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Wilmington school renamed after local educator and civil rights champion

Joseph E Johnson School
Quinn Kirkpatrick
Delaware Public Media

Highlands Elementary School in Wilmington is getting a new name: Joseph E. Johnson School.

Joseph E. Johnson was a Wilmington native, a notable educator and a civil rights champion. He was actively involved in the civil rights movement, attending the March on Washington in 1963.

Johnson served as the first Black principal of a non-segregated school in Delaware, and also worked as a science teacher and personnel director before being appointed the first superintendent of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Johnson worked tirelessly to desegregate schools in the First State and provide high quality education for all, most notably speaking during the landmark Evans v. Buchanan desegregation case.

Evans v. Buchanan took place in 1977, over 20 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision where the US Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. After the Brown v. Board ruling, racial segregation in school systems across the nation persisted.

Dr. Joseph E. Johnson portrait
City of Wilmington
Office of the Mayor

The case argued that Delaware’s public schools, specifically in New Castle County, had not effectively responded to the Brown v. Board decision, and were still segregated. Johnson advocated for the equitable treatment of students and teachers in Wilmington during this case. The federal court eventually decided that New Castle County schools were indeed segregated, and required the reorganization of the public school system in northern Delaware as a solution.

Chrishaun Fitzgerald, principal of the newly named Joseph E. Johnson School, says Johnson’s work in ending educational segregation in Delaware is one of the reasons she was excited to help honor his legacy.

“When I began to do the research about Dr. Johnson I said ‘wow, what a notable Delawarean.’ He worked on the Buchanan case, and he worked very diligently with school desegregation,” said Fitzgerald. “ So I thought it would be an excellent idea, and I’m very glad to have led that work.”

She adds that his work goes beyond schools, and provides a blueprint for how equity should be integrated into systems across the state.

And current Red Clay superintendent Dorrell Green says Johnson had a personal impact on the life of every Delawarean through his work.

“He led from an equity lens. It didn’t matter if you were Black or if you were white, he did what was in the best interest of students, staff, and the community at large as he led from the 1960s on up through 1990 when he retired as superintendent in Red Clay.”

Green adds that HB 198, which requires each school district to implement a curriculum of Black history, will allow Johnson’s legacy and the history of other prominent civil right leaders to be taught in the state of Delaware.

Mark Holodick is the Secretary of Education for the State of Delaware. He believes that the appropriate way to recognize Johnson’s leadership is through the renaming of this school.

“The people who work here, the students who attend this school, as well as the community that surrounds it, like every other school in the community, those people will know exactly who Dr. Johnson is and that legacy will continue through the teaching of his work,” said Holodick.

Johnson died on April 21, 2020 at the age of 85. The plan to rename the school in his honor was introduced in fall 2021, and successfully completed less than a year later. It was championed by his family, as well as his former students, friends, and members of the Red Clay community.