Separate but equal was a Supreme Court doctrine that held racial segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities provided for blacks and whites were roughly equal. This doctrine was long used to support segregation in public schools and public facilities such as transportation, restaurants, restrooms and water fountains.
In the South, Jim Crow laws ensured that facilities and services for blacks were often clearly inferior.
From the 1920s and for more than four decades after that, Delaware’s public schools operated under the separate but equal doctrine.
Appalled by Delaware’s schools, industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont took interest in how Delaware’s coloreds were being educated. Du Pont also questioned the way school taxes were levied.
Research teams went throughout the state to develop a full picture of how 'coloreds' – sometimes called Negroes – were educated.
Researchers found many black children were not regularly attending school, and if they were, the school buildings were in deplorable condition.
Du Pont spent more than $6 million to build more than 80 schools throughout the state, including more than $1 million for Howard High School in Wilmington – Delaware’s only secondary school for black children until the 1950s.
Today, adjusted for inflation, the schools du Pont built would cost more than $800 million.
From 1922 to 1925, 33 schools for blacks were built in Sussex County. Towns or areas that received schools included Ellendale, Lewes, Georgetown, Slaughter Neck, Millsboro, Rehoboth, Nassau, Rabbits Ferry, Lincoln and Milton.
Each school was given a number, and schools for blacks were also given the letter C, the designation for colored. Milton’s school was 196C.
Du Pont knew education was a priority for the black community because it provided one of the only vehicles for economic advancement during the segregation-era.
The schools dramatically improved the conditions under which black students were taught.
The schools also served as cultural centers for black communities.
In addition to providing basic educational needs, teachers taught students about the arts, politics, homemaking, woodworking and vocational trades.
Even though the teachers were exceptional and the school buildings were new, school resources remained inferior to the resources at white schools.
Books, sports equipment and school supplies came from white schools after they were deemed too worn for white students to use.
Many books were held together by tape, torn pages repaired with transparent tape, and by the time black students received them, much of the information in the books was outdated.
As one teacher put it, when white students were reading about Charles Lindberg’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, black students were reading about Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 12-second flight in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., in 1903.
For decades, the Supreme Court refused to rule the separate but equal doctrine unconstitutional, on the grounds that such civil rights issues were the responsibility of the states.
In 1950, William C. Jason Comprehensive High School was built in Georgetown.
Initially Jason served grades 9 through 12, but in 1953 it expanded to include students from seventh and eighth grades. Black students from throughout Sussex County were bused there.
Then came the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled separate but equal schools unconstitutional.
In 1955, the justices handed down a plan for desegregation to proceed with ‘all deliberate speed.’ Still, it would be many years before all segregated school systems were to be desegregated.
In Delaware, schools made haste slowly. It wasn’t until 1967 that Jason closed. The building became part of Delaware Technical and Community College’s Georgetown campus.