Milford Eleven: Camp to tell of struggles, triumphs of integrating Milford schools

Eleven eager students walked into Milford High School, ready to earn a quality education. One student even made the football team in their short 28 days at the school.

The year was 1954.

Then tenth graders, the first group of African-American students to find their way through the doors of the high school graduated from Benjamin Banneker School in Milford earlier that year. Typically, they would attend a high school for black students outside of town — Jason High School in Georgetown or William Henry High School in Dover.

A landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States made about a month before they graduated from ninth grade, however, set the precedence that segregation in public schools violated the 14th amendment. Delaware’s first African-American lawyer, Louis Redding, was ready to help get the 11 students to school in their own community.

“Milford was one of the first towns in middle America, and middle Delaware, to give blacks an opportunity to attend white schools for the first time. Milford basically attempted to integrate the white schools on Sept. 9, 1954. The reason why we were not there any longer than 28 days is that it was too volatile for the superintendents,” Orlando Camp, author of “Milford Eleven,” said. “They thought 11 students would not be a problem compared to the 600 other students. All we did was drive up to the white school and sit down and start attending classes.”

But the district did not notify the other parents of the changes for the year, causing panic when students went home that first day and told them of their new classmates.

“They said in the interest of safety, they would have to shut down the schools,” Mr. Camp added.

The Milford eleven ended up transferring to Jason High School. Mr. Camp and others later transferred to William Henry in an attempt to gain the best education possible.

“It was a difficult transition because of the fact that we basically went to three schools in two years. The difficulty in that is that we felt disappointed because we felt things were beginning to change in this country and when the Supreme Court passed the opportunity, well, we felt that that door was opened and, if it wasn’t opened, at least it was cracked so that we could walk into an employer and say that I am as qualified as the white person.”

For many, the story can be hard to hear. But he said it’s an important one for community members to recall as they continue to grow.

Mr. Camp will tell his tale during a special event held by the Milford Museum Thursday, Feb. 7 at the Milford Senior Center from 7 to 8 p.m.

“I continue to tell the story because I’m still here. I just want people to understand that it’s not a negative spot on our history or Milford’s history. It’s just to say never let this happen again. Let’s make sure that if there’s an opportunity for Italians, Blacks, Greeks, Germans, Japanese, for whatever group, if it’s the right thing to do, let them be successful. Milford could have been a leader in the civil rights movement, and not because it’s civil rights, but because it’s the right thing to do. But we weren’t,” he said.

“The reason why I think we need to hear it is because we have a whole generation of people in Milford that really know very little history about the Milford eleven and Milford seven. I want to make sure the young folks, black and white, know what happened in Milford, why it happened and how we can look forward to a future of having a town that’s growing and look how far we’ve come in 60 years now. I want to make sure there’s a voice out there of just how things were, and the important role Milford played in Brown v. Board of Education.”

Reach staff writer Jennifer Antonik at jantonik@newszap.com

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