History of Milford Eleven helped form Delaware’s present

February 25, 2014

The past isn’t dead, novelist William Faulkner wrote. “It isn’t even past.”

It’s a good thing to remember, especially during February, the month designated to celebrate black history.

The problem with Black History Month is that many people consider it only about blacks and only about history. In truth, black history is part of our shared heritage and remains very much part of the present.

Speaking last fall before the Aspen Institute on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, civil rights activist Julian Bond illustrated the connection between past and present.

“We are such a young nation,” he said, “so recently removed from slavery, that only my father’s generation stands between Julian Bond and human bondage. Like many others, I’m the grandson of a slave.” (Bond’s grandfather was born the offspring of a white master and a black slave, while the Civil War still raged, in 1863 Kentucky.)

Think of it. If your own grandfather had been born a slave, would the “peculiar institution” seem a mere historical artifact?

Or, similarly, what if you yourself had been driven from your high school on account of the color of your skin?

Recently, on a cold February night, about 120 people gathered at Fish On in Lewes to hear from such a man, Orlando Camp, a member of the Milford Eleven. The event was sponsored by the Sussex Progressive Community, a nonpartisan group that meets to learn about various issues.

The Milford Eleven was a group of African-Americans bidding to become the first black students at Milford High School, following the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ended “separate but equal” in 1954.

For Camp, it wasn’t about making history or even about integration. “The benefit of going to a white school in 1954 had nothing to do with integration,” Camp said. “It was all about opportunity.”

The white schools offered opportunity because while they were separate, they were hardly equal.  Compared to black schools, they had better funding, better buildings and better instruction. Camp was determined to take advantage of that opportunity.

His experience began on a high note. Camp’s mother sent him and his brother to the old Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia to buy new clothes for school.

“Let’s look our best,” Camp said, describing their attitude. “Let’s act our best.”

And the first day was largely uneventful. “Everything was fine, no problems,” he said. His new white classmates, who numbered 686, were “cordial” if not overly friendly. On the second day, Camp said, “All hell broke loose. White kids would go home and say ‘Mom, we got colored kids in my class.’”

People began showing up at the school to protest the inclusion of black students. “By the third day, we had about three-to-four-hundred people standing at the door … they were calling us names.”

After the Milford police refused to help, Louis Redding, a Delaware lawyer leading legal efforts to integrate state schools, called on the Delaware State Police to escort the Milford Eleven to school.

The state police complied, driving the kids to school, but that did nothing to allay the anger of the crowds, which kept growing larger. They started throwing things at the black students. They even hung around outside the school during the day.

The situation became even more inflamed with the arrival of Bryant Bowles of Baltimore, a demagogue who told the segregationists what they wanted to hear. Town leaders such as car dealer I.G. Burton feared violence would erupt.

Finally, white students began staying home. Camp said that he and his fellow black classmates continued attending school, but they began to “realize that this was probably not going to last.”

And it didn’t. Not even a month. While Brown vs. the Board of Education decision was officially the law of the land, the Delaware Supreme Court decided, in effect, not yet. It ruled that the Milford School District had acted legally but too quickly to integrate its schools.

The 11 African American students were transferred out of Milford High School, with Camp winding up at William Henry High School in Dover. After a stint in the Army, he went on to a successful career in sales and marketing.

While the story of the Milford Eleven ranks among the ugliest in Delaware history, it has a hopeful ending.

More than a half century after he should have graduated from Milford High School, Camp received a call from District Superintendent Sharon Kanter, who also spoke that night at Fish On. She was arranging for the Milford Eleven to receive honorary diplomas from Milford High School. In 2012, Camp could finally call himself a Milford High School graduate. Camp called Brown vs. the Board of Education “one of the most landmark decisions this country has ever had. But ladies and gentlemen, I say this to you this evening, we have a long way to go.”

We can get there if we remember how our past continues to shape the present.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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