We were truly separate, but certainly not equal

By Lynn R. Parks

For 40 years, Frederick Douglass School in Seaford was for black students only. The all-black staff - it was illegal for a white person to work at the school - educated first through 11th graders in about eight classrooms. Students who finished there and who wanted a high school diploma had to go to either Delaware State College in Dover or Howard University in Washington, D.C., for the 12th grade. “Everything was done to encourage us not to go to school,” said G. Ofella Molock, who finished his studies at Fred Douglass in 1946. “We did not have adequate facilities. We did not have adequate equipment. We had to use second-hand books.” “We were truly separate, but certainly not equal,” added George Dredden, also a member of the class of 1946. “The state of Delaware was not interested in educating us. How else do you explain the existence of only one high school for black children in the whole state?” Molock, Dredden and 12 other members of their class were at what is now Frederick Douglass Elementary School on Saturday, to unveil a plaque that commemorates the school’s history and the success of its African-American students. “We want people to understand that despite all the inequalities, what we were taught at Fred Douglass was character, and a sense that ‘You can do that,’” said Helen Handy Powell, Wilmington. Powell praised the school’s administrator, Robert W. Thomas Sr., who was principal from 1921 to 1961, the entire time that Fred Douglass was a segregated school. The gym at the school is named for Thomas. “He was a role model, a magician, I don’t know what else,” she said. “He had an eye and ear for hiring the right staff and if teachers had any other skills at all that could help the school, he searched them out.” Powell and Molock also praised the school’s teachers, who they called “wonderful” and “outstanding.” One teacher, and the advisor for the class of 1946, attended the ceremony. Florence Johnson Foddrell, 88, told her former students, all in their mid 70s, that she still thought of them as her “children.” “You knew you belonged to me, because I made all the decisions,” she added. “You didn’t make any.” Foddrell, a graduate of Delaware State, taught a variety of subjects, including home economics and civics, for 19 years. She said that the school had no cafeteria and the state made no provisions for lunch for the students. The girls in her home ec class prepared lunch and she enlisted boys to wash the dishes.
“We didn’t have enough room, but we used what we had,” said Foddrell, who lives in Parksley, Va. She organized bake sales and dances to raise money for food and supplies and for class trips, including one to the world’s fair in New York City in 1940. “We did things no one expected,” she said. “We raised money when no one had any. We were able in a short time to make people know who we were. And Seaford today is a town that I hope we helped to make what it is.” Of the 21 members of the class of 1946, 14 classmates are surviving. All 14 attended Saturday’s ceremony. Six of the 21 students continued school after finishing at Fred Douglass. Powell went to Delaware State and was admitted to the University of Delaware after a court ruling forced the school to open its campus to African-American students. She was among three students who were the first black students to graduate from the university. Molock also went into education. He retired as a principal from the Christina School District. Dredden worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Council in Washington, D.C., where he retired as an administrator. Henry Nutter, who served as a Seaford city councilman for 32 years, was also a member of the class and was one of a few classmates who stayed in their hometown. “You left the load of this city to me,” he told them on Saturday. “Many times, I wished that you were here to share it with me.” Nutter said that many times, while serving as councilman, he recalled a lesson from his ninth-grade civics class. “Each of us has used what you learned at Fred Douglass,” he added. “This school has followed you through your daily lives.” Powell said that she was “grateful” for her education at Fred Douglass. “It helped me to go on to do all the things I’ve done in my life,” she said. “Often I have wished that we could take the whole Fred Douglass experience and distill it, make an elixir,” she added. “When we saw a child in trouble, we could say, ‘Here, you need a little drink of this.’” At the conclusion of the ceremony, James Brumble invited his classmates to the Seaford Golf and Country Club, where they would be served lunch. Grinning, Molock told him, “I knew I was going to get there one day.”

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