Marjorie Duffy Biles: From colored schools to Carper’s office
Being one of the first African American students to step into Rehoboth High School was an eye-opener for young Marjorie Biles.
“We went in as a group, so it wasn’t as bad, but it was a shocker,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was a quiet transition, with no fights.”
Marjorie attended elementary school at the brown, cedar-shake, one-story school on Oyster House Road, now used by Faith United Methodist Church as a fellowship hall.
“It was Rehoboth School 200-C, and the ‘C’ stood for ‘colored,’” she said.
Junior high was William C. Jason Comprehensive High School in Georgetown, which closed in 1967 when all Delaware schools were finally desegregated. The building later became part of Delaware Technical Community College.
“We were bussed to Georgetown,” she said. “My husband’s family didn’t send him.” He and his sister went to Rehoboth, before the schools were formally desegregated. “He didn’t talk much about the experience. If you brought up what he went through, he would cry.”
Marjorie’s husband, Parnell Biles, the first African American to attend Rehoboth High, was known as the first black Seahawk, after the school mascot. Parnell worked at Delmarva Power for 34 years, before passing away in 2006 from a rare brain cancer. He was her high school sweetheart.
Biles said the all-black elementary and junior high schools provided a nurturing environment.
“It was like a community, and the teachers were like our parents,” she said. “They were determined that we were going to succeed, no matter what it took. So it was a jolt to go to Rehoboth High School.”
Integration at Rehoboth High came more than 10 years after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled separate but equal schools were unconstitutional. Marjorie graduated in 1968.
“In my family, we knew racism existed; we just didn’t dwell on it in my household,” she said. “My parents wanted us to get an education, but did tell us there were places we couldn’t go and things we couldn’t do.
“If we wanted to go to the beach, we couldn’t go to the main beach at Rehoboth Avenue,” she continued. “We had to go all the way to the end, where the Henlopen Hotel is. In Lewes, there was a specific beach we could go to, set aside from the main beach. At the movie theater, we had to sit upstairs. But some of our white friends would come up there and sit with us when they learned it was more fun up there!”
Rehoboth was a lot smaller back then, Marjorie said, and everyone knew everyone.
“It was just a family-oriented, close-knit community,” she said. “We played with white kids and didn’t think anything about color. Kids were kids. We didn’t know about racism till later.
“I never experienced being called the ‘N’ word in high school,” she said. “I never felt inferior; I figured they had the problem, not me. But I could feel the coldness. It could be scary. What was worse than enduring it that day was knowing you’d have to get up the next morning and do it again.”
Despite that, Marjorie said she made some lifelong friends with white teenagers at Rehoboth High - the Pierces, the Nowakowskis, the Shockleys and Johnsons - friends she remains close with to this day.
Marjorie said a school guidance counselor took a special interest in her.
“She asked where I worked in the summers. Well, it was the Avenue Restaurant,” Marjorie said. “A couple days later, she called me to her office and said, ‘I want you to go to Rehoboth to Walsmith’s Variety Store and talk to Scotty Walsmith.’ He hired me on the spot. I worked there during high school, and even when I was married and had kids, I still worked there parttime.”
At the time, employers would hire African Americans, but not typically for such visible positions; they worked behind the scenes in restaurants or motels. Marjorie later took a position with a local bank, where she worked for 20 years.
“That’s where I first heard the ‘N’ word about me,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to hear the conversation. I was a woman, and an African American, but I was an educated woman. They always placed me on task teams to promote services statewide, and I was even in a commercial. Once they got to talk to me, they figured there was nothing different between us, and became my friends as well.”
Marjorie said her friendship with Peppy Shockley led to her involvement in politics. Peppy’s mother, Myrtle Shockley, was a Sussex County Democratic District chairperson and three-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
“I became the secretary for the Sussex Democratic Party, where I met [Georgetown attorney] Tim Willard,” she said. “He found out there was a job opening in Sen. Tom Carper’s office, and he bugged them every day to hire me - said I’d be perfect. At my interview, they told me they already knew all about me from Tim!”
Marjorie started working for Carper in 2001 as a constituent relations representative, helping residents with immigration issues, visas, passports and other needs.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she said. “I got to meet a lot of people and help them. Working with Sen. Carper was awesome. Even though he’s busy with the impeachment proceedings, he took the time to call me on my birthday last week.”
Marjorie said Carper always had a very diverse staff, and she developed lifelong relationships with the people she helped.
“There’s a large immigrant population in Georgetown,” she said. “They trusted me and would talk to me. I miss being able to help them. Our motto was that anyone who came into that office would never leave empty-handed. We gave them some kind of help or information and used our federal and state contacts to help people.”
Marjorie retired in 2014, but found new ways to help people with a part-time role at Cancer Support Community Delaware.
“It’s fulfilling to see how strong these people are who are battling cancer. They lift my spirits,” she said.
Marjorie is active in two sororities for professional black women, Alpha Kappa Alpha and The Links. A member of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Marjorie has shared responsibility for three little sisters, ages 9, 11 and 12, for the past five years.
“Their mom is a hardworking single parent in Georgetown,” she said. “I took them to the Martin Luther King banquet, and they got to meet Lisa Blunt Rochester. It was all about women; this year we honored our local ‘sheroes.’ It was a positive time well spent.”