Above: Members of the N.A.A.C.P. legal defense team who worked on the Brown v. Board of Education case. Louis Redding far left; Jack Greenberg third from right. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1953. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.
Delaware’s schools are more than classrooms; they’re a battleground where the nation’s broader struggles with educational inequality and segregation have been fought.
The 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, forming the legal cornerstone of Delaware’s school segregation well into the 20th century.
Although Delaware amended its constitution in 1897 to technically comply, it perpetuated chronic inequality by underfunding schools in black communities. Despite the prevailing ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, decades passed with little improvement, leaving a vacuum that civil rights organizations like the NAACP would soon seek to fill.
The NAACP in 1939 highlighted the glaring deficiencies in black schools, particularly in Wilmington where a growing population strained limited resources. These schools lacked basic amenities.
As late as 1950, no public black high school south of Wilmington offered a college prep curriculum.
Not until that decade did significant legal challenges to Plessy v. Ferguson begin to emerge, primarily spearheaded by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF).
The Fund had a particular focus on education and had been actively searching for potential cases to challenge Plessy v. Ferguson. This battle was often concentrated in southern and border states, like Delaware, where segregation was explicitly mandated by law. Their legal efforts, however, met with only modest successes until the year 1950, which witnessed three landmark victories.
The Unique Case of Parker
The NAACP’s first landmark case of the early 1950s was Parker v. the University of Delaware. Louis Redding, the first African American admitted to the Delaware bar, argued the case in Delaware’s Court of Chancery before presiding judge Collin Seitz. Redding teamed up with LDEF lawyer Jack Greenberg.
Greenberg, the newest staff lawyer at LDEF and married to a Wilmington native, became an invaluable collaborator with Redding, further strengthening Delaware’s legal challenge to segregation.
Both attorneys, known for their methodical approach and strong convictions, formed a synergistic partnership. Their mutual respect was evident: Redding saw Greenberg as genuinely committed to the cause, while Greenberg regarded Redding as a standout advocate for civil rights in Delaware. This mutual respect sharpened their legal strategies, avoiding the ego clashes that can derail a team’s effectiveness.
The Parker v. University of Delaware case exposed stark inequalities between Delaware State College and the University of Delaware. Redding identified ten black students from Delaware State College who were willing to challenge their rejection from the University of Delaware. The college had long suffered from state underfunding and lacked national accreditation as late as 1950.
Redding took on the legwork and the preparation of local witnesses while Greenberg worked to coordinate the Parker strategy with the other activities of the LDEF.
Their hard work found a sympathetic ear in Judge Seitz, who applied a rigorous interpretation of the “separate but equal” doctrine and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, deeming Delaware’s educational facilities decidedly unequal.
The University of Delaware became the first American college court-ordered to desegregate, foreshadowing the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Jack Greenberg observed, ‘Although Louis [Redding] had to campaign to persuade qualified black applicants to enter the university to capitalize on his victory, the case did have an impact in Delaware.’
Belton and Bulah Cases
The NAACP’s next two landmark cases involved the nearly identical lawsuits of Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart. Both revolved around parents petitioning for their black children to attend closer, all-white schools. While both suits challenged the inferior conditions of schools for African Americans—Ethel Belton in Claymont and Sarah Bulah in Hockessin—Bulah’s case stood out for its unique circumstance: she was a white woman with an adopted black child.
Louis Redding again came forward, partnered once more with Jack Greenberg, to argue both cases in Delaware’s Court of Chancery. Vice Chancellor Collins J. Seitz presided over these cases.
In both Belton v. Gebhart as well as Bulah v. Gebhart the parents’ requests were denied. Although state law supported public school desegregation, the board of education in practice objected to desegregation.
In the Belton cases Judge Seitz decided in favor of the parents both in Claymont and Hockessin. He wrote that he couldn’t overturn segregation, but he could find in these two cases that they weren’t separate but equal, and that fixes could not be made quick enough to stop the damage being done to the children.
“I conclude from the testimony that in our Delaware society,” Judge Seitz observed in a statement that would echo through the decades, “State-imposed segregation in education itself results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated.”
Judge Seitz therefore ordered them admitted to the white schools. The state AG appealed to the State Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. The state then appealed to the US Supreme Court, which added the combined cases to the Brown v. Board of Education docket. The Delaware cases are the only cases in Brown where the courts did find for the students.
Though the high court granted relief to the individual plaintiffs, the nine refused to consider the larger question, the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Delaware’s Unsung Heroism
While the Parker case may have stayed out of the national spotlight, it laid a foundational block for the fight against segregation and educational inequality. Delaware’s legal struggles didn’t just set precedents; they paved the way for the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education ruling, marking Delaware as an unsung hero in reshaping American educational policy and social norms.