Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the CAMP Rehoboth Community Center, lifelong Rehoboth resident Waynne Paskins said her experience growing up in Sussex County was pretty typical for a child. Except, she said, she and her friends were not allowed to cross the drawbridge into town and could not go to the beach unless they were with an adult.
“There was always something exciting to do,” said Paskins. “It was segregated, but it didn’t seem to matter all that much. I had a great time growing up.”
Paskins was one of five panelists who participated in the second annual Black History Month Celebration. The Feb. 7 event was co-hosted by CAMP Rehoboth and the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice. Joining Paskins were Jacqueline Goodwin, Clem Jordan, Stell Parker-Selby and Ruth Palmer.
In addition to the panel discussion, the event opened with an art exhibition, featuring black artists expressing personal interpretations of long-silenced truths using light as a metaphor. Artists included Ann B. Martin, Nina Spencer, Shannon Woodloe, T. Angela Taylor, Tanaja Brown, Taylor Gordon and Terrance Vann.
Don Peterson, moderator, said he learned a lot through the process of preparing for the event. It’s a story of resistance and resilience in the face of what were sometimes harsh conditions, he said.
Parker-Selby grew up in Milton. She said her parents were involved in the Civil Rights movement, so she was aware of Jim Crow laws and segregation. She said her parents always prepared her for a world when she would be working with white people.
“My parents were always telling me it’s not always going to be like this,” said Parker-Selby.
Parker-Selby said she was required to walk and talk like a lady, and her family ate meals with linen napkins because her grandmother always told her she might eat in the White House one day.
Jordan said he grew up in the Selbyville and Frankford area of Sussex County. His dad worked on chicken farms, which Jordan hated because he had to tend to the chickens before school.
Jordan said he and friends would go to historically black entertainment venues like Rosedale Beach in Oak Orchard, Strawberry Landing in Frankford and Jason Beach in Laurel, which is now Trap Pond.
“We’d dance until two or three in the morning,” said Jordan.
For the most part, the panelists said they were too old to be a part of desegregating schools in Sussex County. It was an issue their parents were dealing with, but they had all graduated from high school before schools were desegregated.
“Everyone knew their place. We didn’t really see it as a negative,” said Goodwin, who grew up in Bridgeville.
Palmer said she grew up on a farm, and her parents forced her to work. They’d make her sweep the dirt yard to keep it clean, she said.
Palmer said her parents made sure she knew she had to behave in school.
“If there was a problem at school, there’d be a problem at home,” said Palmer, garnering an isn’t-that-the-truth head shake from her former classmates. “If you got a whupping at school, you’d get one at home too.”
All five panelists went to William C. Jason Comprehensive High School in Georgetown.
“We had a wonderful time,” said Jordan.
All five panelists also said they encountered racism as adults, after they were no longer under the protective umbrella of their parents.
Paskins was a Rehoboth Elementary School teacher for decades. She said one year the parent of a student didn’t want their child in her class because she was black. Ultimately, the district’s administration supported her, said Paskins, and the child’s parents were forced to deal with it.
Jordan, who worked for the Delaware Department of Transportation for more than 30 years, said one time a contractor refused to accept payment because it was coming from him.
Parker-Selby also worked in the Cape Henlopen School District. She began as a playground aide at Rehoboth Elementary School, but ultimately worked as principal at Rehoboth Elementary and assistant principal at Cape Henlopen High School.
She said there wasn’t necessarily blatant racism. It was more subtle, she said.
“They had their problems, but I had my character,” she said. “I made out fine.”