New documentary explores Delaware State University’s 126 years

Susan Browne, who graduated from Delaware State University in 1945, watches “A Legacy of Opportunity” with her daughter Lynnette Overby. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Condensing 125 years of history into less than an hour requires a tight squeeze.

Especially with so much material available, including segregation, sports, setbacks and successes.

The recently completed 52-minute documentary “A Legacy of Opportunity” tracks Delaware State University’s bumpy path from humble beginnings in a Loockerman plantation house with 12 students in 1891 to today’s worldwide presence that continues to expand.

Documentarian Michael Oates and Delaware Humanities Executive Director Marilyn Whittington admittedly had spirited debates on what made the final cut and what didn’t.

“It was brutal,” Mr. Oates said.

The deleted scenes were donated to the school’s mass communications department to use as it sees fit.

Delaware Humanities Executive Director Marilyn P. Whittington had the idea to create a documentary commemorating the 125-year history of Delaware State University. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“There’s plenty left to tell more stories and take different angles if the students want to,” said Ms. Whittington, who hatched the documentary idea three years ago after a visitor raved to her about the beauty of DSU’s campus.

Invited guests, including several who appeared in the production, got a sneak peak at DSU on Dec. 15. The school will introduce it publicly during Black History Month in February.

Based on the post-viewing response from elderly alumni who experienced much of the history live, Mr. Oates believes the finished product made its point.

“They were ecstatic,” he said. “They loved it and we had so many people hugging and thanking us. There were so many of them there it was just like a reunion.”

In the documentary, DSU’s Director of News Services Carlos Holmes explained the history and context to the school’s rise, including the state legislature’s resistance to integration in the 1950s. Elected officials appropriated money to keep DSU operating on its own, he said, and a potential merger with the University of Delaware, closure or drop to junior college status was averted.

The documentary jumped back and forth from long ago scenes to current times throughout, regularly shifting to a different point of view.

“It keeps moving back and forth and coming from unexpected angles to keep the viewer’s interest,” Mr. Oates said.

Delaware Humanities Executive Director Marilyn P. Whittington, left, and Delaware State University Director of Communications Carlos Holmes review the documentary “A Legacy of Opportunity.” (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

According to Mr. Holmes, “We’ve been able to capture in this documentary Delaware State University history, Delaware history, black history, U.S. history and Historical Black Colleges and Universities history.”

Mr. Holmes said the school is still forming a plan on how to utilize the documentary and believes it allows the public to appreciate the beauty and assets of DSU, is a point of pride for alumni and educational for current students.

Former Delaware Gov. J. Caleb Boggs was credited for supporting the school in its most needy time, and instigating the hiring of visionary Dr. Jerome H. Holland as its president. DSU regained its accreditation in 1957 and a rapid expansion of facilities and academic upgrades commenced.

The documentary paid tribute to the presidents who followed Dr. Holland, including Dr. Luna I. Mishoe (1960-87), Dr. William B. DeLauder (1987-2003), Dr. Allen L. Sessoms (2003-08) and Dr. Harry L. Williams (2010 to present).

In May 1968, Delaware State University President Dr. Luna Mishoe, far right, and trustee Edward Hagemeyer look up at a window of the administration building as they plead with ousted student body president Leroy Tate and his followers to come out of the barricaded building. Also pictured, second from left, is future State Representative Don Blakey. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Nonprofit Delaware Humanities allocated $25,000 to produce the documentary, and a Welfare Foundation grant added $10,000 to the budget.

Mr. Oates and his 302 Stories company conducted about 50 interviews with the assistance of DSU interns Azure Rucker and Tyler Hill. DSU archivists, Delaware Public Archives, the Delaware Historical Society and Delaware Humanities all provided photos and/or background information from documents and newspapers of the time.

Former DSU student Gary Emeigh (a freelance photographer for the Delaware State News) provided his pictures of the 1968 riot when students protested the dismissal of student body president Leroy Tate. His recollections were part of the documentary presentation.

“I was really impressed with it,” Mr. Emeigh said after attending the private screening. “(The documentary) gave me a whole new look at the campus and showed me things you don’t realize – the struggles and how it began. To see that kind of history is amazing.”

Delaware State University students protest the suspension of student body president Leroy Tate in May 1968. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DSU alumni Dr. Don and Delores Blakey, Gregory Showell and Charles Hammond were among the former students to share memories of life on campus, along with Cora Selby, Dr. Reba Ross Hollingsworth and Yvonne Young Browne.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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