Grade-school memories follow people through life, for better or worse. And, although the old Richard Allen School was born of segregation, people are being inspired today to transform it into a community and cultural center in Georgetown.
“When Richard Allen opened its door [in the 1920s], it was a beacon of hope for African-Americans living in Sussex County,” according to the Richard Allen Coalition. “When it reopens next year, it will welcome all of us who want to learn about the past while helping our youth explore their talents and prepare for a wonderful future.”
The non-profit Richard Allen Coalition wants to restore the school’s legacy as an educational and community center. Physically, the old building won’t just become a museum to freeze history, but a community center to breathe life into the town.
The goals for the project are for it to house the artifacts and heritage of the Sussex County’s African-American community; serve as a community center for educational and artistic events; foster a sense of tolerance and community among all Sussex Countians; and inspire young people to aim for a better future for themselves and their community.
Located at 316 South Railroad Avenue, the building is one of the last historical remnants considered essential to the surrounding black community.
“They really wanted to be able to reopen the school again. I think the biggest thrust for them was the school really serves as part of their community,” said Betty Deacon, who adopted the cause to become the coalition’s executive director.
“I’m white, and I’m from Baltimore,” she said with a laugh when asked about the project in 2016. “In the coalition, they call me their ‘bodacious sister’ now.”
But old buildings have many problems, such as mold and failing to meet modern code requirements. However, there’s great potential in the structure. For instance, the original blackboards were discovered hanging behind a newer layer of drywall.
The Coalition has hired a consulting firm that specializes in historic preservation projects, with a final report due in March. They’re also compiling an oral history project with stories of long ago.
The Coalition has offered its thanks to the individuals, churches, elected officials and others who have made donations. They also continued the fundraising push at the 2nd Annual Gala on Feb. 4 at the Georgetown CHEER Center.
As governor, special guest John Carney explained his role in educating young Delawareans to be successful in a modern and competitive world.
“The way that we can do that it is to understand and appreciate where we all came from. So when we preserve the history and heritage of the Richard Allen School, we are doing just that.”
“We have folks that went to that school in a time where schools in Delaware were segregated,” Carney said. “But we have alumni of the schools who have made tremendous contributions to our community, and our hats go off to them.”
One such alum was the Most Rev. Roland Mifflin, who recalled the love he felt while growing up in Georgetown.
Despite being served at the back door of restaurants because of his race, Mifflin said, “The Bible says, ‘Anger rests in the heart of fools.’” His own mother taught him “Heaven is not just black and white,” but all colors together.
Mifflin thanked the teachers and elders who taught him to be responsible and do good: “Thank you for not giving up on us. Thank you for believing in us.”
Mt. Zion Church in Georgetown sent its children’s group, “God’s Small Wonders” to perform a step routine at the gala. The crowd was even moved to stand and sing along with the children in “Lift Every Voice & Sing.”
The Georgetown school was named for a former slave who purchased his freedom in Dover, served in the Revolutionary War, became a minister and, finally, founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816.
The building was one of Delaware’s many public schools built by philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont. At the time, Delaware schools were considered among the nation’s worst, but African-American schools were even worse.
The Richard Allen School served black children until segregation ended. Then, the building served as an alternative school, until about 2010, when the Indian River School District determined the old building to be overstock and Frankford’s G.W. Carver Academy opened to serve students with special academic and behavioral needs.
In 2012, after the IRSD moved its students to the George Washington Carver Academy in Frankford, the property was transferred to the Boys & Girls Club. In 2015, the building was deeded to the Richard Allen Coalition Inc.
The Richard Allen Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. More information can be found by emailing RichardAllenElementary@yahoo.com, calling (302) 644-4303 or writing to Richard Allen Coalition; P.O. Box 624; Georgetown, DE 19947.