Edwina Kruse: A ‘mighty oak’ of black education

One of the most disgraceful chapters in Delaware history, according to Judith Y. Gibson, was the lack of educational opportunities afforded African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite efforts by Quaker organizations to fill the gap created by the Delaware government’s refusal to educate them, only 250 black children attended schools by the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Gibson, since retired as a University of Delaware professor, published an article, “Mighty Oaks: Five Black Educators,” that described the work of black citizens who, because of their efforts, “many African American youth were well educated during those years of segregation and exclusion.” (www.udel.edu/BlackHistory/mightyoaks.html)

One of those “oaks” was Edwina B. Kruse, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1848 and came to Delaware in 1864, when armed hostilities between North and South were nearing an end.

The energetic and dedicated young woman arrived in Delaware at the request of a benevolent society, the Delaware Association for the Moral Improvement & Education of Colored People. The organization accumulated funds for teachers’ salaries and to build schools throughout the state. Its financial support stemmed from the federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau and interested citizens, as well as contributions from foreigners.

Sympathetic whites were unsuccessful in convincing the state legislature to fund schools for blacks until 1875, and the meager allocation was not enough to support teachers’ salaries and maintain schools.

In the interim, Kruse went about starting schools in Kent and Sussex counties. By 1867, she established a school in Wilmington where she taught, and later became principal of what became known as Howard High School — named for the abolitionist Civil War general and civil rights activist Oliver Otis Howard, who came to dedicate it.

That was the only high school for African-Americans in Delaware, and students came from all over the state in order to acquire a secondary education. That required them to board with family, friends and even teachers, including the principal.

Kruse, who had acquired her education at Hampton Institute in Massachusetts, is attributed with transforming Howard from a lowly primary school to an academically excellent high school during her 30 years at the helm. She had to overcome woefully inadequate resources and a culture of low expectations for black children to achieve her lofty ambitions for Howard High.

Gibson explained that Kruse dreamt of being able to offer a classical education for black students by teachers who themselves had the best preparatory education. She understood that sending her well-trained students out into the community would be a catalyst for its advancement.

Kruse’s long-range goals for the school and community included establishment of a pharmacy, a health center, a teachers’ home and a home for the elderly. Her motivation stemmed from “a love for knowledge, orderliness, organizational skills, thoroughness, a love for academic excellence, and an appreciation for culture.”

The demanding curriculum at Howard turned out well-educated students, many of whom went on to further their education at schools such as Lincoln University, the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Graduates entered professions as teachers, professors, doctors and lawyers.

One of her devoted teachers at Howard, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, wrote that, after Kruse retired as principal, “Ever and anon a group of teachers or old grads of the school [would] make loving pilgrimage down to 206 East Tenth Street, where she reigned in her home for so many years, and carry her a tribute for the work she had done.”

Dunbar-Nelson cited the legacy of a person whose dedication in the face of daunting opposition to her efforts to create educational opportunities for black children. She wrote that Kruse is remembered for “the intransigent place she made in the souls and hearts and imaginations of the thousands and thousands, who in life loved and hated, feared and revered, shrank from and adored, but never ignored her.”

In recognition for her pioneering work in black education, Lincoln University conferred upon Edwina Kruse an honorary degree of doctor of laws, the first presented to a woman.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.