Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart

Vastly inferior hockessin number 107 school building
Delaware was one of the few sites, and the only site of those involved in the Brown case, to see victory in the lower courts.

The state had long maintained a mixed point of view on segregation. As a border state during the U.S. Civil War, Delaware had permitted slavery, yet did not side with the confederacy in rebellion. Later, when drafting laws regarding segregation, the state’s legislature sided with the opinions of the state’s southern traditions and enforced the separation of whites and people of color.

While less prominent that in rural communities, the city of Wilmington still segregated many public facilities and many African Americans found it extremely difficult to find work outside of the service and labor industries and it was the Wilmington chapter of the NAACP that began to coordinate an effort in and around the city to challenge the states many segregation laws. The NAACP commissioned the services of Louis Redding, Delaware’s only African American attorney at the time.

Redding had grown up in Wilmington during the height of “Jim Crow” segregation in Delaware. Employers were even allowed to refuse to hire someone simply based on their race, so most families in his African American neighborhood were poor as the “good” jobs were reserved for whites. Redding’s father, however, became one of the first Black postmen in the state, and worked a second job for a caterer so Redding and his siblings could focus on school rather than work.

Redding went to high school at Howard High, the school that would later become the center of one of the two Delaware segregation cases to be bundled with Brown. Redding later attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, one of only half a dozen or so Black men in his class at the Ivy League University. He was later accepted at Harvard Law School as the only Black student in his 1928 graduating class.

While Delaware didn’t outlaw Black attorneys explicitly, they did require prospective attorneys to be sponsored by a practicing attorney, and none had ever sponsored a Black applicant. Redding and his father were able to convince Judge Daniel Hastings to sponsor him, however, and Redding would go on to pass the bar and become the first African American attorney in Delaware.

Redding worked with the Wilmington chapter of the NAACP to find cases he felt had the highest likeliest chance to win a challenge against segregation. It was reported that Redding had even refused payment for his services on segregation cases, encouraging the NAACP chapter to instead raise funds for court costs. So it was Redding himself, that decided to take on both the Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart cases.

Even though Ethel Belton’s local high school offered courses and activities not available at her school and had plenty of space for more students, it was only available to white students. She had to travel past this school to attend the only school in the county that provided a complete high school education, Redding’s own alma mater Howard High School.

While Belton was attending Howard, classes were overcrowded, the teachers were less qualified, lacked a sufficient gymnasium, and the curriculum less substantial than her local high school. Students wanting any vocational classes had to attend the Carver Building, an annex nine blocks away, for lessons after their regular school day had ended.

Belton’s parents and several others contacted Redding through the NAACP. He recommended they petition the school board to admit their children in the nearby white schools, so they may sue when they were denied.

Meanwhile, Shirley Bulah, an eight-year-old girl from Hockessin, was not provided transportation to attend Hockessin No. 107c, two miles from her home, despite a school bus driving directly in front of her home twice a week. Her mother, Sarah, petitioned the school board, and wrote to the Department of Public Instruction and even the Governor himself to allow Shirley to ride the bus instead of walk, her letters fell on deaf ears and her petition was denied as the bus was for whites only.

Sarah approached Redding about representing her in a lawsuit against the school. Much of Sarah’s community withdrew support and even pressured her not to pursue a case, fearing the retaliation they would face from the white community would be harsh. However, the support from the Wilmington chapter of the NAACP was firm. Redding would take both the Belton and Bulah cases.

Filed in 1951, both Belton and Bulah were argued by Louis Redding, with Jack Greenburg from the NAACP assisting. Rather than attempt to achieve equalization, Redding pushed for integration of the students instead. He pointed out the inferior facilities at the Black schools compared to the whites, the lack of transportation provided for the Black schools, and the unequal curriculum available to the students. In Belton’s case, requiring additional time and travel for equivalent classes that were available during the school day in the high school in Claymont. Redding argued all these inequalities between the plaintiffs’ experience and their white neighbors violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.

“No state shall deny equal protection of the law to any person within its jurisdiction.”

The case had been heard in the Court of Chancery rather than the U.S. District Court at the request of the state. In the Chancery the two cases were consolidated into a single case Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart named for the plaintiffs and Francis Gebhart, the first name on the list of members of the State Board of Education. The case was heard without a jury before a recently appointed chancellor, Collin Seitz.

In a groundbreaking decision, Chancellor Seitz ruled that the plaintiffs were being denied equal protection of the law and ordered that the eleven children involved be immediately admitted to the white school. However, Chancellor Seitz did not rule that the state had violated the fourteenth amendment’s equal protection clause with its segregation laws, only that there was substantial inequality in these two cases.

Unhappy with the order to integrate two of its schools, the Board of Education appealed the decision. When the consolidated case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it was further consolidated alongside four others into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

African American Experience Fund

The mission of the African American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation is to preserve African American history by supporting education programs in National Parks that celebrate African American history and culture. There are 26 National Parks identified by the African American Experience Fund:

Last updated: April 11, 2024

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