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“I’m damn mad at any injustice!”

Howard High School faculty in the 1930s

Wilmingtonian Pauline A. Young rose to become a luminary in the fields of education, civil rights, and library sciences. Born in 1900 in Medford, MA, Pauline moved just a few years later with her three siblings and her recently widowed mother to Wilmington.  

Together they lived with Pauline’s aunt, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, an educator and writer (she went through 3 husbands during the time Pauline lived in the house. Men were a shifting variable). Pauline’s grandmother also lived in the household, so that Pauline and her siblings grew up under the supervision of three matriarchs. 

Pauline’s early education unfolded at Howard High School, an institution that she would later influence significantly as an educator. Howard was the only institution to offer a high school education to African American children living in Delaware at that time. Both her mother and her aunt taught at the school and regularly offered their home to host special lectures and other events.  

Education Amidst Segregation

In Pauline’s childhood and well into her adult life, Wilmington was a segregated city. Many parks, restaurants, and movie theaters, among other institutions, did not allow admittance of black patrons.  

The black community formed their own enclaves where possible, providing access to certain types of venues or services that were denied to black people elsewhere. Private homes (including the Young family’s) hosted scores of visitors, as Wilmington’s hotels did not serve black guests. Even black celebrities like Paul Robeson would stay the night in family residences when they came to town. “Our home in Wilmington,” Pauline later observed, “was a nice stopover place for people like James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes or Paul Robeson. We used to listen to them talk as children. We never realized they were history makers.” 

Pauline’s aunt and mother were also active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the tender age of twelve, Pauline became active in the organization, influenced by her aunt and mother. attended Howard High School, which was the only school for African-American students in the state of Delaware. 

Because she was black, the University of Delaware blocked Pauline’s plan to attend. She instead commuted to the University of Pennsylvania, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts education in 1921.  

The Old Howard School building that Pauline Young attended. Delaware Historical Society

Post college, Pauline bounced around for half a decade in several places. She taught history at Huntington High School in Newport News, VA, and worked as a member of the press staff for the Tuskegee Institute

Circling back to Wilmington, Pauline took a position as an instructor of History and Latin at her high school alma mater, Howard High School. Pauline was later given charge of a small library that Dr. Henry Clay Stevenson, a member of the board of education, had donated to the school. 

Pauline managed the book collection so impressively that her colleagues encouraged her to seek an additional degree in library science. She earned her master’s degree in that field from Columbia University in 1935. This credential prepared her for the pioneering role she would soon undertake in her hometown. 

Pioneering Library Services

Pauline transformed the Howard High School library into a community hub that went beyond its initial scope. The library under her stewardship offered reading programs, community discussions, and educational resources.  

She understood the vital role that a library could play in a marginalized community, especially in fostering intellectual growth and civic engagement. Pauline brought notable African American speakers and artists to the library, offering a platform for cultural and intellectual exchange that the black community in Wilmington had never experienced to such an extent. 

Pauline’s influence extended beyond the library. She continued teaching at Howard, where she had once been a student. She taught history and social studies, subjects that allowed her to imbue the next generation with a sense of historical context and social justice.  

In response to the need for more awareness of African American history, Pauline contributed to Henry Clay Reed’s three-volume Delaware: A History of the First State (1947), with a piece entitled “The Negro in Delaware: Past and Present.” This work served as one of the first comprehensive accounts of Delaware’s African American community and its contributions. 

Active in several organizations that championed civil rights and social justice, Pauline became a prominent member of the NAACP, and served for a time as president of the Delaware State Conference of Branches as well as chair of the state education committee. She was involved in the League of Women Voters and the American Federation of Teachers.  

Pauline participated vigorously in efforts to desegregate Delaware schools, leveraging her roles both as an educator and a librarian to make compelling arguments for integration. “Membership in a democracy differs widely from that in a needle-work guild,” she said in a 1953 Letter to the Editor of the ‘News Journal.’ “Democracy is a living thing. It is kept alive only by its exercise and with the eternal vigilance of all its constituents. It is, moreover, the concept we as world leaders are striving to take to the rest of this war-torn world.” Her activism laid the groundwork for subsequent desegregation efforts, notably the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. 

The Legacy of a Trailblazer

Pauline retired from Howard High School in 1961 but remained active in social justice causes. “I stay mad,” she told the ‘News Journal’ shortly before her death. “And I’m damn mad at any injustice.” Pauline served in the Peace Corps, training librarians and cataloging books in Jamaica from 1962-1964. She received numerous awards and honors recognizing her lifelong dedication to civil rights and education, including in 1983 induction into the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame. Pauline A. Young died in 1991, but her legacy—the power of education, community engagement, and principled activism— endures. 

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