Dover’s historic Booker T. Washington Elementary school gets makeover

DOVER — Capital School District is restoring a piece of history to Dover.

This spring, construction crews are busy working on the historic wing of Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Dover.

Over the year, they will be renovating the space and building an addition that connects to the newer part of the school.

The total work area is 38,000 square feet, said Carl Krienen of Wilmington-based ABHA Architects, the project’s architect.

“It’s an important community thing we want to restore,” he said.

Although various additions have been built over the years, the original school dates back to 1922, when it served black students in Dover.

“We’re proud it’s getting done. We’ll be proud when it’s finished,” Capital School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Thomas said Friday at the construction site.

He stood near the “heart of the original building,” an open multipurpose room or auditorium area.

The room was completely gutted. Peeling paint on the brick walls depicted storybook pictures students once gazed on decades ago, though, including a knight, a grinning witch and boy with a bear.

There was a stage on one end of the room; three archways faced Del. 8 on the other end.

The renovation, which is expected to wrap up in mid-November, is part of a project to make room for a growing number of students in Kent County Community School programs.

Kent County Community School serves students with developmental disabilities ages 3 to 21. The state is footing the bill for the project, which adds up to about $13 million.

The work included adding three early childhood education classrooms to the school’s main site beside William Henry Middle School and some interior renovations and updates there.

Crews also renovated Central Middle School to add two classrooms downstairs and install an elevator.

Both of those projects are now complete.

The west side of Booker T. Washington Elementary School, including the main footprint and older additions, fell into disuse about 10 years ago. Since then, it’s mostly been used for storage.

According to the Delaware Public Archives, the school opened in November 1922, when 210 children and 6 teachers marched from two old school buildings on Slaughter Street and Division Street.

The Delaware School Auxiliary Association provided the funds for the building through the generosity of P.S. du Pont. Originally built for grades one through eight, it was the state’s largest African-American school when it opened. In 1935, officials added grades nine and 10.

William C. Holden Jr., who started first grade at Booker T. Washington in 1941, was in the last class to graduate from the 10th grade there in 1952. After that, he moved to the newly opened William Henry Comprehensive High School and graduated two years later.

“My interest is just to keep the school,” said Mr. Holden, who is serving on a committee to help with the plans.

At one time, he said, he was concerned the state would tear it down. Now, he is hoping to put up a museum display in the school.

“That’s history. Once that school is finished . . . how are you going to know?” he said.

Mr. Holden lived next door to the school growing up; his father’s property was adjacent to the west side fence, he said.

Back when he attended it, students from Smyrna and Milford rode the bus all the way to the school, Mr. Holden said. Because there were only a few students from Harrington, the state paid for their board in Dover.

Since Booker T. only went up to grade 10, before William Henry was built, if students wanted to finish high school in Dover, their only option was to go to 11th and 12th grade at Delaware State College.

Following integration in 1965, Booker T. Washington became known as West Dover Elementary; Mr. Holden said he was among those who fought to see the original name restored, which happened in 1998.

“This building is historic to the community. We wanted their involvement and input,” Dr. Thomas said.

Mr. Holden said he gave the district pictures of the original façade, which faced Del. 8 and included brick arches rather than the inexpensive columns there now.

Mr. Krienen said the plan is to redo the brickwork to mimic the historic look.

Although the appearance is historic, though, he said, the inside will be modern and outfitted with the latest technology.

The historic wing is set to serve another generation of students with a new set of needs.

Booker T. Washington Elementary will become the main site of Kent County Community School’s programs for kindergarten through fourth grade, principal Dale Kevin Brown said.

“This is going to be a great addition to the services that we provide throughout the district,” Mr. Brown said.

For now, crews are in the early stages of foundation work, Mr. Krienen said, and working to get the building envelope closed.

Construction was held up for about three months while the district worked on getting final permits from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Dr. Thomas said.

For now, those who remember classes in the old building are watching with interest.

Mr. Holden said that when the floor joists from an old classroom were removed and set out on the street, he took a picture to show his kids and alumni.

For him, even the floor was “part of my history and the remembrance of Booker T.”

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