There is a little red brick building tucked in a corner of Hockessin that was central to a case that shaped U.S. history.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden ensured that this building would be protected forever, signing a law to incorporate Hockessin Colored School #107 into the National Park System and recognize the role that schools like this played in the educational system today.
Five cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education were argued at the United States Supreme Court in 1954. One of those five cases was brought by Delaware’s Sarah Bulah. At the time, a Delaware school bus carrying white children passed the Bulah house and did not stop to pick up Bulah’s daughter, Shirley, to transport her to the little red brick building in Hockessin – also known as Hockessin School 107C. (The C stands for “colored.”)
Bulah took her complaint to Delaware’s first black attorney, Louis L. Redding, who combined her case with another brought by Black parents in Claymont seeking to challenge segregation laws that resulted in their children being forced to attend Howard High School in Wilmington, the state’s only high school for Black students.
In 1952, Delaware’s Court of Chancery sided with the parents.
Although the ruling applied only to the litigants of those two cases, the state Board of Education appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. There, the two cases from Delaware were combined to form Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart and then further consolidated with other cases brought by the NAACP to create what is now known as Brown v. Board of Education.
As the landmark 1954 decision and successive racial desegregation efforts dismantled the nation’s racially segregated society codified by Plessy v. Ferguson, Hockessin Colored School #107 ceased operating as a school.
It later became a community center, but in 2008, was abandoned.
Attempts to renovate the building led to a legal dispute and the building became subject to a sheriff’s sale. Its demise was adverted after Friends of Hockessin Colored School #107 Inc., benefactors, and the Delaware Community Foundation provided financial assistance to settle the lawsuit. The Friends of Hockessin Colored School #107 Inc. now owns the property.
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In 2020, New Castle County announced that it would pay the two mortgages on the property and partner with the Friends of Hockessin Colored School #107 to preserve the school as a “center for diversity, inclusion and social equity.”
With President Biden’s signature, School 107C, along with Howard High School and the former Claymont High School, are “eligible for technical and financial assistance” from the National Park System and are “required to be managed in accordance with laws generally applicable” to sites the entity governs.
James “Sonny” Knott, a former student of Hockessin Colored School #107 from second through sixth grade, attended last week’s bill signing at the White House.
“I truly do not have the words for how my heart feels in regards to a school being put on the National Register,” said Knott, now a board member of the Friends of Hockessin Colored School #107. The school is very, very dear to us older students that went there.”
The 92-year-old said he wants to continue to bring his great-great-grandchildren to the school and tell them what it took for students like himself to get an education. Knott is also a volunteer at Delcastle Technical High School and hopes to present this history to today’s students so they appreciate the opportunities they have.
“Some of them see [school] just as a building,” Knott said. “That’s why it’s important to us to let them know it’s more than just walls and a roof.”
In a written statement, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams called it “our solemn responsibility as caretakers of America’s national treasures to tell the whole, and sometimes difficult, story of our nation’s heritage for the benefit of present and future generations.”
The law signed by Biden also redesignates an existing historic site in Topeka, Kansas, as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park, while also adding South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia as affiliated areas of the National Park System.
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“Including these important sites will broaden public understanding of the events that led to the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown et. al v. Board of Education,” Sams said.
The two cases from Delaware and the four other cases were already pending before the U.S. Supreme Court when the case originating from Topeka was included.
To learn more about this history visit the National Park Service’s page, Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart.
Contact reporter Anitra Johnson with tips at [email protected] or 302-379-5786
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Why a historic Delaware school is now part of the National Park System
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