This weekend communities throughout Delaware celebrated our July 4th Independence holiday with all kinds of fun activities and reverence for the history of our great nation. With that in mind I’d like to spotlight a very handsome cedar-shake one-story building adjacent to the Ace Hardware store at the Five Points intersection in Lewes.
Built in in the 1920s, it was one of more than 80 small schools built for African-American students with support from industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. duPont several decades before desegregation. Known to many as the Nassau School, it was designed by James O. Betelle, an architect who was also a professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University.
A lovely home away from home
If you appreciate its arched portico, large windows and elegant woodwork, there’s a good reason for that. As noted by former Delaware State University Associate Provost Bradley Skelcher, author of African American Education in Delaware: A History Through Photographs, 1865-1930, most of the schools were “one-, two- and three-room school buildings that were designed to look like homes. The thought was that this would reduce trauma for young children because it would look like they were entering another home when they went to school.”
“The schools were designed to maximize interior space to allow good air quality, with natural light that was considered better for reading than artificial light. They also had efficient and modern heating, interior wash rooms and efficient ventilation to air out the students’ coats. The exteriors were in the Classical Revival Style, which was popular in the 1920s during a time of nostalgia for the past.”
A crucial support for Delaware’s workforce and economy
Design considerations aside, duPont was driven by concerns about educational equality as the basis for a qualified workforce based on his role as Chairman of General Motors and President of E.I. duPont de Nemours & Col. He recognized that schools for African-American students were terribly underfunded because of inequitable distribution of tax revenues, and that poor attendance was also a problem since many were children of migrant farmers and were discouraged by landowners from attending.
While desegregation of Delaware’s public schools finally happened in 1959, some locals continued to attend another local school from the same era – known as Rabbit’s Ferry – largely because they loved it so much.
Still loved by locals
Paul Selby, who’s been involved in preservation efforts for the school, which still stands at its original site on Robinsonville Road in Lewes, is one of them.
As he recalled for an interview with Delaware Beach Life magazine in 2020, “I went to Rabbit’s Ferry for first through third grade and was taught by my Aunt Hilda, who was one of our teachers in my family. Like all teachers in those schools, she was the principal, nurse, counselor and expert in all of the subjects from first through eighth grade. All of the parents were more involved back then, but the teacher was the authority. The kids knew that and behaved accordingly.”
Sandra Neal, who was also interviewed for that story, has equally fond memories of her time at the Nassau School.
“Teachers and students always came dressed for school,” she recalls. “Mrs. [Levata] Glenn, one of our favorite teachers, was usually in a dress with a cinched waist and a belt but sometimes in a suit skirt. We had to use second-hand textbooks but she would bring in all of her magazines. And we all had jobs – like cleaning up the erasers. We also had hot lunches – like soup and sandwiches with cherry pie – prepared by a lady named Lillian Maull.”
“It was a community that took care of everybody,” adds Jeannette Williams Peterson, who also attended Nassau. “My dad was a cook who was known all over town. We played outside but made sure we were home when that street light came on. We had teachers who really cared and who spent plenty of time making sure you learned. Back in those days in our neighborhood they helped you, but you really had to help yourself.”
Through advocacy and funding, the Nassau School will live on
Most of the physical aspects of that neighborhood — known as Belltown — have disappeared. The former John Wesley United Methodist Church has been vacant for years.
Fortunately, with strong support from local volunteers and real estate developers, there are plans and funding to restore the Nassau School as an educational and cultural site, replicating other successful restoration efforts for the former duPont School in Rehoboth Beach, which has served as the Immanuel Shelter; the Richard Allen School in Georgetown, and the Warwick School in Millsboro, which is now home to the Nanticoke Indian Museum.
That’s welcome news to Sandra Neal, who said in 2020 that she hopes the school will stay at its current site to honor the struggles and successes of many generations.
“It’s important for it to become a museum and education center because there’s often been an attitude to erase us, or pit us against each other, or cast all memory of us aside. We need to save it for the sake of remembrance of the Jim Crow era as an anchor to our history.”