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Desegregation stalwarts, honored by ACLU, recall 1970s' struggles

Delaware Public Media

Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast reported on the Wilmington school desegregation case from 1973 through 1976 and the start of school desegregation in New Castle County in 1978. He recently sat down with Jeffrey A. Raffel and Jea P. Street to discuss their experiences in the 1970s and the current state of public education in New Castle County.

Forty-two years ago, two distinctly different paths led Jeffrey A. Raffel and Jea P. Street to the same place – key positions inside the eye of a potentially volatile storm during the battle over the desegregation of public schools in Wilmington and suburban New Castle County.

Raffel, a New York native had landed at the University of Delaware, as a faculty member in its Division of Urban Affairs, after earning his Ph.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had written his doctoral dissertation on the violence-wracked desegregation of the Boston public schools. In part because of his familiarity with the Boston situation, in November 1974, five months after a panel of three federal judges ruled that Wilmington’s public schools were racially segregated, Raffel  was named staff director of the Delaware Committee on the School Decision, a group created by New Castle County Executive Melvin A. Slawik, and soon adopted by Delaware’s governor and Wilmington’s mayor, to work toward peaceful implementation of any upcoming court order.

A month later, Street, a graduate of Wilmington High School and the University of Delaware, was hired by the Wilmington Home and School Community Council, a citywide parent advocacy group, to work with parents and students in preparing for the anticipated transition to a desegregated school system.

On Wednesday, the Delaware Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union honored Raffel, now retired from the university, and Street, now a New Castle County councilman and executive director of the Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center, with its annual Kandler Memorial Award in recognition of their work as community advocates and defenders of civil liberties.

“If not for Jeff Raffel, and his research and study … and his ability to get along with everybody, we would not have had peaceful integration,” Street said. “He was here when I got here.… If he had not been here, all hell would have broken loose.”

By the time buses first rolled on the morning of Sept. 11, 1978, under a desegregation plan that called for Wilmington students to spend nine years in suburban schools and suburban students to spend three years in city schools, both Street and Raffel had become deeply immersed in the issue.

A little-remembered footnote to the New Castle County desegregation saga is that during the 1976-77 and 1977-78 school years, there was a “voluntary transfer” plan in effect that had little impact on school enrollment plans, primarily because few white suburban students volunteered to transfer into majority black city schools.  Relatively small numbers of city students opted to attend suburban schools, and Street got a rapid indoctrination to his work at Mount Pleasant High School.

Street was mentored in those days by William “Hicks” Anderson, a harsh, blunt, passionate, aggressive … and very effective Wilmington parent leader. When city students were involved in fights at Mount Pleasant, school officials threatened to suspend or expel them. Street accompanied Anderson to a series of suspension hearings. “Hicks walked into the hearing room, and he took care of it,” Street recalled. As the second hearing was about to begin, “Hicks said, ‘this is your case, and you’d better get him back in school.’ He walked out of the room, and that was my on-the-job training.”

While Street was operating in a boots-on-the-ground mode, Raffel was learning the territory and building alliances. One outcome of a fact-finding trip to Louisville, Kentucky, where a city-suburb desegregation plan had recently been implemented, was the creation of “the Breakfast Group,” a weekly gathering at the old Howard Johnson’s restaurant on U.S. 13 near the New Castle County Airport. Raffel organized the meetings, which brought together state and local educators, police and government officials and civic leaders on all sides of the issue for confidential talks about each week’s developments.

Those meetings became a forum to discuss matters that wouldn’t come up in court, or in a school board meeting. “I remember we got the state police involved right away,” Raffel said, “and at the first or second meeting we found out the police weren’t clear on who would have jurisdiction if something happened at a particular school.”

The spirit of collaboration exhibited at those meetings helped ease the first months of desegregation.

In visiting Louisville and other communities affected by desegregation, Raffel said, “the factor that came out time and time again was that you needed to get the political leaders on board for peaceful implementation.”

While the General Assembly tried to fight the court orders at every turn – Street still refers to the House Desegregation Committee as the “House Segregation Committee” – Gov. Pete du Pont pledged, in a speech at a Dover church on June 24, 1977, his personal support to school and government officials in implementing whatever desegregation plan the court might order.

Raffel takes no credit for the governor’s pronouncement, other than to say that he had numerous discussions with him on the topic, as did many leaders from the business community, who recognized that “they don’t gain by having communities in uproar… They don’t gain if the quality of the schools goes down.”

Comparing the General Assembly with the governor, Raffel noted, “the governor is responsible [for what occurs within the state]. Members of the General Assembly, with all due respect, they’re not responsible in the same way.”

Du Pont, Raffel added, is “a classic conservative, and what’s more conservative than maintaining the community peace?”

Street pointed to a historical irony that might have impacted why the governor’s stance differed from the one taken by the General Assembly.

“The du Pont family [actually it was the governor’s namesake, Pierre S. du Pont] funded all the one-room segregated schools” in the early 20th century, he said. “But we wouldn’t have had any schools [for African Americans] in the state if it weren’t for the commitment of the du Pont family.”

While the collaboration among civic leaders and school and government officials smoothed the desegregation process, the first year was hardly without incident.

A teacher strike, triggered by suburban teachers’ demand that their salaries be “leveled up” to the higher scale that Wilmington teachers had been paid on, shut the schools from Oct. 16 until after Thanksgiving.

Occasional episodes of violence persisted throughout the year. “I spent a lot of time with Hicks Anderson at Springer Middle School, Glasgow High School, Conrad Middle School [and others],” Street said. “Overall, I think we did a fantastic job of making sure kids didn’t get hurt, reducing the likelihood of violence.”

There were, however, some disproportionate negative impacts on minority students, Street said. In the first year of desegregation, he recalled, there was a 205 percent increase in out-of-school suspensions for black students, and a 75 percent increase in the placement of black students in special education programs.

While prejudice was a contributing factor, Raffel attributes much of the increase in special education placements to suburban teachers not knowing how to “work with kids who weren’t from the stereotypical white middle-class background…. They turned for help, and they thought maybe special ed would be that help.”

Nonetheless, Raffel and Street pointed to several other positives in the early years of desegregation.

Raffel credits the former Wilmington school system with recruiting talented African-American principals, many of whom would become positive role models in suburban schools. And Street credits the late Wendell Howell, a former Wilmington school board president, with successfully pushing for biracial administrative teams – a black principal and a white assistant principal, or a white director of secondary education and a black director of elementary education, for example – in the “superdistrict” created when desegregation began.

Since then, both said, desegregation has failed to deliver on the hoped-for equality of educational opportunities for white and minority students.

“The focus on preventing violence and not having any disruption in the movement of kids overwhelmed issues of quality of education and education reforms,” Raffel said.

“It worked to the extent that we didn’t have violence,” Street said, “but, 40-some years later, the intended beneficiaries have yet to benefit.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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