Georgetown marks African-American legacy at historic school
On the heels of the mass shooting that killed nine people at a historic black church in South Carolina, a Sussex County town is taking its own steps to heal.
They're working to preserve the Richard Allen School in Georgetown. It served as a center of African-American community for nearly a century, but it hasn't been a functioning school in several years.
Now, locals are hoping to see it reopen in a new form. They celebrated a milestone recently, as an official state historic marker was unveiled outside the building.
Harry Crapper: [singing] "I don't feel no ways tired…"
Just past the railroad tracks in Georgetown, Harry Crapper is ringing in a new chapter of his old school's history.
Crapper: "Lord have mercy. [singing] Nobody told me that the road would be easy… I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me. [speaking] And I say it one more time…"
Crapper was there with other alumni and Delaware leaders to unveil an official state historic marker at Richard Allen -- and celebrate the hard work that's gone into studying and preserving this shuttered landmark.
"This school helped me to be the man that I am today," he says. "You know, you've got to have a foundation, and this school was my foundation."
Richard Allen is one of the few remaining du Pont schools, started by philanthropist Pierre Samuel du Pont in the 1920s for Delaware's African-American youth. At the time, they had few options for getting an education -- and Crapper says even the du Pont schools had their struggles.
"We used to get books and everything from the other school. And half would have the pages torn out, would have the backs torn off 'em. And we had to learn what we could from those books," he says. "But even with all of that, we had lawyers and judges leave this school. And that was because our teachers thought enough of us to make us learn."
Ninety-year-old Eunice Richardson says the same thing. She's a longtime local mentor and educator who was one of the first students in the little brick schoolhouse.
"When I went it was only two rooms here, two schoolrooms. But each room had four classes, but only one teacher in all of it," she says. "I think our restrooms were outside then, and we had wood stoves for heat."
Richard Allen was a peaceful place, she says, where every kid got a hot meal. And if you misbehaved, word traveled fast in the neighborhood.
"We learned from home that if you messed up in school, you were gonna get a spanking when you got home, so it was best to be good," Richardson says, laughing.
The school only went up to eighth grade, and for most black kids, segregation meant leaving Georgetown for high school. But former student Darrell Melvin says Richard Allen was always a focal point for African-Americans in Sussex County.
"This was like home here. The school, the area, the community -- everything was just one back then," Melvin says. "I learned to play football right on that field right there. … We played baseball, and people came from different towns, they all came here. So this was the central location for everything. And that's what we remember -- that's why we said we wanted it so bad, because that unity needs to come back."
Melvin is part of the Richard Allen Coalition, which spent years working with the Delaware Public Archives and state legislators to secure the historic marker for the school. Next, they want to renovate and reopen the building as a multi-cultural community center -- to carry on the school traditions that coalition historian Christy Taylor says began at neighboring Prospect AME Church.
"It really apparently was a school at the church, earlier than the school being built by du Pont," she says. "So there really was always something going on in this community relating to what we're trying to do now: education, arts, religion."
Taylor and her brothers all attended Richard Allen too. The brothers became civil rights lawyers, and Taylor is a music and dance teacher -- soon, she hopes, at the school itself.
And with racial tensions in the spotlight after a string of well-publicized police shootings of black people and a suspected hate crime in South Carolina, where a white gunman is charged with killing nine black AME churchgoers, Taylor says it'll be vital to open the Allen school's doors to everyone.
"This is a real healing, what is happening. And the more we can do, you know, religious or not, it's about love -- it's about just what we're doing now, talking about the history. We should know everyone's history," Taylor says. "I really believe strongly that… it's not just serving one community. I think that's maybe how we can really open up and get rid of the fear and the ignorance between ourselves as humans."
When the school reopens, the coalition wants to fill it with mementos from its rich history. That means books and papers kept by folks like Agnes Ingram Williams, who went to the school in the 1930s and 40s. She grew up across the street, and now lives there again.
"That was so much fun, being six or seven -- I'd stand there, hear that bell, and by the time she was ringing that second one, I'd be dipping under her and in my seat when she came in," she remembers, laughing. "So that was one of the experiences."
Williams went to high school in Wilmington after Richard Allen, onto college in Maryland, and then into the civil service at Dover Air Force Base for 32 years. She became an engine manager there before retiring -- and all thanks to humble beginnings and a close-knit community back at home.
"We were poor, and if we were poor, we didn't know it, 'cause everybody -- it was, as they say, you need a village," Williams says. "It was just great -- and I'm so thankful that I'm here at this time and I can see where we have traveled from."