Celebration of Newark's historic black community brings former residents home
Former and current residents gathered last weekend to celebrate the tight-knit and self-sufficient African American community that once existed around Newark’s New London Road.
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt was there for the event that served as both homecoming and call for preservation of a part of Newark history.
Calvin Hubbard grew up on Ray Street in Newark, mostly playing and hunting in the woods he says are now University of Delaware dorms. He moved out in the late 1950s, served in the military overseas, and now lives in North Carolina.
A community celebration this weekend brought him home.
Hubbard says he saw people he had not seen in decades. “I mean we have a family reunion every couple of years, and I get to see some of them,” he said. “But today, the Tuckers, the Hubbards, the Saunders, you know, all of them are here. I think it’s beautiful.”
The School Hill community celebration at the George Wilson Center Saturday honored the once tight-knit and self-sufficient African American community around Newark’s New London Road.
The community can be traced back to the late 18th century, and had its own thriving churches, businesses and athletic teams. For several decades before integration, the New London Avenue School taught neighborhood children in grades 1 through 8. The school and its athletic fields, known as “school hill,” served as a social and recreational gathering place, according to University of Delaware collections. They are now the city-run George Wilson Ccommunity Center.
Over the last few decades, most of the historic single-family houses in the New London Road community have been replaced with student-focused townhouse complexes or rented out to students.
Hubbard says he visited the area in the early 2000s after nearly three decades away and saw it transformed. “It’s just university — it’s not Newark anymore, it’s a University of Newark city,” he joked.
However, Hubbard thinks many of the original families left for reasons other than encroaching development driven by the University.
“People moving,” he said. “Looking for a better life, a better job, going into the service, pursuing some type of sports activities.”
Ronnie Matthews was born in the neighborhood. He says his relatives are among a handful of original families that still own houses there.
“Constantly they get mail about ‘We’ll buy your property as is,’” he said. “Not any direct pressure but pressure for them. And they can feel it from the outside also, wanting their properties to turn it over for housing for college students.”
But Matthews says his relatives do not want to sell. “We’re going to keep it in the family because it is history. Sometimes you have to be part of something to totally understand it and totally appreciate it,” he said. “Selling is not even up for discussion.”
He hopes this past weekend’s School Hill celebration helps boost efforts to preserve the neighborhood’s history.
“Hopefully it would revitalize some energy and some more commitments to doing more to save what is left of this black community here in Newark … to ensure that it’s passed on through generation after generation," said Matthews.
That sentiment is echoed by Earlean Tucker-Dickerson, an organizer of the School Hill celebration.
“We wanted to partner with the City of Newark and University of Delaware to remind them that the African American community has a rich history here, and it seems to be diminishing because of all the redevelopment,” she said.
The City of Newark gave the community a proclamation Saturday honoring the event and acknowledging the “crucial” contribution of the New London Road community to the “economic vitality, social fabric and cultural identity” of Newark.
“When you look at how big this community was in relation to how big the city was, this is actually a big part of the community,” said Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton.
“Of course [the New London Road Community] has dwindled over the years, but it's given us so much— for our culture and our workforce. When you say that this is a community that helped build Newark, it truly did build Newark.”
Clifton says the city is discussing helping create a small museum at the George Wilson Center to honor the community. He also hopes events like Saturday’s can continue.
“I hope that we can do this on a far more frequent basis and keep the community together,” he said. “I’ve seen people renew friendships that without this event it may not have happened.”
Dr. Freeman Williams, president of the Newark Branch NAACP, says he’s encouraged by the partnerships — including with the City— that helped make the event a reality.
“I think part of our future has to be to continue to build on the relationships that we’ve created and established and to find ways that the different organizations can work together,” he said.
Earlean Tucker-Dickerson says the last School Hill community homecoming was in 2002, and organizers hope to host one again next year.