After the Riots: 50 Years Later, Have We Learned Anything?

Fifty years since citizens of Wilmington reacted angrily to the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s past time to evaluate what we have learned and how far we have come.

Also by John Sweeney: “Who Will Save Us?

The world remembers 1968 as the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Wilmington, however, remembers 1968 as the year of the riot and, worse, the nine-month military occupation that followed.

Fifty years later, memories linger of armed white National Guard soldiers patrolling black neighborhoods months after the streets were calm and the mayor pleaded with the governor to end the occupation. Before 1968 was out, NBC’s top-rated Huntley-Brinkley news show featured Wilmington as some kind of national oddity, with citizens going about their everyday lives while M1-toting guardsmen eyed them suspiciously. National jokes and ridicule followed close behind.

It was an unforgettable and embarrassing “only in Delaware” moment. Historians and witnesses of the riot and occupation are still debating why Gov. Charles Terry refused to remove the Guard when the rioting stopped. Governors in every other state where riots broke out pulled the National Guard from the streets hours after things quieted. Wilmington had to wait until a new governor was elected more than nine months later. The riot and occupation are looked upon as a nasty watershed moment in the city’s history.

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But 1968 and the years that immediately followed saw the emergence of trends that would harm Wilmington far more than National Guard patrols.

Few people noticed at the time. We notice now. Fifty years later we’re living with the consequences of those trends. The question is whether we have learned anything in those five decades.

First, go back to 1968. Delaware’s portion of Interstate 95 was finished that year. Out-of-staters could zip all the way through Delaware without stopping. But Wilmington workers also could easily drive to the suburbs each night, leaving their jobs and their old neighbors behind in the city. Cars began undermining the local shops that had served neighborhoods for generations as suburban strip malls lured away business. Downtown suffered, too. Local department stores lost out to chains built for suburbs. Even the city’s infrastructure damaged the community. I-95 ripped through several west side neighborhoods—neighborhoods with churches and schools and a strong sense of community. The decades-long trend of suburbanization, prompted by federal mortgage subsidies, accelerated. More of the city’s tax base drained away.

Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

White middle-class and working-class neighborhoods soon became black middle-class and working-class neighborhoods. Jobs soon followed the people out to the suburbs and, as globalization closed in on America, factories began closing. Industries shipped production overseas. Automation lines replaced workers or consolidated functions in far-off offices.

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Wilmington’s population dropped. Affordable housing outside the city lowered the value of city neighborhoods. People with lower incomes moved in. Poverty inevitably took hold in what were once thriving neighborhoods.

It took decades, but it was a complete transition. It is a cycle familiar to every small city across America. The challenge is to find a way to break that cycle.

In the 50 years since the riot, laws have been passed and money has been spent trying to undo the harm of that occupation and the preceding generations of legal and illegal racism that shaped the relationships between the whites and blacks living in Wilmington. Even a casual look at today’s problems—violence, drugs, unemployment, troubled schools—shows that those efforts have not been successful.

Did we learn anything from them? We asked more than two dozen experts. Here are three lessons that Wilmington and Delaware learned the hard way.

Schooling is hard

This sounds simple, but it isn’t, as repeated efforts at school reform have shown. Worse, schooling is crucial. If it fails, crime can flourish and jobs can disappear.

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Our experts said Delaware’s biggest failure over the past 50 years has been education. It is Delaware’s failure because the issue was largely taken out of Wilmington’s hands by the federal courts and the state legislature.

“Fifty years ago, the Wilmington school system was in better shape,” says Hanifa Shabazz, president of Wilmington City Council. “Children were walking to school. Kids could take part in extracurricular activities. They didn’t have to catch a bus right away to go home.

“They could take part in sports,” she adds. “High school sports help build a community. There was so much more community engagement back then. There were teachers who left an impact on their students.

“Desegregation was supposed to fix it,” she says. “It didn’t.”

By desegregation, she means the court-ordered busing and consolidation of school districts in northern New Castle County. In 1968 Wilmington had its own school district, but it and several other districts were combined into one large district a few years later. That district then was divided into four, each of which served a portion of Wilmington’s students. This meant students riding buses into and out of the city. Legislators representing white suburban communities waged an unrelenting guerrilla war against busing. Today Wilmington students are still bused to suburban schools. More important for many city residents, Wilmington no longer has its own traditional high school. The neighborhood school, the kind that becomes a family tradition, is gone.

That, and the failure to lift Wilmington’s students despite rhetoric, promises and lawsuits, has been noticed.

“Why can’t we get education right?” says Theo Gregory, who spent 32 years on city council. “When we needed more skills like plumbing and carpentry, we created the vocational schools. When we needed more training in nursing and medical technicians, we created Delaware Tech. If you can fix those problems, why can’t you fix Wilmington’s schools?”

Dan Rich is a University of Delaware professor. He has spent the past several years as a member of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, a group looking for ways to decrease the inequities facing poor Wilmington students.

“As soon as the desegregation order went into effect,” Rich says, “the state started working to undo it. And it has been working toward that goal ever since.

“Wilmington has no traditional high school,” Rich says. “It is as if we hollowed out the city.

“Wilmington schools are fragmented. There are 11,500 public school students, but 23 separate units, not counting the state department of education and the state school board, govern them.

“And none of this governance involved the city of Wilmington.”

The failure has to do with more than just governance, Rich and other experts say. Poor Wilmington students are at the bottom of the pile. They suffer in a number of ways. They start out behind, and the quality of the schools keep them there.

“We did not have a full definition of desegregation.” says Bebe Coker, a civil rights activist and a longtime advocate for better schools. “All that meant to this community was that there had to be diverse children sitting in those seats. This was not thought through.

“What black children needed back then were proper learning resources and effective teachers,” she says. “Back then black teachers and schools were not supported. They did not have the needed financial backing. Even the paint on the wall was not the same. We were begging for new equipment.

“Then, when they made the decision to transport the children, all of a sudden this money was available,” Coker says.

Leo Strine is chief justice of Delaware’s Supreme Court. He has spoken out frequently about disparities in the state’s school system.

“In 1968, there was minority control of schools, but segregation. Today, it is the worst of both worlds—no control and no desegregation,” he says.

“Ask anyone from out of state how many school districts would a state like Delaware have,” Strine says. “No one in his right mind would guess 22.

“What would be hard about putting in a bill to have three New Castle County school districts, one in Kent, two in Sussex and one Vo-Tech district? It requires putting people we serve first.

“The challenge is putting the first-step solutions on the table.”

Neighborhoods are important

Paul Calistro asks two questions about a city. The first is: Where does the pizza driver deliver? The second is: How many cranes can you count?

The answer to the first question tells you which neighborhoods are safe. If the pizza driver won’t deliver there, it is not a safe neighborhood. The answer to the second question tells you about how vital the city is. Cities must be constantly rebuilding. Construction cranes are a good indicator of economic health.

Calistro is executive director of the West End Neighborhood House. To him, neighborhoods are important. They make a city thrive. Neighborhoods should have names and identities. That is what builds communities. That in turn makes cities safer.

Sometimes the government destroys communities—which is what happened when the federal highway system built I-95 between Adams and Jackson streets in the western part of the city. The federal government was as destructive with its “urban renewal” project on Poplar Street near the train station in the 1950s. Houses were destroyed as part of a grand “slum clearance” scheme. But a community was destroyed as well.

Jim Baker, three times Wilmington’s mayor, said in an oral history of the riot, published by the Delaware Heritage Commission, that these actions decimated the city.

“The riots had an absolutely devastating negative impact on the city,” Baker said in the history. “I-95 had a devastating negative impact on the city. Urban renewal had a devastating impact upon the city. So take those things together, and, literally, you tore your city apart.”

Former University of Delaware professor Carol E. Hoffecker came to a similar conclusion in her history, “Corporate Capital: Wilmington in the Twentieth Century.” She wrote, “Yet these programs have been strongly criticized by students of city life, because they tore down more than they built up, left slum dwellers with poorer housing than before, destroyed old neighborhoods, and further encouraged the multiplication at the urban heart of the cities’ worst enemy, the automobile.”

Alan Mallach worries about what he calls the middle neighborhoods. It is his job. Mallach studies neighborhoods for a living. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C.

Middle neighborhoods are the older communities that for generations housed working-class families. “These neighborhoods were all built for couples to move into and raise their kids and then stay in them for the rest of their lives,” Mallach says. “In many cases, they worked nearby. The houses were built near factories, train yards or the docks. They had convenience stores interspersed with the houses and were crisscrossed periodically by larger streets that offered shops.

“For the most part kids walked to neighborhood schools. Many of them went to Catholic or parochial schools. The parishes divided cities, often along white ethnic lines.”

In Wilmington, Philadelphia and Baltimore, they are the rowhouse neighborhoods. They are old. Most of them were built starting right after the Civil War into the 1960s. Middle-level neighborhoods were widespread in the 1970s. “They are greatly diminished now,” he says.

Mallach says that not only did the jobs and the shops disappear, but the neighborhoods were built for married couples. In many cities today, he says, most of these households are headed by single mothers. Their income tends to be low—so low, in fact, that if something goes wrong, and Mallach says, something always goes wrong if you are poor—the family can quickly end up in crisis.

Keep in mind, Mallach says, that many of these houses are more than 50 years old. Something can easily go wrong with a furnace, a roof or the plumbing. A low-income single mother is unlikely to be able to keep up the repairs. If the family is renting, the landlord is likely to be slow in maintaining the property. Two or three troubled houses on a block pulls down the whole block. Then the troubles of that block can spread to the next, and then the next. Then the drugs and the violence arrive.

Mayor Mike Purzycki sees the problem.

“The sin of the city—no, the sin of state,” he says, “has been its neglect of the poorest neighborhoods. You won’t believe the conditions some people are living in. We should be ashamed.”

The Purzycki administration picked the West Center City neighborhood to address.

Why West Center City? “Reason number one,” Purzycki says, “we need to focus. In the past, we tried to do everything. If we got a million dollars, we’d spend $50,000 here, $50,000 there. Nothing would last. To get something done, we need to focus.

“We pick up trash twice a week,” he says. “We’re not allowing the trash or debris to pile up. Police are doing their job. People are used to seeing young men standing on corners. That is much improved now.

“We have conducted 300 rental inspections. Most fail. We re-inspect and then fail again. Three failures, and we start fining or moving to close down.

“We are trying to add a remote health facility, and we will encourage residents to use it. Many residents skip health services. That’s risking their health.

“We’re doing simple things too,” he says, “like painting the crosswalks and replacing stop signs. We’re buying houses at sheriff’s sales. We’re working with the Land Bank and helping people. The next step is we are going to try to get people to buy homes. We have to help people learn about mortgages.

“People in the neighborhood understand what we are doing,” he says. “And it will work.”

Nobody expects globalization

Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

Even with all of 1968’s civil unrest and worries about the Vietnam War, most Delawareans felt confident about the future. People were working. Families were buying houses. Teenagers were gobbling up consumer goods, like the new stereo “long play” vinyl records.

But something important was about to happen that few people noticed at the time: America stopped growing.

The long, wild climb of the America economy was coming to an end. A few years ago historian Robert J. Gordon, combing through decades of economic data, found that growth—the kind that makes life easier—tailed off around 1970. Look at inventions, he says. They did not stop in 1970. They just became less important.

We take a lot of those really important inventions for granted now. But think of how indoor plumbing changed the way we live and how we do business, let alone how it affected public health. Compared to that basic improvement, the latest multi-head shower is nothing. Likewise, I-95 brought dramatic changes to Delaware. But it is already built. What good would another I-95 do?

Added to that natural slowing of growth came two other disruptions that would hit Wilmington and the rest of America hard: globalization and automation.

Globalization was the hardest to recognize. At what point did DuPont stop being a Wilmington company? A Delaware company? Even an American company? DuPont, like all of the other international businesses, has to compete on a global scale. Like all other businesses, it has to go where the customer is and it has to vie with competitors on product and price. Innovations like the container cars carrying goods enabled the product supply chain to spread across the globe. So today, automobiles are assembled in one place but with parts from a dozen countries—countries where labor is less expensive. The local impact? No more jobs at the Newark Chrysler plant or the GM Boxwood Road assembly.

Automation was the next job killer. Printers, for example, were once highly paid skilled workers, members of a proud craft that reached back centuries. Automation drastically reduced their numbers. Even at auto plants, much of the work is now done by robots or by workers who know how to operate robots. Hospitals were able to outsource radiology work to India and call centers operate from the Philippines, combining both globalization and automation.

Former Gov. Jack Markell is close to obsession on this point. Since leaving office last year, he has served on three national panels on developing the country’s workforce.

“As a result of globalization, employers have more choices than they’ve ever had before about where to hire,” Markell says. “As a result of technology and artificial intelligence, they need relatively fewer employees. One CEO of a company based in California—but with hundreds of employees in Delaware—told me that across his company, they will have 35 percent fewer employees in five years because the artificial intelligence is getting so powerful so quickly.”

The jobs that will exist will require great worker skills.

“The most frustrating conversation a governor can have is with an employer who says, ‘I have dozens of vacancies but I can’t find people with the right skills,’” Markell says. “On the same day, I could have had multiple conversations with individuals who tell me that they would like to work but nobody will give them a chance.

“During my time as governor, I visited 2,500 employers. I asked one simple question—what can I do that will facilitate your success?—under the theory that if they’re more successful, they’re more likely to hire more Delawareans, and that’s the single best way to address the wide variety of issues so many people face. Ninety-five percent of the time, they told me that I should do whatever I could to make sure they could hire a skilled workforce. That’s why we brought the Pathways to Prosperity program to Delaware, and it’s expanded from 27 students to 9,000 in just five years.”

Purzycki sees the same challenge.

“You have to look at workforce readiness,” he says. “Businesses look at an area’s high unemployment, the long-term rate, not just the lack of opportunity because of layoffs or plant closings. A prison record or short work history works against a community.

“We have to figure out how to get people working. We need to think in terms of 300 to 400 people getting jobs. That would change the rhythm of a community.”

Robert Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable, sees a part for business.

“More than anything, businesses hate surprises,” Perkins says. “They far prefer an environment they can rely on to be receptive to their growth and employment needs. In that spirit, Delaware lawmakers need to take a long-term approach to the way state finances are handled.

“That means taking a hard look at revenue sources and making changes to ensure that they are sustainable and will keep pace with economic growth,” Perkins says. “But it also means imposing spending discipline in Dover to not only restrict spending to expected revenues, but to ensure that spending does not balloon in one year versus the next because of an unexpected, one-time surge in revenues. We will be unable to attract businesses and jobs to Delaware if the state has a fiscal crisis each year.”

Wilmington is home to a growing base on which to build a vibrant entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. According to one statistical index that measures the innovative inputs/capacity and outputs of an economy, Delaware compares well to surrounding states and the United States as a whole. Creating, for example, a distinct ‘innovation district’ in the city would help to more quickly establish Wilmington as the home of future jobs.

“In addition, a more robust connection with higher education is essential,” Perkins adds. “Higher education must become the long-term driving force of the state’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem, and that will require a greater commitment of resources from state, federal and private sources.”

Bebe Coker knows what the bottom line for the economy is. “If we are really serious about economic growth,” she says, “we have to be serious about improving education.” 

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