On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States, under the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, outlawed segregation in public schools. All children—regardless of race—were awarded equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But the court did not require desegregation by a specific time, and many towns, including Milford, were slow to adopt the ruling.
The following excerpt is taken verbatim from “The Milford Eleven,” by Orlando J. Camp and Ed Kee. It is a personal account of the struggles of 11 African-American children who were denied the educations they deserved—and, to which as American citizens, were entitled.
To obtain a copy of the book, visit cedartreebooks.com.
Living in the Wrong America
Living in the fifties as an Afro-American was not like a Norman Rockwell painting. There were two Americas, one black and one white. I lived in an all-black world in the fifties. The only contact with white America was at the local grocery store, which was owned by a white family named Jewel. My mother would send me or my brother Gordon to the Jewel Grocery Store to buy food items.
The summers in Milford, Delaware, were always hot, but never dull. As a fifteen-year-old boy I couldn’t wait for school to be out, not because school was boring, but because summer meant I had a chance to spend more time with my buddies. In a small town like Milford, I think friendships are stronger because there are a limited number of friends to choose from. Like most young boys in town, we had chores to do each day. Grama, as my brother Gordon and I called her, made sure we did our chores before we could play with our friends.
Milford during the fifties was a town where both races coexisted, but coexisted with the unwritten rules of segregation. While there was no history of open confrontation between the races, it was clear that certain lines could not be crossed. Milford was a simple place to grow up. It was a peaceful town with blacks living in one area and whites living in another. It was like living in a mythical America. Whites pretended to get along with blacks, and blacks smiled and pretended to be happy with what whites gave them. We justified the approach by telling ourselves that things could be worse, and that things were not as bad as they had been in the past.
Harvey Kenton, a white Milfordian, was in the eighth grade in 1954 and recalls very little interaction between white and black children. Name calling and even stone throwing could break out if one group lingered too long in the other’s neighborhood. These forays into alien territory were infrequent, but occasional incidents did occur. He remembers there being very little common ground for play or any other activities between the black and white children in Milford at mid-century.1
As a young African American about the same age as Harvey, however, I remember things differently. Our relationship with the white community was not as removed, especially between the guys. We knew some of the white guys around town from playing basketball, football, and baseball with them. In fact, we used to swim with them every day during the summer months in the Caulk Company reservoir, which was about thirty feet deep and very warm in August. One of the fun things we used to do with the white guys was to climb on top of the reservoir railroad tracks, which carried the local train delivering goods to the town. As it slowed down, we used to climb on top of the freight car, and when it reached the reservoir area, we would dive off the top of the car, down twenty feet, plunging into the reservoir water. Ronnie Vann and I were the only two who had the nerve to do this. Charlie Fleming, Eugene Harris (Mouse), and my brother Gordon would watch. We also used to play water tag with the white guys with no racial tension.
One of the white guys who used to swim with us was Perry White, a neighbor who lived on the street behind our house. He had two sisters, Shirley and Dorothy. We were very good friends. My brother Gordon many years later still tells a story about when he was in the Marines.2 He was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard at the front gate, doing his duty as a military policeman, when one night a guy came up to the front gate to check in and gave his papers to Gordon for review. It was Perry White, now a sergeant, and Gordon was a corporal. They were very surprised and glad to see each other. In fact, they hung out in the Brooklyn area until Perry’s transfer to his new duty station months later.
On Saturday afternoons in Milford, we would get dressed after swimming in the reservoir in the morning, and together, white and black, go to the Shore Theater for the Saturday afternoon matinee. The matinee cost a quarter and you could see two features, several cartoons, and get popcorn.
The only distinction in the theaters was that the white guys would go downstairs, while we went up in the balcony to watch the movies. There were no signs that read “Colored Only,” but we knew that was the way it was. On Sunday nights, we would go to the Scheme Theater, and the same unwritten rules would apply: whites downstairs and blacks upstairs. We used to have fun watching the white lovers who were allowed to come upstairs and go in the back of the balcony to what we called Necking Row. For our own amusement, we would throw popcorn down on the white kids downstairs, or spy on the lovers and laugh at how corny it looked seeing white couples making out. It was interesting because the white couples never feared or demonstrated any kind of discomfort being in an all-black section of the theater. My guess is that they thought the blacks wouldn’t tell anybody. Who would we tell?
Yes, there were times when an occasional fight would break out. In fact, I remember one Halloween when a group of white boys rode through the colored section of town, probably loaded on beer, hollering out of the window, “Hey, niggers.” Unfortunately for them, their car stalled. We grabbed them and started fighting. But fighting in the fifties could be considered civilized compared to today. There were no guns, maybe a knife, but no serious weapons. It was just an old-fashioned fist fight. They started to run when they saw we had more guys than they did. I remember we were punching them when my mother came up and pulled me off of one of the white boys. When the fight was over, the hate was over. Nobody appeared to have any grudges about what happened on either side. These were typical teenage guys, dealing with their testosterone surges.
We used to hang out at the local Flying A gas station, where one of the white guys worked. We used to stand around listening to them talk about cars; as younger boys, we were fascinated by the car talk, and the noise of their loud glass Pac mufflers, which was the cool thing to have in the fifties. While they sounded cool, they were illegal. If the cops caught you with glass Pac, they made you take it off your car.
We understood the unwritten rules of segregation. We grew up with it, we lived it. If they treated us OK, we treated them OK. We realized that it didn’t cost them anything to be nice to us. The white kids could be friendly with us because they didn’t risk anything. We learned from our black parents, neighbors, and friends what we could do and what we couldn’t do.
There were several white establishments that were friendly to blacks, and these were the whites who cared more about green than black. One friendly place was a Greek restaurant called Nick’s Place on Walnut Street that would serve blacks. We could walk in and order cheeseburgers and fries without any discomfort or fear from being there. I remember the first day I walked in when I was thirteen or so. Nick, the owner, said, “Come on in. Have a seat,” as if he knew and understood what minorities were going through. In fact, I sensed that he had experienced discrimination as a Greek immigrant in his new land, and therefore empathized with us.
Milford was beginning to change, because the younger white generation was friendlier, more open than the older folks. Old white folks would call us “boy,” never call us by our names, and the young white guys would always use our names. But we knew that just below the surface of friendliness with white guys, there was a line that could not be crossed.
Across the world, 1954 was marked by the first appearances of personalities who were destined to capture and dominate our attention for the next two decades. In a little country called Vietnam, native forces lead by Ho Chi Minh and his brilliant general Vo Ngyuen Giap defeated occupying French forces at Dien Bien Phu.
Further west, the Shah of Iran was restored to his throne with the help of the American CIA. In England, the four-minute mile was shattered by English track star Dr. Roger Bannister.
In the United States, the power of television was illustrated by the new medium’s role in the rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In Hollywood, Marlon Brando was named Best Actor for his work in “On the Waterfront,” and Grace Kelly Best Actress for “The Country Girl.” In 1954, Bruce Catton won the Pulitzer Prize for “A Stillness at Appomattox.” Linus C. Pauling won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Dwight Eisenhower was president; Richard Nixon was vice-president. Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were young U.S. senators. Gerald Ford was in the House of Representatives. Jimmy Carter, with the death of his father, had returned to Plains, Georgia, to run his family’s farming and peanut business. Ronald Reagan was the spokesman for General Electric and hosted The General Electric Theatre. George W. Bush was an eight-year-old in Midland, Texas, and Bill Clinton was an eight-year-old in Hope, Arkansas.
Some black Americans were also making a mark in 1954. Charles S. Mahoney was named the first black to be a full-time member of the United States delegation to the United Nations. Marian Anderson sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Willie Mays hit .345, led the New York Giants to a World Series victory, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the National League. Willie Mays was twenty-three years old. A young black preacher from Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., accepted the call at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King was twenty-five years old.
While locked in a cold war with the Soviet Union, the United States found itself vulnerable to the Communist charge that America was a deeply racist society, that a separate nation of black Americans—a nation within a nation—existed, which did not enjoy the full benefits of American society. Indeed, “full protection under the law” as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, was denied to most black Americans. But there were indications after World War II that the racial status quo would be challenged. By 1954, five cases challenging school segregation were consolidated before the Supreme Court. Southerners predicted bloodshed and violence if the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. But other Americans felt that removing racial segregation in public schools would be an affirmation of democracy, a triumphant answer to the Communist charges of racism. In short, ending racial segregation would show that the United States was now a truly democratic nation.
The year 1954 was remarkable for our community as well. One of the most significant events of that year was the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated public education to be unconstitutional. In Milford, Delaware, I was one of eleven African American tenth-graders who would be among the first direct beneficiaries of the Brown v. Board decision and also the first victims of white massive resistance to the decision. These young and unknowing pioneers: Kenneth Baynard, Leo Blue, Charles Fleming, Jr., Eugene Harris, Irene Pettyjohn, Lillian Simmons, Madalene Staten, Annie Ruth Thompson, Edna Turner, Ronald Vann and I would serve as the initial focal point of a national debate on race and education that would endure for decades. Fifty years later, the nation still struggles with race and education. Milford, the scene of the first struggle, took fifty years to acknowledge the historic attempt to integrate and to recognize those students who crossed the barriers of Jim Crow education.
In 1954, Doug Gibson, who was starting his second year of teaching math and woodshop at Benjamin Banneker Junior High, said there were no racial problems as long as black folks stayed in their place.3 Doug was tall, distinguished, and a “dapper” dresser whom we all looked up to because he was a black man who spoke his mind and wore those fancy bow ties when most black men didn’t even wear neckties. He cared about the young black students, and he knew what it would take for them to have a chance to get an education.
As Doug talked to many blacks in the neighborhood, one-third of them told him they did not want integration.4 They felt that if blacks were integrated with white students, many black families would lose their job because of white backlash. Many blacks agreed with this idea. Most blacks worked for white families, white farmers, and white manufacturing. Throughout the early 1950s, the classified ads in the Wilmington Morning News asked for “Colored Woman” or “Colored Man” for domestic or kitchen service jobs. Clearly, this was the kind of work that blacks were expected to do.5 Because of this, many black maids acted as spokespersons for the black community. White homeowners would ask the colored maid how she felt about the rumors of integration. They would say they didn’t like it out of fear of losing their job, but in the privacy of their own home they would encourage their children to study hard because they did not want their children to go through what they went through. Jobs in the fifties for African Americans were limited to a few trades—truck driving, shoe repair, farming, domestic work, and factory work. If you had a college education, you could teach in a colored school.
Although Doug Gibson was a local school teacher and had a college education, he, too, felt the sting of segregation. As a young man he worked as a bartender in a local country club. The white members knew and liked Doug and, after a few years of building a good rapport with the white members, he tried to join the country club and was told that his application was rejected without reason. He quit the bartending job and wondered how long would it be before a black man who was able to meet the financial requirements and rules of any country club would have an equal chance to enjoy the pleasures of socializing on the golf course or tennis courts or just entertaining friends and family without regard to race.
Whites in the fifties treated blacks with a degree of a paternalistic attitude. This was easy to do because it did not cost the white community anything to be nice to blacks. Whites gave up nothing to be nice to blacks. In fact, they gained some self-satisfaction from trying to help blacks, although in perhaps a superficial way, which helped lessen racial guilt.
My family was not unlike most black families in the fifties. My great-grandmother Gertrude Ross, better known to her family and friends as Aunt Gertie, came up from Caroline County, Maryland, in the early part of the 1900s to live in the Slaughter Neck, Ellendale region just south of Milford. Her brothers, Jim Ross and Enos Ross, moved to Lincoln to work on a farm and later sharecropped with local white farmers.
Enos’s father was the son of a white slave owner. He was a very light-skinned man about six foot five with gray, wavy, curly hair. When I was a young boy my uncles were older and semi-retired. Uncle Enos had a small huckster business selling butter, eggs, chickens, and corn. We would get our butter in a six-quart bucket and our ears of corn in a barrel knapsack. This was the way the minority community survived the low income status of the African American community in the fifties.
My Uncle Jim Ross was a tall, dark-skinned man about six foot six. Uncle Enos and Uncle Jim eventually owned their own sizeable farms in Lincoln and Slaughter Neck, Delaware after many years of hard work sharecropping. Although my uncles had different fathers, no one talked about the fact that one was fathered by a white farmer. What was there to say? Rape or consensual sex by a white farmer with black women made little difference in the fifties. We never really knew what happened; we just never talked about it.
Aunt Gertie was called that by everyone in the colored community. It appeared to me that everyone back then was related to one another. I had so many aunts and uncles that I thought we were one of the biggest families in Milford. At one time I had, so they tell me, five grandmothers at the same time. Of course I was just a baby so I don’t remember them at all.
One of my cousins, whom everyone called Grand Pop Ross, my uncles Enos and Jim and my grandmother Gertrude were some of the founders of the Bethel A.M.E. Church of Milford, Delaware.
My cousin, Grand Pop Ross, had a farm in Ellendale, Delaware, where he grew produce of all kinds. He helped to pay the black teachers’ salaries by giving them produce so that they could feed their families for free. This was one of the many ways the colored community was able to make ends meet.
Gertrude Ross was looking for a better life than the one she had in southern Maryland in the late 1880s. Back in those days, the only work that was available to uneducated colored women was farming, plant work and domestic work. They sometimes sharecropped a farm for a white landowner. My grandmother would tell me and my brother Gordon stories of working from “Can’t to Can’t.” That means you work from when you can’t see in the morning to until you can’t see at night. It was hard work, but it was all they had. When she got married to Buddy Powell they moved to Milford, and Grandma took a job as domestic housekeeper for the most prominent family in Milford, the Grier family, who owned the L. D. Caulk Company, the town’s largest employer. She had three daughters and two sons, Laura called “Doll,” Mabel, Louise, Buddy, and Jimmy. Laura was my grandmother. Louise was my aunt who at sixteen moved to Atlantic City and worked for a family named Blankfield who owned a large appliance store for over fifty years. Mabel passed away at the age of sixteen after swimming and catching pneumonia. Laura married a traveling preacher named Rev. L. Thomas and had a child, who was named Gertrude after my great-grandmother. This was my mother. Mom married Joseph Camp and had two sons, me and my brother Gordon. Gordon played a role with me in the Milford integration story.
Due to the lack of employment opportunities in Milford, my grandmother Doll moved to Philadelphia when she was a young girl and was a seamstress for a textile company there. She also made beautiful handmade flowers out of crepe paper as a hobby. The flowers looked so real; she made them into beautiful bouquets of roses, mums, lilies, daffodils and many other flowers that I loved but didn’t know their names. She was proud of her flowers because it didn’t matter what color your skin was, everybody loved her flowers. Our home was always filled with beautiful flowers which were on display for potential customers to see. She lived at 1231 South 17th Street in Philadelphia. It was a modest row house from the 1920s or 1930s. My mother went to Girls High in 1927 in Philadelphia, which was integrated. There is irony in Mom going to an integrated school when twenty years later her sons would go to a segregated school in Delaware. The sheer coincidence of where a family needed to live created this irony.
Mom met my father, Joe Camp, who was a taxi driver and one of the managers of the Morton Pennsylvania Republican Club in the seventies. As manager of the club, and through his contacts in the Philadelphia area, he was able to book local bands and artists such as Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Gladys Knight and the Pips and other now famous groups. One of my favorite events was their annual fashion show called “One Step Beyond.” It was a fashion show of all men—gay men who looked just like women. They wore the latest fashions and you couldn’t tell most of them from women. But there were a few that were so funny because their hands and feet were so big and their beards still had those five o’clock shadows.
My mother and father moved to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, to live with his father and mother, Robert and Mildred Camp. Robert, who we called Pop-Pop, worked as a chauffeur for the Geer Family for approximately fifty years. Mildred, or Mom-Mom as we called her, was a devoted housewife. They had a profound influence on our lives; they taught me, my brother Gordon, and my cousin Lois Williams, who was my father’s sister’s child. The three of us used to hang out together. Lois had the cute shape that the boys just drooled over. When she came to Milford with our father from Darby, Pennsylvania, the Milford boys would go wild. All the boys wanted to know how long she was going to be in town and who she was. When we told them that she was our cousin, we had a house full of guys trying to talk to her. But she was too quick for them. She had heard all of the pick-up lines from the Philadelphia-area boys. She went to an integrated school and worked in Philadelphia at the Military Signal Corps division. She knew Milford boys would not be a challenge for her.”6
My grandfather drove for the Geers, a prosperous and prominent family; this was a prestigious position for a man of color in the forties and fifties. The Geers made their money in real estate and banking.
Pop-Pop taught us to show our intelligence and to not be intimidated by any white person. He was also one of the cleanest people I have ever met. When we finished eating dinner we would take turns washing the dishes. I used to hate to eat because when you washed dishes you had to pass his dish inspection. He would hold a glass up to the light, and if there were any water spots on the glass, you had to wash all of the glasses again. You could be in that kitchen for hours. After dinner, we use to watch “Gunsmoke” on television. Pop-Pop used to make me read the credits at the end of the show at the bottom of the television set to help me learn how to pronounce the difficult names on the show. After a while, I could pronounce all of the names on the show without making a mistake. There used to be a saying that if you came from lower Delaware, you came from slower Delaware. Pop-Pop disproved this with everything he did.
My brother Gordon and I were born in Philadelphia at the Mercy Douglas Hospital, where black healthcare was provided for mostly colored patients.
Philadelphia was integrated in the public schools, but segregated when it came to healthcare and hospitals. My brother and I grew up living in two worlds. We went to school in Swarthmore until I was in the fifth grade. We stayed with our grandparents, Robert and Mildred Camp, as a family until I was in the fifth grade and Gordon was in the third grade. At that time, Mom separated from and divorced Dad and moved back to Milford with her mother, Laura Thomas, and great-grandmother, Gertrude Powell, and her husband, Buddy Powell. Grandma later re-married and became Gertrude Dickerson. In Milford we lived in a charming all-white frame house in an all-white neighborhood.
We loved living with our great-grandmother at 7 Maple Avenue. Living with three generations of personalities was a great learning experience. Our great-grandmother was a faith healer at Bethel A. M. E. Church. I am not a total believer in putting hands on people and making them well, but I have seen her lay her hands on people, both black and white, and they claim they were healed. She made extra money and was always getting beautiful gifts from her believers. I remember big limousines pulling up in front of the house, and white ladies would smile at me and go inside, and Grandma would close the door to the parlor. An hour later, the white ladies would come out smiling and appeared to be happy. There must have been something to faith healing because these ladies—very few of them were men—would bring the most beautiful gifts: clothes, turkeys at holiday time, and impressive amounts of cash. Sometimes they gave me a dollar for school as payment for helping them heal or feel better.
I never doubted my grandma’s faith in God. Grandma insisted that Gordon and I read a Bible verse every night. We would always look for the shortest Bible verse to read out loud. But Grandma soon got wise to us and started to assign the verses. She also continued to make the beautiful flowers out of crepe paper in Milford, and she sold them to many of the people who came to the house for healing as well as for weddings and social occasions, just like she did in Philadelphia. Grandma worked for over fifty years as a housekeeper for the Griers and we lived only three blocks from their home. There were only two families that lived on Maple Avenue.
Mom worked for the Abers and Coopersmiths, who owned Coopersmiths, a department store for ladies. Mom worked as a fitting room attendant and a housekeeper for the family. Their home was one block from Milford High School, the all-white school that later became the scene of the integration crisis in 1954. My mother loved poetry, and she wrote beautiful poems that were lost over the years. I recently discovered that she wrote a play called “An Imaginary Trip.” Unfortunately the text for the play was lost. She was recognized at Girls High in Philadelphia for her poetry. She was an avid reader and she spoke and corresponded in French. Her passion was to be a writer. Today, as I am unexpectedly attempting to write an account of the times and events that followed integration, I think she would be proud and surprised at my attempt, not as a writer, but for telling the story of what happened to me and the ten other students who faced the challenge together.
We lived next to a stream which flowed into Silver Lake. I enjoyed my green and red canoe, which could seat four guys comfortably. A couple of times I took Grandma and Doll for a ride. I can see Grandma now with her big straw hat, and Doll with her sunglasses—the kind you snap on. They were scared at first, but once they saw that I knew what I was doing, they enjoyed the ride. They would point out the different kinds of fish they saw in the water.
We rowed my canoe all over Silver Lake. It was especially beautiful at sundown and early in the morning. We would cruise the lake with my brother and friends Ronnie Vann, Charles Fleming, Mouse (whose real name is Eugene Harris) and Leo Blue. It was an idyllic setting, even for African American kids living in a segregated town. We did not feel the sting of racism; we enjoyed all of the same pleasures as the white kids, including the tranquility of a small town.
The summer of 1954 was one of the happiest times of our lives. I was graduating from junior high school, a major milestone for a fifteen-year-old. We passed the time away that summer by playing basketball, baseball, swimming, and watching the older guys work on their cars. We thought they were so cool because they called their cars Hot Rods. Most of the Hot Rods were owned by the white boys. We hung out at the local gas station at night while they worked on their cars putting on dual exhaust systems, dual carburetors, and white-wall tires, etc. Remember white-wall tires? In June of that year, when my classmates and I graduated from the ninth grade at Benjamin Banneker School, we could not have imagined that within four months we would be making history by attending the all-white Milford High School.
Chapter 1—Living in the Wrong America
1. Interview with Harvey Kenton,
December 30, 1993
2. Interview with Gordon Camp,
September 6, 2005
3. Interview with Doug Gibson,
August 18, 2005
5. Wilmington Morning News,
August 28, 1951, 44.
6. Interview with Lois Williams,
November 12, 2005.