Booker T. Washington builds on history

Construction on Booker T. Washington Elementary School is expected to be finished in December. The front has been remodeled to look more like the original school front. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Construction on Booker T. Washington Elementary School is expected to be finished in December. The front has been remodeled to look more like the original school front. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — Since early spring, construction workers have been on site nearly every day to restore a historic landmark in Dover: Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

“We’ve been here 54 years and all I can say about the construction is that it’s been noisy!” Helen P. Hicks said.

Mrs. Hicks and her husband, C. Wallace Hicks, have watched the renovations since the beginning from their home which sits just across the street from the old district administrative building located next door to Booker T.

But Booker T. Washington is more than just a neighboring building to the Hicks. In 1955 Mrs. Hicks began her secretarial career at Booker T. Washington, only one school year before desegregation hit.

“I was a secretary there for one year but was switched to William Henry the next year when the first white kids were coming in,” she said. “But I came back to Booker T. where I stayed until I retired in 1990.”

The 1956-1957 school year was the first year of desegregation in Capital School District.

“Some of the new kids and their families had a real problem coming into a black school,” Ms. Hicks said.

The year started with three white neighborhoods integrated into the school along with a handful of white teachers and secretaries.

Restoration

Soon after integration, the school’s name was switched from Booker T. Washington, named after the famed educator and first president of Tuskogee Institute, to West Dover practically over night.

“It was Booker T. when we went to bed and West when we woke up without any community input and I had a real problem with the change happening without including the public in the decision-making process,” Cecil Wilson, a former Booker T. student teacher and principal, said.

Although the name change caused some anger in the community, nothing would become of it until more than three decades later when plans to demolish the school arose at a Capital School Board meeting in 1996.

The financial manager presented a plan to tear down the 74-year-old Booker T./West Dover and build a new school in its place, but the suggestion was met with public outcry.

Among those voices was Mr. Hicks.

“The day after the meeting, I got a call from the school board president, Martin Burns, to head a committee to give some reasons why the school should be kept,” he said.

He called together 11 other individuals who felt strongly about keeping Booker T. The committee, known as the West Dover Elementary School Ad Hoc Committee, formed in January 1997.

“It held a lot of sentiment for many people,” Mr. Hicks said. “There were people involved who had gone to Booker T. or who had seen their children go to Booker T. That school held a lot of memories.”

Booker T. Washington’s classes took annual photos outside the school. Pictured is the class of 1940. (Submitted/Helen Hicks)

Booker T. Washington’s classes took annual photos outside the school. Pictured is the class of 1940. (Submitted/Helen Hicks)

Mr. Hicks himself was a student at Booker T. Washington and met his future wife while she also was a student there in 1942. After 67 years of marriage, he carries fond memories of the school as well.

The committee’s dozen members used information Mrs. Hicks had learned over her years at the school including the decade she worked under Marcellus Blackburn, the first principal of Booker T. and a Howard University graduate and World War I veteran. Mr. Blackburn served as principal for 40 years and handed down history and memorabilia to Mrs. Hicks before his retirement in 1963.

The committee used the information and reviewed documents found through extensive research at the Delaware Public Archives to form a report arguing for West Dover’s preservation.

The report was submitted to the Capital School Board on July 15, 1997.

The opening remarks stated, “As a district, we are obligated to honor the past — in our quest to pave the way for the future of our children. All students and members of the Dover community should have the opportunity to learn about the early education of Black students in Delaware.”

In the report, the committee made five recommendations:

• That West Dover remain standing,

• The name be changed to the original name of Booker T. Washington,

• A plaque regarding the history of the school be placed outside,

• That renovations be conducted and

• The renovations be moved to the top of the district’s priority list.

The board quickly accepted the report and on Sept. 11, 1998, a ceremony was held to restore the name and display the requested plaque.

“The name Booker T. belonged on that school and it meant a lot to the African-American community that the name be restored,” Mr. Hicks said.

The only recommendation that wasn’t met was moving Booker T.’s renovations to the top of the list. The renovations actually turned out to be the very last project in a long-term plan which featured the new Dover High, which opened in 2014, as its crown jewel.

Renovation

The original Booker T. Washington Elementary is only a small portion of the current school and fell into misuse more than a decade ago.

“It was considered an eyesore to some because although it was being maintained, it wasn’t actually used so it wasn’t in as good as shape as the rest of the school,” Dr. Dan Shelton, Capital School District superintendent.

Since the early 2000s, the 38,000-square-foot original building has been used mostly for storage. In that time, mechanical systems broke down, lack of ventilation created a dangerous environment and paint peeled from the walls.

The construction hasn’t interfered with much as the entire student body has been using only the addition for years.

The only classes impacted were art and music which have been mobile, traveling from classroom to classroom since construction began.

“We had to do some of what you’d call ‘creative scheduling,’” Dr. Shelton said. “Aside from related arts, the only thing that was disturbed was recess just because there were construction workers coming in and out, so there were a few scheduling conflicts like that.”

The renovation which included gutting the original school and rebuilding the exterior brick facade will be completed in December and teachers will move in before school resumes after winter break — but it isn’t all about classrooms.

“The renovation isn’t so much about additional classrooms as it is the additional space,” Dr. Shelton said.

The renovated portion of the school will be the new home of the Delaware Autism Program and the Kent County Community School. The autism program caters to the needs of students on the autism spectrum and the community school serves students age 3 to 21 with developmental disabilities.

Longtime Booker T. Washington secretary Helen Hicks’ extensive collection of early photograph includes this 1938 photo of a May Day celebration at the school. (Submitted/Helen Hicks)

Longtime Booker T. Washington secretary Helen Hicks’ extensive collection of early photograph includes this 1938 photo of a May Day celebration at the school. (Submitted/Helen Hicks)

Both require more space than the traditional classes because there is a need for observation rooms for staff to observe students without being intrusive, offices to allow private individualized education plan meetings, space for small group or one-on-one sessions. Both also will have a gym for activities and physical education classes.

The renovated space will accommodate the growing student population in the autism program and the community school — both are facing overcrowding in their current classrooms — and serve the unique needs of the students in the programs.

Although Booker T.’s renovation came along later than many hoped, the good news is it soon will be back in use by students and will appear more like the original building than it has for years.

The good news doesn’t end there — the entire $13 million renovation project was funded by the state, not local or district funds, because Delaware Autism Program and Kent County Community School are state and countywide programs.

Preservation

To keep the history and spirit of Booker T. alive, Mr. and Mrs. Hicks and other members of the community are exploring the possibility of a museum, either physical or virtual.

Mrs. Hicks considers herself a historian of the school and has documents and pictures dating back to the 1920s that she’s collected through the school and the Delaware Public Archives.

“These are things that should be on display for people to see,” she said. “The public should know the history. It’s something that shouldn’t disappear.”

The Hickses along with Mr. Wilson plan on bringing the idea of a museum to the school board’s attention soon.

The first step would be forming a committee to collect more memorabilia and artifacts, designing exhibits, building exhibits and promoting awareness.

“I’m just happy and emotional to see the former secretary and her husband making such a difference,” Mr. Wilson said.

“It’s about preserving history and it’s awesome.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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