Having written articles for Black History Month for the Wilmington News Journal, and in the process of becoming acquainted with several black citizens of Wilmington, it is clear to me that our city has not always been a welcoming place for black people.
One family stands out and I have received many letters from them describing their experiences. From those letters and several other interviews, I have gleaned the following observations.
The family from whom the letters came left Wilmington in the early 1960s. “My husband and I along with our children moved to the Boston area where we lived for almost forty years. The contrast of living there rather than the Midwest was mind boggling. We were accepted for ourselves rather than skin color.”
This family was an ambitious and innovative business group and had started at least three stores in Wilmington. In order to get started they went to a local bank, but were refused a loan. From other interviews I have been told that receiving a loan from a white person was a primary source of property loss – because of the way the agreements were written, if you missed one payment, the property reverted to the person making the loan. A black woman who lived on Nelson Road made a point of telling me her father knew this trick and was able to avoid the loss of their property. (Inability to keep up payments was a constant threat due to the irregularity of income.)
The interviews/letters inevitably came to the issue of Midland School built for black children in 1884 and finally closed in 1952, There is good reason to believe that building that school was illegal, but I have found evidence on both sides of that argument.
However, a black-sponsored newspaper in Cleveland clearly points out that the segregated school in Wilmington was illegal and a sign of serious racism. Walking from the west end of Wilmington to the school was nearly two miles; they had to walk both directions, and this continued for years.
“I never questioned why I had to go clear across town to school and by-pass one that was nearer me! To the best of my memory, I do not recall my family talking about the racism in the school system or in general.”
“I recall an incident at the High School where there was a dance. A young, white guy who lived down the street from me (we played together every day) asked me to dance, which I did. The principal came over and took my arm and said this was not acceptable, and that I needed to go home! Bill, my friend, had tears in his eyes and went to object when the principal told him he should go home also. So, we both walked home together: I never told my dad nor do I believe he told his folks who were wonderful people. I don’t think either one of us truly understood!”
An even more poignant story was related about the existence of racism in Wilmington in the ’50s. “I’m sure that you’ll hear from other people that NONE of the restaurants or hotels would serve people of color. My younger brother … fought in the Korean War, received a purple heart, put on his service uniform, walked uptown to eat at (Bill Brooks) the ‘White House’ restaurant and was told that they could not serve him. Needless to say, we have no good feelings about Wilmington.” It was also true that there was a special area in the Murphy Theatre then for black seating.
I might add that at the celebration of the closing of Midland School held at the Bible Missionary Baptist Church on Grant Street in 2014 another story of that restaurant was told. This story was told by a white coach who took his team to the same restaurant and, because there was one black player on the team, they were refused service. To this the coach replied that they would eat elsewhere, and in turn the proprietor responded that they could remain and be served – which they did.
Racism is often strange, but always evil. Much has changed, but it still runs very deep in the veins of our society.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.