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Lenape tribe seeks remediation for site of historic schoolhouse

Sarah Mueller, Delaware Public Media
The Fork Branch School site is visible behind a chainlink fence

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware is working with the EPA and DNREC to clean up a state-owned parcel with historical significance.


The less than two-acre plot in Dover was once home to the Fork Branch School, one of two local Lenape—or Delaware Moor—schools, before integration.

It’s now an empty lot surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.  

But the walkway to the place where the one-room schoolhouse once stood is still visible, marked by two trees.

“They’re called Arborvitae, or we call them white cedar. [They’re] our sacred tree. This is the tree of life. So they actually had a white cedar on each side of their entrance to the school,” said Dennis Coker, principal chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.

The Fork Branch school was built by the Lenape community in the late 19th century. According to Coker, it came under control of the Department of Education in the 1920s, when the school was remodelled through Pierre DuPont’s school building program.

It ceased operating as a school in the 1960s when schools were desegregated, then was used as a nurse training site, says Coker.

The school burned down in 1968. The site was then acquired by the Delaware State Highway Department, and state police then used the property, which abuts a cemetery and sits opposite a historic church, as a firing range. This use likely left lead ammunition in the soil.

At the urging of Chief Coker, DNREC engaged the EPA to test the site through its federally-funded brownfield program.

According to DNREC, the first phase of assessment, which was completed last month, revealed possible hazardous substances.

Coker hopes any potential contamination can be remediated, and the Tribe can eventually obtain the property.

“Our goals are to possibly create a community center there,” he said. “And have our families and our children have access to the property in an intimate relationship—you know, playing and rolling around on the ground and stuff like that.”

Coker says he has spoken with his local elected officials about his plan. 

“We do have legislative support … to return that property to the citizens of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware," he said.

According to a DNREC official, the EPA is currently working with their contractor to draft a work plan for the Phase II assessment, which will include soil and groundwater sampling. This work is expected to be completed in the next few months.

Directly across the road from the Fork Branch School site is an undeveloped half-acre plot, which is the only land owned by the Tribe, as well as the historically Lenape Little Union church and Fork Branch Cemetery, which are not owned by the tribe.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.