"He Said He Wouldn't Help Me Get a Jim Crow Bus": The Shifting Terms of the Challenge to Segregated Public Education, 1950-1954

Article excerpt

The task of getting Shirley Bulah back and forth from Hockessin School No. 107, the local black elementary school, about seven miles west of Wilmington, Delaware, was arduous for her parents. Unlike the services provided local white children who attended School No. 29 and who were provided a bus by the state, there were no transportation services for black children in the community. On the eve of Shirley's third grade year in the fall of 1950, her father Fred Bulah protested what he believed was the arbitrary nature of the state's policy and complained to his wife Sarah that he did not see why there was not a bus for black children. She agreed and in her husband's name began a letter-writing campaign requesting transportation. (1) Unbowed by repeated denials from school officials, Bulah offered her own counter-proposal to the local supervisor of school transportation: since the bus passed her home twice on its daily rounds, it could pick Shirley up at the house and drop her off at the post office which was only two blocks from No. 107. "To take my child to school would not reroute the bus at all," she asserted. "Put her off at the post office and pick her up at the post office and bring her right back to my door. The bus is not full. So that isn't an excuse." (2) Still, school officials would not relent citing the state constitution which mandated segregation in education. (3) Undaunted by the negative responses, Bulah then approached Louis Redding, local attorney for the NAACP, and discussed the matter. "He said he wouldn't help me get a Jim Crow bus to take my girl to any Jim Crow School," reporter Carl Rowan recorded Bulah saying, "but if I was interested in sending her to an integrated school, why, then maybe he'd help." (4) She agreed to his terms and the letter writing continued. But this time with Redding's support, Bulah broadened her appeal, seeking admission to the all-white school and a bus for Shirley. In letters to the Board of Trustees for Hockessin School No. 29 and the State Board of Education, Bulah asserted:

    We believe that our citizenship entitles us to have for our child
    everything that the State Board of Education considers an "integral
    part of a school program." Moreover, all the facilities at School
    No. 29 are better than those at School No. 107 at Hockessin.
    Therefore ..., we are requesting that our seven year old daughter
    Shirley Bulah be admitted as a pupil at Hockessin School No. 29. (5)

Her request denied once again, she filed suit on behalf of Shirley against the Delaware Board of Education with the support of her counsel.

At the same time that Sarah Bulah was mounting her charge against segregation in Hockessin, four other groups of black parents from neighboring communities in Wilmington, Claymont, Newark, and New Castle were beginning their own challenges to the state's system of segregated secondary education with Redding's assistance. (6) There was only one free, four-year high school for black students in the state at the time, and students seeking a high school degree often had to make very long commutes or board in Wilmington. In each case, citing the burdens of travel imposed upon their children, the parents wrote school officials in their local communities seeking their children's admission to the schools for white children. (7) And in each case, school officials denied their requests, again citing the state constitution that mandated separate schools for black and white students. (8) They, too, filed suit against the Delaware Board of Education with Redding's assistance.

This essay examines the activism of local people and the NAACP-sponsored litigation campaign to desegregate primary and secondary education in Delaware that became one of the companion cases to Brown v. Board of Education. My focus is on a competition of interests, as revealed through the complexities of the litigation process, that occurred between local people, civil rights attorneys, and jurists as local demands for equal services were translated into the language of law. …