The path to equality for all

DOVER — There was plenty to reflect on at the Dover Library late Saturday morning.

A 150-member audience first listened with rapt attention to Dr. Reba Ross Hollingsworth’s 70-minute presentation on segregation and desegregation during the middle of the 20th century.

A 35-minute question and answer session with the 93-year-old educator followed, with some inspired attendees even recounting their own experiences.

Contributions came from an engaged and diverse crowd in the same room that would have been unimaginable decades ago.

“African Americans have been called colored, Negro, black and (the ‘N’ word),” Dr. Hollingsworth said. “Well, we’re all people of (some) color, which means all of us are related.”

“The Memories of How Dover Desegregated” event was sponsored by the Friends of Old Dover as part of its ongoing series of talks.

Prior to presenting a certificate of appreciation, city Mayor Robin R. Christiansen recalled his time as a student at Dover High where Dr. Hollingsworth served as a guidance counselor.

“Have you ever met someone who was really, really, really unique in your lifetime?” he asked the crowd made up mostly of senior citizens.

“Well, I met such a lady at Dover High School. Dr. Hollingsworth influenced me and took my energies that weren’t (positive) as a student as they should be and she fixed me up.”

To Dr. Hollingsworth black and white folks are all essentially on the same plane in life, though she experienced plenty of life when it wasn’t. She remembers when Delaware law promoted African Americans as “only needing to read, write and count a bit. Well I knew how do all that before I started to school (thanks to my parents).”

Limiting learning spoke to a fear that white people had that educated blacks “could better carry out their dastardly plot to denigrate white people.

“It was a time when the thought was that if you taught them to read and write there would be a revolt.”

The audience at Dover Public Library reacts to Dr. Hollingsworth’s remembrances in a presentation on Saturday.

Dr. Hollingsworth and those her age, younger and older emerged from a separated society as equal and obviously capable citizens as anyone else.

She pointed to the accomplishments of students who transferred from William Henry High to Dover High during segregation, ones who became doctors, lawyers, engineers, business executives, television news anchors, dentists, speech therapists and the first female president of Delaware State University, Dr. Wilma Mishoe.

The guest speaker used her life story to illustrate her generation’s trials and tribulations in the path toward equality for all.

Growing up in Milford with six brothers and sisters in a three room house, everyone “had to develop skills on how to get along with one another and respect one’s property. We had to develop skills in how to get along in life.”

Thus, Dr. Hollingsworth learned how to sew and knit early in life, cook meals, split wood for the kitchen stove while handling an axe and earn money by dressing hair, for 25 cents, 35 cents with a shampoo included.

“We all had to be industrious,” she said.

After scraping enough money together through work and loans to pay for school, Dr. Hollingsworth graduated from Delaware State College in 1949 with a Home Economics degree. She later earned a PH. D in counseling from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California in 2001.

“Being poor and being black are no excuse to be ignorant and uneducated,” the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame inductee said. “Ignorance breeds poverty and I know we were not as stupid as believed to be.”

Nellie Stokes Elementary School fifth-grader Addison Hall, 11, arrived early and sat near the front of the room to take it all in.

“Our school does a lot during Black History Month,” he said. “I’m in the chorus there and we do songs about that and we have assemblies and I think it’s important for me to learn more here today.:

Longtime acquaintance Ossi Beck knew the guest speaker as one of his regular customers at a Ritz Camera store.

“I think she’s one of the most incredible people I know,” he said. “She’s always friendly, always positive and always has something productive to say.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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