OpinionBrown v. Board at 65: The Untold Stories of the Plaintiffs & Families Who Changed America's Schools  

Brown v. Board at 65 — Anderson Neff Recalls a Peaceful First Day of School Integration: ‘The White Kids Were as Unsure as to How to Behave as I Was’

By Carol Anderson Neff | May 14, 2019

Carol celebrating victory after challenge to racially segregated symphony in Illinois. (Courtesy of Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision)

This testimonial is an excerpt from Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, a new book spotlighting the original plaintiffs behind five pivotal school segregation lawsuits later consolidated by the Supreme Court. Read more first-person accounts, watch oral histories, learn more about the cases and download the book at The74Million.org/Brown65

While I was growing up and enjoying my childhood, my parents and grandmother, along with many others, had been very busy fighting the State of Delaware’s “separate but equal” legislation pertaining to school segregation. This decision changed the course of my education and life.

In 1952, two years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, I was 13 and had just finished seventh grade. During the summer before entering eighth grade, my family moved to a new home in Ardencroft, a Wilmington suburb just two miles from Claymont.

I was attending Howard High School, the only black high school in Wilmington.

I really enjoyed my first year at Howard. I thought that my two sisters and I would still be going there in September. I was looking forward to eighth grade because I could then be involved in sports and music at a higher level.

I was horrified to learn a short time before school started in September that I would not be going to Howard High School after all. They had the best sports teams, wonderful music programs, and they put on operettas every year. The singers and musicians were amazingly talented. I couldn’t believe I was going to miss out on all that.

My sisters and I would be attending the all-white Claymont High School.

On Thursday, Sept. 4, 1952. I became one of 11 black students and 274 white students to attend a public Delaware high school. Delaware was the first state to initiate school desegregation, two years ahead of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and I was in the middle of it.

Grandma Dyson prepared her handful of black students who would be going to the all-white Claymont High School, along with us so that they would know what to expect and to adjust better. I never realized just how important that was and how valuable she and my parents were to that important 1954 decision called Brown v. the Board of Education.

When Grandma Dyson retired a few years later, she was named Woman of the Year. I hope that the little one-room schoolhouse on the top of the hill is still there. It should be a state monument. It will be in my heart forever.

For those who need a refresher course, in accepting the 11 black students to enter an all-white Claymont High School, Mr. Harvey E. Stahl, Claymont’s superintendent of schools, defied state law and changed the course of United States history.

Mr. Stahl refused to allow H. Albert Young, the attorney general for the state of Delaware, to expel the black students, believing that the decision had been made and the damage to the students would be too great if they were now not allowed to stay at Claymont. He also truly believed that every student in his school district deserved an equal education. The attorney general took him to court. The attorney general lost. We won and we stayed.

When Brown v. Board of Education went to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, future Supreme Court justice, argued that school segregation was a violation of individual rights under the 14th Amendment. He also asserted that the only justification for continuing to have separate schools was to keep people who had once been enslaved “as near that stage as possible.”

The people behind the fight included Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Louis Redding, Chancellor Collins J. Seitz, Harvey E. Stahl, Mrs. Pauline Dyson, Dr. and Mrs. Leon V. Anderson, the NAACP, and many others. They devoted countless hours and years to obtain something that everyone had a natural-born right to possess. Because of Grandma Dyson and my parents, I met many of the individuals who were instrumental in pushing for school desegregation, including Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg, on multiple occasions. Louis Redding and his family were personal close friends.

But, back to that first day of school, on Sept. 4, 1952. For the three Anderson sisters, it was the first time riding on a school bus. We got on, waited, but hardly anyone paid attention to us. There were a couple of “hellos,” and that was it.

When we arrived at Claymont, there was no National Guard, threatening mobs, police or news media. There were no parents hovering around outside, and no fights erupted. We were quietly ushered into the principal’s office. I do not remember what was said, but after the meeting we were taken to our individual classrooms.

When I entered my eighth-grade class for the first time, I expected it to be noisy, but it wasn’t. I was met with a silence that was almost deafening. I then realized that the white kids were as unsure as to how to behave as I was; it was virgin territory for all of us. So, after a few hellos and taking my assigned seat, the chitchat of a normal classroom took over and remained. So while the first day of school was a bit different, special in that everyone knew my name, at the same time, my first day of desegregation passed generally unnoticed and uneventful.

Overall, I enjoyed Claymont High School. I knew I would be “under a microscope,” but that was OK because my parents had instilled in each of the kids good manners, proper social conduct under any circumstances, and self-control.

Claymont offered me a wide range of activities, and I took advantage of many of them, mostly in sports and music. I played as a starter on the girls’ softball team for four years, winning the state championship in 1956. It was a special year because my older sister Joan was also on the team and was one of the starting pitchers.

I sang in the choir and performed in the school orchestra, being selected as one of four students to represent the state of Delaware in the All-Eastern Orchestra. I was even the girls’ sports editor for the school paper. I was a part of Claymont High School.

I made friends and remember them as being very caring and protective of me, but most of all just normal high school students. After the initial barrage of questions about what it was like to be black in a white school, etc., everyone settled down and spent little time involving themselves with political and social issues, including the impending Supreme Court lawsuit.

The only situation that was very noticeable was the fact that I was rarely invited to the homes of many classmates. While it is easy to say that it was because I was the “black” student, it would be an unfair statement. I was also very busy with my musical studies, school activities and taking advantage of the opportunities offered to me at Claymont. I just did not have a lot of extra time.

Overall, I prospered and thrived at Claymont. But do you know what? I would have prospered and thrived at Howard High School also.

If pushed to remember any negative events, there are only two that come to mind. The first happened during the first week of school. The elementary school playground was next to the high school. One of the elementary school kids called me the n-word. My new classmates were horrified and no one knew what to say or do, but my teacher certainly did. Saying nothing, he walked up to the young boy and slapped him hard across the face, then silently turned around and walked away. Recess was over. It never happened again, and the teacher was not fired.

The second event happened the night my sister Merle graduated from Claymont. It is important to note that she was the first black student to graduate from the high school.

Traditionally, the graduating seniors walked in couples down the middle of the aisle. This time, however, the father of a young man refused to let his son walk down the aisle with the black student, who in this case was my sister Merle. While the son was very embarrassed, the father did not mind that there were media at the graduation or that he was not receiving any support for his racist stance. He just did not care.

But it was an easy thing to fix; the school decided on the spot that the students would file down the two outside aisles, thereby keeping anyone from walking down the middle, as had been done in the past. The student involved was booed when he walked across the stage to receive his diploma. By the way, he was given a blank piece of paper instead of the actual diploma, which he did receive at a later date.

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling. “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

While Claymont and the surrounding area showed how school integration can work and paved the way for others to follow, that was not the case everywhere. There was violence, even in Delaware. Mobs and police fought each other, and many public schools closed so that their schools would not have to integrate. It is such a shame, as Claymont proved that all students can be important to each other, teaching the skills necessary to be successful adults.

 

Carol Anderson Neff is the daughter of Leon V. Anderson, a plaintiff in Delaware’s Belton v. Gebhart case that was later consolidated as part of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court case.

This testimonial is an excerpt from Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, a new book spotlighting the original plaintiffs behind five pivotal school segregation lawsuits later consolidated by the Supreme Court. Read more first-person accounts, watch oral histories, learn more about the cases and download the book at The74Million.org/Brown65

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74 and funded The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research to produce the new book Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.

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