader.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, if you had not heard of her like me until that moment, was a Black poet, journalist and editor. Her place of history is very unique: she was a part of the first generation of African Americans born after the end of the Civil War in the South and grew up in the Creole community of New Orleans. She graduated from college when she was 17 and then taught elementary school while writing some of her first work.

Even at a young age, Alice was interested in the Black feminist movement, using her writing skills to spread the word and make compelling arguments. But when she moved to Wilmington in the turn of the century starting work at Howard High School and what is now known as Delaware State University —she also started to come into her own. 

She edited a Black newspaper, the Wilmington Advocate, and published a literary anthology. More importantly, she was a key person in establishing the Wilmington NAACP chapter. So involved in politics, she was fired from teaching at Howard High School for traveling to Ohio to participate in Social Justice Day, an event that drew hundreds of suffragettes who just won the right to vote to meet then-presidential candidate Warren Harding.

I can almost imagine Alice reading and writing her columns against lynching, dreaming of doing more to support the World War I effort than sitting and sewing, rallying neighbors and other activists from her apartment in that building. After her teaching career ended, the Board of Education overturned the decision but Alice decided to not come back and instead dig herself deeper into politics.

History is all around us, it is in our air and soil and it is not contained in history books. It can be hard to remember that when buildings rise and fall and technology makes dizzying advances with each passing moment. Some people like Alice Dunbar-Nelson are long gone, but others who are still here can share their stories to remember our past. Delaware played its role quite well.

Consider the Golden Fleece tavern that drew political activists to downtown Dover, including 30 delegates to review a document that came from Philadelphia which contained the basic framework of what would become our government.

Of course, there’s plenty of living history still here today, such as the words of Orlando Camp who wrote a book as one of the “Milford 11” – a group of Black students who were among the first to integrate in Milford High School in the 1950s. In past interviews, he said that at age 14, he just focused on getting an education equal to white students to open doors. Reba Hollingsworth was also on the forefront of integration as she was among the first in a desegregated class to earn a master’s degree from University of Delaware despite massive pushback.

“At the time, it was considered that Blacks don’t need enough education to read, write and count a bit. That was law on the books until 1972. But the best education is an open mind, and to learn is to see and understand people,” Hollingsworth told me last fall. “You just try to improve your situation as you go out. And that’s what I did.”

It is foolish to say the past remains in the past as the actions of people in the past can still be felt today. In fact, for me personally, it wasn’t until Vice President Kamala Harris took President Joe Biden to task during a 2019 debate for his place in the Civil Rights movement that I realized that busing played a role in my childhood. 

Delaware was one of 17 states with a segregated school system in the 1950s until Belton v. Gebhart, which later rolled into Brown v. Board of Education, changed that. That drove massive education policy shifts, combining all the districts in New Castle County to be overseen by one Board to push desegregation. By the 1970s, that meant Black students from Wilmington area districts were sent to schools in the suburbs and white students were sent to school in Wilmington between 4th and 6th grade.

I, at 10 years old, took the bus around 18 miles from Pike Creek to attend Bancroft Elementary School in downtown Wilmington. Interestingly, while school choice allowed families to opt their students into districts, busing continued until 2001 when the General Assembly passed a law to send students to schools closest to their homes.

Of course, I have no regrets about my public school education. I met some of the best teachers I’ve ever had who encouraged my eventual career in writing. I was definitely exposed to a whole new world far away from the cultivated lawns of the Pike Creek area, including the hustle of the early 2000s of Wilmigton on field trips. There are hundreds of generations of students like me who experienced something similar and it has also played a role in their lives.

But it is disingenuous to say the past remains on the pages of history textbooks. The past is the prologue for the present and the future. As we reflect on the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it is imperative to remember Delaware’s unique role in the changes.

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