Lewes: Then (segregation) and Now (community)

(Originally posted October 15, 2021)

From my previous post, Lewes: Then and Now: “The changes in Lewes in the 18 years between 1955 and 1973 were as dramatic as the changes that have occurred in the past 50 years, and not just because of the collapse of the Delaware Bay fishery in the intervening years. In 1955, segregation was still the adhered to law of the land in many places across the country, including Lewes, and in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education had dropped a bomb on the law-driven, institutional racism of 17 of America’s then 48 states, one of which was Delaware.”

The story told in the first half of my novel, Karl Myers, is set in and is touched by the official and unofficial rules and practices of segregation in Lewes in 1955: in August of that year, the fictional Karl Myers has been Lewes’ chief of police for 18 months, and despite his having been raised in Baltimore, another segregated border state, his experience as a Marine drill instructor* who volunteered in 1942 to train the first African American Marine recruits at Camp Montford Point, and his subsequent experiences as a First Sergeant in an integrated Marine Corps in Korea, has given him a unique perspective that is at odds with what he has found living in Lewes in 1955.

In that year, African American families in Lewes lived primarily along Park Avenue, in the Burton Subdivision, and along Third and Fourth Streets. As Trina Brown-Hicks is cited as observing in Lewes Beach Holds a Special Place (Delaware Coast Press 8/11/21, p.7): even as children, Black folks in Lewes knew, “… how far to go … We knew Second Street was there, and we could go, but it wasn’t always welcoming, because if you wanted an ice cream, you might have to go to the back door to get it.”

In the same article, the Reverend George Edwards, who has lived in the beach area since the early 1950s, observed, “There was a separation but you didn’t even think about it;” however, in the same article, Rev. Edwards is cited as saying that families traveling to Delaware from further south had to bring their own food for the trip because “you couldn’t find a restaurant you could go into.” He also notes that Blacks used gas stations where the attendants would allow them to use the restrooms. “So that’s the way we got ourselves accustomed to doing what we thought was right. If you can’t let us use the restroom, we’re not going to buy your gas.”

As a White, retired, Delaware educator, someone who accompanied his mother to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and someone who is a current homeowner living adjacent to the Lewes town line, the history of Delaware’s segregated schooling is of special interest to me. For example, here is something I discovered this summer: if you frequent Route 9 close by the Five Points intersection, you have passed through Belltown, a cluster of homes and other buildings immediately behind the now closed Ace Hardware Store. Belltown was founded in 1840 by a free Black man, and it is in Belltown where the Nassau Colored School still stands:

The Nassau Colored School in 2021 (opened in 1922)

Until the middle of the 20th Century, White tax dollars in Delaware could not be spent on Black schools, which meant that Black citizens, often the poorest of Delaware’s poor in those years, were expected to fund their own schools. As Carol Anderson notes in White Rage:

“Already Jim Crow had cost America’s black children dearly. Delaware, a border state, had abdicated all responsibility for the education of its African American citizens: Blacks were pretty much left to their own devices as far as education was concerned. By 1910, they had built eighty-one schools throughout Delaware, but, given their lack of resources, these were no more than shacks without decent lighting, plumbing, or enough desks. Even when philanthropist Pierre S. Du Pont launched a program to bring these schools up to code, White residents made it clear that they not only opposed public funding for Black schools but were equally resistant to private, philanthropic resources intervening as well.”

Despite opposition from the White citizenry and Delaware’s White state legislature, the Nassau Colored School was one of the 80+ schools built by Mr. du Pont. Prior to his remarkable philanthropy, the condition of schools for Delaware’s Black children in the early 20th Century was so deplorable that the New York Times published an exposé about it. According to a document (and video) produced by the Hagley Museum near Wilmington–A Separate Place: The Schools P. S. du Pont Built–du Pont spent $6,000,000 of his own money (the equivalent of more than $94,000,000 in 2021 dollars) to improve education for Black children in Delaware by building schools for them; however, it should not be forgotten that the schools he built were still segregated through the 1950s.

Apparently, embarrassed by the fact that Mr. du Pont’s schools were physically far superior to White schools, Delaware’s legislative response to the problem of inequality–that which inspired Mr. du Pont’s philanthropy in the first place–was to apportion tax dollars devoted to the physical improvement of White schools.

From my post, Never Forget: “When I first journeyed to the Delaware beaches in 1956 with my parents, the schools in Sussex County, Delaware, were segregated, but I did not know the specifics of this until this year when I read In Delaware, school segregation persisted until 1967 and in other sources, that in Lewes through the 1950s, there was a White school for grades 1-12, and a Black school for grades 1-9. I did not know that until 1950, when a Black high school was finally built in Georgetown, if you were Black, lived in Lewes, and wanted to go to high school, you had two options: live with extended family 90 miles away in Wilmington and attend segregated Howard High School, or live in Dover in a dormitory 40 miles from home in order to attend a segregated high school on the campus of what is now Delaware State University.”

The town of Lewes benefitted from Mr. du Pont’s largess. The “DuPont Avenue School,” opened in 1921, is the school referred to above that provided Black students living in Lewes with a then state-of-the-art school building for grades 1-9, which continued to operate through the 1950s. Today, the building has been repurposed as the Frederick D. Thomas Building where various services are provided to Lewes citizens.

In 1955, this was the DuPont Avenue School for Colored Students, seen here in 2021 as the Frederick D. Thomas Building

From 1922 through the 1950s, White students attended the segregated Lewes Public School for grades 1-12, shown below. The building is effective testimony to the mockery made by much of White America regarding the separate but equal laws justified by Plessy v. Ferguson. If you are a resident of Lewes or have visited Lewes, it is likely you have passed the building shown below as you have traveled on Savannah Road.

In 1955, this was the segregated Lewes Public School, seen here in 2021 undergoing a major renovation

Segregation had an all encompassing presence in 1955 that extended beyond where African Americans could live and go to school in Lewes and its surrounds. For example, overnight accommodations in Sussex County for Black travelers were nonexistent. Segregation also impacted taverns and the like. According to the Cape Gazette (2/12/2016):

“Within a stone’s throw of the (five-points intersection) stood the white­-shingled, dark-­roofed and unique establishment known as the Five Points Inn. It was a throwback to an old era based on segregation of white people and colored people. Walking into the Route 9 entrance, patrons found a long, open room with a 30-­foot bar and a wall behind the bar with a serving window cut into it. Through that window, over the years, passed thousands of draft beers and other drinks for the customers who came in through the Route 23 – ­also known as Beaver Dam Road – ­entrance. Those patrons were primarily black, while the patrons on the Route 9 side were primarily white. I say primarily because occasionally out-­of-­town patrons, not knowing the local custom, would find themselves either a black face in a sea of white faces or vice versa.”

If you have ever driven toward the Delaware Bay on Savannah Road and turned right at the Dairy Queen, two-tenths of a mile further along Cape Henlopen Drive, you will recall seeing on your left a parking area and access to what had been referred to by the City of Lewes as Beach 2, which has been renamed Johnny Walker Beach, (and appropriately so, but that’s another story).

Johnny Walker Beach in 2021

In 1955, Johnny Walker Beach was the “Colored”beach and the broad beach at the end of Savannah Road that is often referred to as Lewes Beach was the White beach, where signs designated the restrooms as “Whites Only.”

It is important to never forget that such conditions once existed and continued into the 1960s, and in the case of the Five Points Inn, segregation continued until 1982. It is important to never forget because there are likely millions of White Americans–based upon behaviors we have observed over the past years, both personally and in the media–who would like to return to a time of segregation and suppression. If we believe in American Democracy, we must never forget what has been perpetrated over the centuries by Americans upon other Americans.

And we should celebrate what Lewes has become despite the racism and bigotry that once governed Sussex County. On the outside wall of a small, cedar-shaked building on Front Street in Lewes that overlooks Canalfront Park is this plaque:

The lifestyle my wife and I have discovered, which reflects Lewes’ Core Values, is why we have put down roots in this part of the world.

If every town and city in America embraced Lewes’ Core Values and accepted the possibility of actually bringing about positive changes, America might become the noble community that many of us believe should be our collective destiny. Lewes, despite the squabbles that bubble up, is a place where things have changed for the better since 1955–Lewes is a place of community and not separation–but vigilance is essential if we are to prevent our returning to a darker time.

Actually, the foundation for creating community is based upon a very simple concept with which virtually everyone has at least a passing understanding, a concept so elementary that it dates back at least to Confucius, and is one that is prominent in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and more, something that in 1993 was endorsed as part of a “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” … wait for it …

All we need do is to love our neighbors in the same way we would like them to love us.


* The initial group of White, volunteer drill instructors began to train the Marine Corp’s first African American recruits at Camp Montford Point in 1942; by 1945, the original White drill instructors had been replaced by Black drill instructors . NOTE: until 1970, Marine drill instructors were referred to as drill sergeants.

Click on the image above to learn more about the novel Karl Myers, which is set in 1955/56 in Lewes by the Delaware bay, and in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula in the Great Northwest

The image of “Karl Myers” is a copyright free image from Pixabay. The remaining images in this post were photographed by the blogger and may be used without permission.

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