The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart (Delaware)

There were two separate cases in Delaware, but the issues were the same. In each case, black students were excluded from the local white school.

Ethel Belton and other parents from Claymont, DE, and Sarah Bulah, a black parent from Hockessin, DE, took their cases to Louis Redding, Jr., the first black lawyer in the state of Delaware.

Jack Greenberg from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund soon joined Redding and together the two lawyers put together a case based on social science evidence of the harms of segregation.


Black students in Claymont were not allowed to attend the fourteen-acre, 400 student combination grade school and high school. Instead, they were bused into downtown Wilmington to attend Howard High, a school of 1300 students.

Sixty percent of Claymont's faculty members had masters degrees, compared to less than 40 percent of Howard faculty. Claymont offered students courses in economics, public speaking, Spanish, and trigonometry; Howard High did not offer students any of these classes.

Rather than continue sending her children on a ninety-minute trip each day to attend an inferior school, Ethel Belton and seven other African American parents from Claymont petitioned the State Board of Education to admit their children to the local school. Their request was denied.

In the rural village on Hockessin, Sarah Bulah watched each morning and afternoon as the school bus drove past her house to take white children to their "pretty little school on the hill," while she had to drive her daughter two miles to the one-room school house in the village. Ignoring the differences in the actual facilities, Ms. Bulah petitioned the State Board of Education for a bus for the black children of Hockessin. Her request was denied.

Rather than simply accept the decision, Sarah Bulah went to see Louis Redding, Jr. Unwilling to sue the district for a "Jim Crow school bus" to take Ms. Bulah's child to a "Jim Crow school," Mr. Redding encouraged Ms. Bulah to seek admittance for her daughter to the white school.

At Trial

At trial, testimony from Dr. Kenneth Clark regarding his famous doll study in which black children identified black dolls as being bad and white dolls as being good, and from Dr. Keith Wertham regarding his interviews with black and white students from the schools, supported the plaintiffs' argument that black and white students were all being harmed by segregation.

The trial judge agreed. "It seems to me that when a plaintiff shows to the satisfaction of the court that there is an existing and continuing violation of the of the "separate but equal doctrine" he is entitled to have made available to him the state facilities which have been shown to be superior,- wrote Judge Seitz in his opinion upholding plaintiffs' claim.

While this was certainly a victory, it was not what the families had hoped for. Rather than rejecting the separate but equal doctrine, the decision accepted and enforced it. It was the State Board of Education that appealed the decision and at the U.S. Supreme Court the Delaware cases were combined with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

After Brown

Following Brown, little was implemented in Delaware until the Supreme Court handed down another desegregation decision, Evans B. Buchanan. Plaintiffs in that case argued that educational policies in Wilmington were supporting segregated education, and that urban students in the city of Wilmington (who were predominantly black and poor) were not receiving the same opportunities as those in the surrounding suburbs (who were middle class and mostly white).

In 1980, a decision in that case led to the merger and full desegregation of all students in the city and suburban districts. The court order combined all the districts into one large system, which was later divided into four pie-shaped districts, each containing a part of the city and a large sector of suburbia. The desegregation order was extremely effective and largely responsible for Delaware becoming one of the most integrated states in the country.

A Snapshot

The court's desegregation order expired in 1996, leaving each of the four districts free to implement their own student assignment policies. While still one of the most integrated states for African American students, the level of integration has been declining in recent years. In 1991, the average black student in the Brandywine district attended a 65 percent white school; in 2001, the average black student attends a 55 percent white school. In the Christiana district, the drop was from 64 percent to 51 percent; in Colonial it was 66 percent to 43 percent; and in the Red Clay district, the average black student went from attending a 59 percent white school to one with a 42 percent white student body.

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