Meet some of Seaford's most influential women

By Lynn R. Parks

Robert Thomas Jr. knows that his mother was a singular woman. Nevertheless, he was surprised when she was selected as one of 10 influential Seaford women to be honored in an exhibit at the Seaford Museum.
"I was surprised, but very pleased," said Thomas, 73, Bryn Mawr, Pa. "You can't imagine how pleased I am. And my mother must be looking down beaming right now."
On Sunday, April 2, nearly 100 people, including Robert Thomas Jr., attended the opening of the exhibit, sponsored by the Seaford Historical Society.
Nancy Virginia Foote Thomas is the only African-American featured in the exhibit. A native of Baltimore, she began teaching at Frederick Douglass School, Seaford, in 1923.
At the time, the school housed grades one through eight for the African-American community. After desegregation, Thomas was English teacher at Seaford High School, from which she retired in 1969.
"She always went way above and beyond to help her students," said her son, adding that he was in his mother's class for two years and was "an average" student. "She was stern, yet very warm."
But it wasn't only in the classroom that Thomas left her
mark. She was a member and trustee of John Wesley United Church, Seaford, where she served as president of its United Methodist Women.
She was an active member of Morgan State College Alumni Association, of the Sussex County Teachers Association and of the Delaware State Teachers Association.
In 1967, she received a citation for distinguished service to education from the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1968, the Morgan State alumni association honored her for over 40 years of service. She also received a community service award from the sorority, Phi Beta Sigma.
"She had the ability to make people smile and make people happy," said Robert Thomas. "She was always ready to help her neighbors."
In a time when segregation was the norm, he said, the black community was able to survive because of people like her and her husband, Robert Sr., the principal at Fred Douglass and later at Seaford High.
"We were able to get a lot accomplished we would not have accomplished without them," he said. "They were always willing to go one step further for their community."

Anne Nesbitt, secretary of the historical society, said that the inspiration for the exhibit was Women's History Month, celebrated in March.

A committee made up of Seaford natives - Betty Young, Mary Boggs, Phyllis Palmer, Eleanor Jamison and Wright Robinson - pared a list of 25 nominees down to 10 (only deceased women were considered). The biographies of those honored reflect accomplishments in a range of fields, from education to dance, medicine to politics.
"This was a great woman," said Robinson, standing in front of the display on Rachel "Rate" Ellegood Ross. "She was a real suffragette and went to Washington for a march for suffrage. A lot of the women in town didn't like her for it."
According to the biography of Ross written for the exhibit, she not only attended the march but was one of its organizers "and was honored for her zeal by being placed at the head of the march with women leaders for all of the states which were represented."
But women's right to vote was not her only interest. According to the biography, "During World War I, with her son, Calhoun, serving in the nation's fledgling Air Force, Mrs. Ross was a driving force in the war bond sales that took place in our nation.
"On one occasion, when leaders of Delaware's bond sales realized the sales record that she had accumulated, they requested the government dispatch an Air Force plane to Seaford to give Mrs. Ross the distinction of becoming the first Delaware Woman to fly in an actual Air Force plane."

Next to the display on Ross is information about Dr. Anna Conwell Shipley, for whom the Shipley State Service Center, Seaford, is named. Shipley was the daughter of a Seaford physician; two of her siblings were also doctors and another was a pharmacist.
According to her biography, Shipley opened her Seaford practice in 1914, after graduating from Women's Medical College, Baltimore, one in a class of four, and serving for a time as resident physician at Women's College in Columbia, S.C.
"She was recognized for her willingness to accept patients regardless of wealth or race. Her patients included many of the community's most wealthy families as well as those who could ill afford any medical services. Her waiting room was usually filled with vegetables, handworks and trinkets that poor but grateful patients brought - and these small gifts were often distributed to other needy patients who had nothing to offer.
"Let it not be said that 'Dr. Annie' was not a respected member of her profession. She was a frequent lecturer in area hospitals. A famed Baltimore surgeon used to spend fishing vacations in Seaford just so he could sit quietly in her office in the evenings to see her at work."
Nesbitt said that the exhibit opening was "very successful." She added, "It was fantastic to listen to people reminisce about these women. And a lot of people were there who had never been in the museum before. That's a plus."
Jane Webb, Seaford, was impressed with the amount of research that went into the exhibit. "This helps me understand the community better," added Webb, who moved to Seaford in the 1970s. "And that makes me feel like I am more a part of it."

For your information:
The exhibit on 10 influential women of Seaford will continue in the Seaford Museum, New Street, through the month. The museum is open every Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m. Additional hours can be arranged by calling Eleanor Jamison, 629-8095, or Dave Webb, 629-3034.