Preserving black heritage in Georgetown


The sad state of educational opportunities for black children in Delaware received a much-needed boost in the 1920s, thanks to the philanthropy of Pierre S. duPont. He funded the formation of Service Citizens of Delaware, which constructed or improved more than 90 schools for blacks in this state.

Pierre duPont was a member of the prominent Delaware family and served as president of E.I. duPont de Nemours & Company from 1915 to 1919, and on the board of directors until 1940. His contributions toward the education of black children reflected the legacy of Edwina Kruse whose pioneering efforts in this field dated from the Civil War era (“Edwina Kruse: A ‘mighty oak’ of black education,” Coastal Point, Feb. 15, 2015).

In 1927, Service Citizens built a school in Georgetown and named it in honor of the Rev. Richard Allen, a leader of the black community and native of Kent County. Among other notable achievements, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States.

Elected the first bishop of the AME Church in 1816, Allen focused on organizing a denomination in which free blacks could worship without racial oppression and where slaves could find a measure of dignity. He worked to upgrade the social status of blacks, organizing Sabbath schools to teach literacy and promoting national organizations to develop political strategies. (“Research Guide to American Historical Biography”)

Recently, 19th District state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn and Rep. Ruth Briggs King sponsored legislation to support the Richard Allen Coalition to convert the school building — closed the past five years — into a cultural center and museum. In his Aug. 13, online newsletter, Pettyjohn said he was happy to support the “Coalition’s passion and desire to educate and to let kids know there is history here — there is a big part of their cultural history, that is here on these grounds.”

Gov. Jack Markell signed the legislation allowing the Coalition to take ownership of the property, located on South Railroad Avenue. Coalition board member and NAACP leader Jane Hovington said “acquiring the building culminates years of effort to preserve and re-use the Richard Allen School.” (James Fisher, News Journal, Aug. 16, 2015)

At the bill-signing ceremony, Pettyjohn and Briggs reminded children “it would be their job one day to carry on the wisdom and history of the school their grandparents once attended.”

The estimated cost of refurbishing and preserving the property is between $200,000 and $300,000. The coalition is collaborating with the Sussex Count Historic Preservation Office on this project.

A historical marker placed at the school last year states that Richard Allen School was “the focal point of the African-American community in Georgetown.” A former student, Harry Crapper, is quoted in the News Journal article as remembering that small stores and restaurants surrounded the school. He also recalled having to use for his lessons second-hand books white students had finished with.

Joe Irizarry reported that Darrell Melvin, vice-president of the coalition, said the plan is to hire engineers to assess the building before moving ahead with renovations. However, the group’s goal is to have programs up and running in about a year. (http://www.wdel.com/story/69937-richard-allen-property-in-georgetown-to-...)

Markell said he believes “This is just about the community taking responsibility, I think, in such a positive way to preserve history so that we can build a better future.” Pettyjohn added that this program will help children know about their culture and the history of this area, and to see relics and artifacts that reflect where we’ve been as a society.

The Coalition expects to obtain the deed and keys to the school building soon. Anyone interested in participating in this project can contact Jane Hovington on (302) 983-6772.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.