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The History of Women at the University of Delaware
October 29, 2007

The History of Women at the University of Delaware

University of Delaware was a private, coeducational institution partially supported by public funds, with its main campus in Newark, Delaware. The university was founded in Pennsylvania in 1743 by colonial American scholar and clergyman Francis Alison. In 1765 the school moved to Newark. It became Newark College in 1834 and was renamed Delaware College in 1843. In 1914 a women’s college opened, and in 1921 the Women’s College and Delaware College were officially named the University of Delaware. The university confers associate, bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. The university has colleges of agricultural sciences; arts and science; business and economics; education; engineering; human resources; marine studies; nursing; physical education, athletics, and recreation; and urban affairs and public policy. The Agricultural Sciences Research and Education Center is located in Georgetown, Delaware, and the College of Marine Studies has facilities in Lewes. The university also maintains facilities in Wilmington, Georgetown, and Dover. The university library houses more than 2 million volumes, 2.3 million microforms, 120,000 maps, and 21,000 periodicals.

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Research facilities at the university include the Center for Composite Materials, the Disaster Research Center, the Bartol Research Institute, the Center for Molecular and Engineering Thermodynamics, the Institute of Energy Conversion, and the Center for Climatic Research. Notable alumni include Daniel Nathans, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in medicine. In the late 1800s, Dutch physician Aletta Jacobs Gerritsen began collecting monographs and periodicals reflecting the evolution of a feminist consciousness and women's rights. By the time her successors finished their work in 1945, the Gerritsen Collection was the greatest single source for the study of women's history in the world, with materials spanning four centuries and fifteen languages.

In 1740, a ship bearing African people who had been sold into slavery docked at New Castle, Delaware. Among the frightened Africans who huddled together and were held in place by iron shackles was an 18 year old girl. Like the others on board, she knew no English, and we have no record of her African name. In America, she was called Betty. Betty was one of hundreds of Africans who were transported to America in the 1600s and 1700s to become slave laborers in the little colony then known as the "Three Lower Counties of Delaware."  Betty was probably sold to a farmer who set her to work with a hoe, a farm tool widely used in both America and West Africa. Betty and other African-born people plowed, weeded, and harvested crops for their master. She may have lived in a small log cabin, in a barn, or in the attic or cellar of her master's house. Little by little, Betty learned English from hearing her master and his family talk and by listening to other African people who had lived in America for a longer time. Aside from the record of her sale, we know nothing about Betty's life in Delaware. She may have borne children whose descendants are living in the United States today.

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By 1840 only, 13 percent of Delaware's black residents were held in slavery. Although the number of slaves continued to decline, some masters still tenaciously held to their legal right to own other human beings. Free blacks like Abraham and Mary Ann Shadd joined societies that urged the abolition of slavery and assisted runaway slaves to escape to the North. Delaware shares the Delmarva Peninsula with Virginia and Maryland, which were also slave states. Slaves escaping from the southern part of the Peninsula usually came north through Wilmington on their way to the free state of Pennsylvania. Among the escaping slaves who followed this route was the legendary Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore in about 1821. In 1849, she escaped from her master's farm and set out for freedom. Traveling at night and hiding by day, she followed the Choptank River to the Delaware border. In Delaware, she was assisted by fellow blacks and by Quakers in towns and farms along the way. Those who assisted escaping slaves came to be known as "conductors" on the "Underground Railroad" of safe trails that led to freedom. Harriet established an especially significant friendship with one of her conductors, Thomas Garrett, a Quaker iron merchant in Wilmington.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson's niece, Pauline A. Young, who attended Howard and later served as the school's librarian, described Edwina Kruse as an "efficient, severe, responsible and ever conscientious teacher and citizen of Wilmington." Miss Kruse was a leader among Wilmington's small but proud and energetic black middle class. She helped organize the Delaware State Federation of Negro Women's Clubs. The clubs worked to secure more opportunities for black women and girls. One of their goals was accomplished in 1920 when the Negro Women's Clubs founded the Industrial School for Girls to help young women who had gotten in trouble with the law to learn honest occupations. The Industrial School was one of the first black-controlled corporations in Delaware. Alice Dunbar-Nelson left her teaching post at Howard High School to head the new school. A few years later, the Industrial School was renamed the Kruse Industrial School, in honor of the role played by Edwina Kruse in founding it.

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Howard teachers were also leaders in many other social and political causes. Emma Belle Gibson Sykes was born in Christiana, Delaware in 1885 but later moved to Wilmington and married dentist George Sykes. Mrs. Sykes was very active in local politics as a campaign volunteer for the Republican party. Over the years, she held several paid political jobs in Wilmington and New Castle County, including Register of Wills. Mrs. Sykes also worked in the Women's Suffrage Movement. Until 1920, American women could not vote in elections and "suffragists" campaigned for many years to win that right of citizenship. Along with many other women, Emma Belle Gibson Sykes marched in "suffrage" parades and worked to convince male legislators to grant women the basic right to vote and to have a voice in their government. Blanche Stubbs, the wife of Wilmington doctor J. Bacon Stubbs, was another teacher who worked for Women's Suffrage. Mrs. Stubbs served as the head of the Equal Suffrage Study Club, a group of African American women who favored women's right to vote. In 1914, Stubbs marched in Delaware's first "suffrage" parade in Wilmington and was mentioned by a local newspaper as a leader in the movement.

In Delaware, the Wilmington Branch of the NAACP often led this effort, but there were also strong NAACP branches in Milford and Dover, and a growing unit in Sussex County. During much of this work, a woman, Pauline Young, was the state president of NAACP branches in Delaware. She was a popular and beloved leader who had given much of her life to the study of African American history. Miss Young had started the library at Howard High School in the 1930s and served as the school's first librarian. In 1947, she wrote the first study of black history in Delaware, "The Negro in Delaware, Past and Present," which was published in the book Delaware: A History of the First State by Henry Clay Reed. Pauline Young had grown up with the Wilmington NAACP. Young's aunt, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, had been a founder of the Wilmington branch and one of its first secretaries. Pauline Young had taken the job of secretary in 1930 and had continued to serve the branch for many years. Even into her 80s, Pauline Young remained an active member of the NAACP and was a leader in preserving black history. Her collection of newspaper articles and other histories can now be found in the Pauline A. Young Memorabilia Room at the Howard Career Center in Wilmington. Pauline Young was not the only woman involved in the NAACP's civil rights work in the 1950s and 1960s. African Americans fought for equal rights through sit- ins at restaurants that did not serve them, formed picket lines at stores or businesses that would not hire or sell to them, and marched along public streets to show strength, solidarity, and determination to finally be heard, noticed, and treated with respect. Black women in Delaware participated in the protests, taking the same risks that men did, and developing strategies to make people listen to their cause. In fact, Littleton Mitchell, Pauline Young's successor as president of the Delaware State Conference of the NAACP, has frequently acknowledged the crucial role played by Delaware women in the civil rights movement. He has credited a few of his female colleagues in particular. Dorothy Oliver of Ellendale, a day care provider by profession, served as treasurer of the NAACP and made sure the funds were there when needed. Dr. Mary C. Baker of Dover, as chairman of the education committee, represented the NAACP and the interests of minority students at State Board of Education meetings. Mitchell also credited Ruth Kolber, a white woman, of Wilmington as "A main ingredient in the NAACP."

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In Delaware, black women have always been leaders in the fight for equal rights for African Americans and in the struggle to provide health care, opportunity, and education to African American children and adults. As a result of their hard work, more opportunities became available in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and black women have also taken advantage of these new opportunities in education, politics, business, law, and in every other profession. In 1952, Golden Wilson of Wilmington began a pathbreaking career in law enforcement. She started as a school crossing guard, but Wilson wanted to be a police officer even though Wilmington had never hired a female police officer. Golden Wilson worked her way up to meter maid and eventually to the police academy. She became Wilmington's first female police officer and retired in 1977 as a sergeant. Dr. Ruth Laws was born in North Carolina and came to Delaware after she had earned a doctorate degree in education from New York University in 1936. She made a big difference in public education in her new home state. Dr. Laws taught in Wilmington for many years. She became state supervisor of Home Economics in 1966 and later State Director of Adult and Continuing Education. She also helped develop the Head Start Program in Delaware. Eventually, Dr. Laws became a Vice President at Delaware Technical and Community College. She has received many awards for her work and serves as a role model for other women in the education field.

Another role model is Dr. Hilda A. Davis. Dr. Davis also came to Delaware as an adult, after receiving her Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago. In 1965, Dr. Davis became the first African American to earn a full-time teaching job at the University of Delaware in Newark. During her years at the University of Delaware, she helped found the University Writing Center and participated in other educational and political causes.

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Many women have served the state by their official and unofficial social work with the poor, with young people, and with the elderly. Annie Brown King came to Wilmington after World War II and worked at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church to help young people find jobs and recreational outlets. In the 1970s, Delawarean Lula Mae Nix received national attention for her work counseling troubled young women. She became the first director of the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Washington, D.C. Reverend Dr. Jymmie McClinton, of the Star of Bethlehem A.U.M.P. congregation in Belvedere, founded an inmates Friends Group to deliver food and counseling to Delaware prisoners. Arva Johnson, a Wilmington native, became one of the first African American administrators in Delaware's state government, working in Urban Affairs under Governor Russell Peterson. Johnson, who graduated from Boston University and earned a master's degree from Howard University, also became the first African American to serve on the Board of Trustees at the University of Delaware. African American women have blazed a trail in politics and the law as well. Beatrice Patton Carroll, a graduate of Wilmington's Howard High School and Howard University, became interested in politics in 1960 when John F. Kennedy ran for president. Besides work in social and civic groups, she has been a frequent political campaign volunteer during the 1970s and 80s and the only female to run for Mayor of Wilmington. Reverend Grace Batten of the Mount Zion Holy Episcopal Church in Milton became interested in politics as well. She was elected to the Milton Town Council in 1982. In 1994, she became Delaware's first female black mayor. Paulette Sullivan Moore became Delaware's first black female lawyer in 1977. Judge Haile L. Alford became the first black female judge in 1992.

The Delaware State Report of 1956 showed few career opportunities outside of domestic service, teaching, and some unskilled labor jobs for African Americans, particularly for black women. By contrast, the United States Census Report for Delaware for 1990 shows only two percent of working black women engaged in the lowest-paid household service work. At the same time, the report shows African American women represented in every occupational category--from executive, managerial, office, clerical, sales, and manufacturing. To be sure, there are still specific occupations for which there were no black women listed in Delaware by 1990, including architect, firefighter, and veterinarian. Moreover, traditionally male fields remain dominated by men, and the numbers suggest that black women have greater difficulty breaking into these fields than do white women. Still, the progress made since 1956 is undeniable and encouraging. After over 250 years of history in Delaware, African American women should expect the chance to use their skills, to express their interests, and to shape their communities in visible ways.

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In large measure, the progress has come about because black women have worked to create their own opportunities. It is not possible to note all achievements of women in Delaware who have worked to bring about a truly democratic America. Many of the women noted in this essay, however, have broken race and gender barriers once thought immoveable. In doing so, they have created a better chance for the women who will follow them. It will be up to today's students to create even more opportunity for the children of tomorrow.


de Vou, Mary R., "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware," in H. Clay Reed, ed., Delaware: A History of the First State (New York: 1947), 1:349-70
Douglas, Elinor Thompson, "Growing Up at Brookwood," Delaware History 18(1978-79): 267-274

Downs, Dorothy Gardener, 101 Years of Volunteerism: Delaware State Federation of Women’s Clubs (Smyrna: 1990)

Hancock, Harold B., "Civil War Diaries of Anna M. Ferris," Delaware History 9(1960-61): 221-264


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