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Reading 1: Pierre Samuel du Pont and Delaware's African-American Schools

The early 20th century in America, a period characterized by nationwide social reform, is often referred to as the Progressive Era. During this period, more and more people recognized that education was the best guarantee of economic success for young people. Delaware's educators were eager to reform their schools, which were often old, too small, and in very poor condition. In fact, according to a 1915 federal study of the quality of education in the states, Delaware ranked in 39th place out of the then 48 states. Reforms were interrupted by the country's involvement in World War I, but in 1919 Delaware adopted a new school code. Among other changes, the code established that schools for African Americans would receive some of the money collected from white taxpayers. The new school code also supported the rebuilding of schools for white students. There was no provision for rebuilding schools for African-American children, however. Concerned about the condition of education in Delaware, philanthropist Pierre Samuel du Pont decided to help pay to have schools in the state rebuilt.

Pierre Samuel du Pont was a member of the family that established the Du Pont Company in the early 19th century in Wilmington, Delaware. Located on the banks of the Brandywine River, which powered mills that manufactured gun powder, the company became a world leader in the explosives industry. In 1919, du Pont resigned as president of the family business and began devoting much of his time to the cause of education, including serving on the State Board of Education. Using his own money, du Pont established a two-million dollar trust fund for remodeling existing school buildings and constructing new ones in Delaware. He designated a substantial amount of that money to build new schools for African-American children.

According to Delaware's new school code, African-American children were subject to mandatory attendance laws requiring all children under age 14 to attend school during the 180-day school year. It was demonstrated through a survey of the place of residence of every African-American child in Delaware that many of the existing schools were inconveniently located. Establishing several, small, single-teacher schools close to centers of population was considered the best solution to address scattered populations and low attendance records. This also would help address the concerns of parents who depended on their children's labor for economic support.

Between 1919 and 1928 du Pont personally financed the construction of more than 80 schools for African Americans. By 1938, after many of the schools for whites and all the schools for African Americans had been rebuilt, Delaware had advanced to eighth place out of the 48 states in terms of the quality of its public education system. In 1926, when asked by the editor of Afro-American Magazine why he had funded these schools, du Pont replied:

If the Delaware experiment proves satisfactory, which I am sure it will, it will be a great incentive to go ahead more quickly in other States....The progress of Delaware schools will bear watching, for on their success must hang the fate of Negro public school education in the United States for many years.1
1Pierre S. du Pont to Carl Murphy, March 1, 1926, Pierre S. du Pont Papers, Longwood Manuscripts, Group 10, Series A, File 712, Box 3 (Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware).

 
1. What were some of the provisions of the 1919 Delaware school code?

2. How did Delaware officials plan to deal with scattered population and low attendance at African-American schools? Do you think this was a reasonable solution? Why or why not?

3. Who was Pierre Samuel du Pont and why did he undertake what he called the "Delaware experiment"? Can the benefits of du Pont's gift be measured? If so, how?

Reading 1 was adapted from Susan Brizzolara Wojcik, "Iron Hill School Number 112C," (New Castle County, Delaware) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1995; and from the Papers of Pierre Samuel du Pont (Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library).

 

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