Written by Libbie Hawes
The National Trust’s Rosenwald Schools Initiative has had a great impact on the preservation of African American schools in the South. In Delaware, the duPont schools offer another example of a prominent philanthropist’s effort to provide educational facilities to African American students.
As reform swept the nation’s social institutions in the early 1900s, philanthropists were inspired to leverage their private wealth into public service. While Julius Rosenwald famously established a network of African American schools in the south, a reluctant Delaware Board of Education found a champion in entrepreneur Pierre S. duPont. Leaving behind his positions as chair of the General Motors Corporation and president of E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, duPont focused his attention and resources on the improvement of school facilities in the state of Delaware. There is no concrete evidence Rosenwald and duPont exchanged ideas, but compared in retrospect, their endeavors were remarkably parallel.
In the late 18th century, few educational opportunities existed for either African American or European American citizens in Delaware. Limited initiatives by religious organizations set up a small number of schools. In 1829, the Act of Free Schools provided public education, but even after the Civil War, taxes levied on both white and black citizens supported schools for white students only.
The Delaware Association for the Moral Improvement and Education of Colored People was created in 1867, but African American settlements primarily relied on self-help and charity to establish educational facilities. Land and materials were acquired with contributions from local churches. The modest one to two story wood frame structures with single classrooms were built with community-based labor.
A series of state legislative efforts segregated social and economic systems at the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless, public education for African Americans was formally recognized. Meanwhile, established community schools suffered as industrialization took a toll on Delaware’s agricultural economy, leaving little resources for social programs. In 1917, Federal Bureau of Education report exposed the state’s low literacy rate, low teacher’s salaries and deteriorating school facilities.
The report prompted reform supporters to form the Service Citizens of Delaware in 1918. Funded by Pierre duPont and led by James Odell, the organization was part of a national movement to assimilate immigrants and naturalized American citizens, including the improvement of schools for African American students. The group lobbied for a new school code to establish equal tax rates and dispersal of revenue. The Service Citizens employed experts from Columbia University to conduct a survey of existing conditions.
DuPont established the Delaware Auxiliary Association to oversee the construction of new schools with recommendations from the survey team. Although he contributed funding for both white and black schools in Delaware, opposition to the equal distribution resources caused duPont to prioritize the construction and upgrade of African American schools. Ultimately, 91 duPont schools were built or improved in African American settlements, 1922-1925.
The Auxiliary Association hired architect James Oscar Betelle, who based his school designs on educational reform ideas of the period. Theorist John Dewey influenced the work of reform architects, emphasizing healthy conditions and adequate facilities as key factors in educational success. Betelle’s plans reflected the comforts of residential structures, with popular characteristics of colonial and other revival styles. The cottage-like buildings were designed in both symmetrical and asymmetrical plans with gable roofs, clad in shingles or clapboard. Architectural details included porticos with pediments supported by columns. Large banks of wide sash windows capitalized on light and ventilation. Interiors ranged from one to three rooms with moveable furniture for realization of reform teaching and learning practices.
A 1997 survey found about 55 extant schools in various states of use and condition, from ruin to active community center. Part II of this article will explore three examples of how Delaware’s duPont schools are used today.
Libbie Hawes is a Program Assistant in the Northeast Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.