The university says that Hugh M. Morris fought for campus desegregation — History says otherwise
UPDATE: As of 10:40 a.m., the above timeline had been removed from the Morris Library entrance.
Editor in Chief
When tour groups huddle in the Morris Library entryway, or when distinguished guests enter the Class of 1941 lecture room for conferences, they may notice a large timeline on a nearby wall, several steps away from a bust of a “prominent Wilmington Judge.” On that timeline, they will learn that Judge Hugh. M. Morris, who the library is named after, “fought for the desegregation of this campus.”
The historical record, however, much of which is obtainable in the Morris Library itself, provides no indication that Morris fought for the desegregation of this campus.
The University of Delaware was desegregated in 1950 following the case Parker v. University of Delaware, which was brought before the Delaware Court of Chancery in June of that year. Prior to this case, the university had remained exclusively white (aside from a minor accommodation for black Delaware residents interested in pursuing a graduate degree at the university, as well as those considered qualified to pursue an undergraduate major not available at Delaware State College), then legal under the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896.
The university’s historically black counterpart in Dover — Delaware State College, now Delaware State University — was considered the “separate but equal” public higher education equivalent in the state. Yet, by the late 1940s, disparities between the quality of education offered at the two schools were evident.
A report, in 1949, completed by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, found the quality of education at Delaware State College “short of acceptable standards,” and claimed that the school’s “education services were poorly articulated and coordinated.”
“The present financial resources of the college do not permit the college to meet its presently stated educational objectives,” the report stated.
The College lost its accreditation in 1949, after which a number of black undergraduate Delaware State College students sought admission to the University of Delaware to complete their degrees.
Their admission was denied.
In response to the rejections, Louis Redding — the first African American admitted to the Delaware bar, whose name appears on a residence hall on campus — came to the students’ defense. Redding, by then an active attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), began corresponding with Morris, who was at the time serving as chair of the University of Delaware’s Board of Trustees.
Redding wrote a letter to Morris on the students’ behalf, urging the Board to reconsider the rejections of the students, who were otherwise qualified for admission. In the letter, included as an exhibit in the Parker v. University of Delaware complaint, Redding notes the bases upon which the students were rejected.
Many of the students received notice that, under a 1948 ruling by the Board, they were not eligible for admission. In other cases, more minute aspects of the applications were cited in the rejection letters.
“The other two persons referred to were informed as follows: ‘You do not specify in your letter what course of study you wish to pursue,’” Redding wrote in his letter to Morris.
In his book, “Between North and South,” which concerns 20th century school desegregation in Delaware, Brett Gadsden, a history professor at Northwestern University, writes that one student, Daniel Moody, received a letter stating that he was ineligible for admission “as a colored person.”
The 1948 resolution referenced in the letter concerns a resolution passed by the Board of Trustees on January 31, 1948, which cemented the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson as a matter of university policy, allowing for the admission of “any colored resident of this state who is able to meet the established requirements for admission to the University of Delaware,” insofar as the same course of study was not offered for students by “any educational institution provided by this state.”
As seen, this policy was used as the basis for the rejection of black applicants, whose other option was an unaccredited institution.
In the same letter — addressed specifically to Morris in his capacity as “President of the Board of Trustees” — Redding detailed the nature of the students’ education at Delaware State College, pointing to the clear educational advantages that the University of Delaware possessed over Delaware State College at the time.
In the letter, Redding argued that “equal access to education of this same quality cannot constitutionally be denied to or withheld from citizens of the state solely because of their race or color.” Redding proceeded to request that each of the applicants have their applications reconsidered and properly handled. In a later letter, following Morris’ notification that he would “look into the matter,” Redding stressed the importance of moving forward in a timely fashion, as the fall semester registration deadline for the university was approaching.
In response, Morris reiterated that he was “still looking into the matter,” and that he “shall not be able to complete [his] inquiries probably before the end of the week or, perhaps, during the week thereafter.”
Morris notified the Board of Trustees of the complaint, and the Board scheduled a special meeting to address Redding’s letter. According to “the by-Laws of the University,” however, the meeting required two weeks’ notice and was scheduled for mid-February.
After the meeting, the Board, again citing the 1948 resolution, affirmed the rejections of the applicants. (In the same meeting, the Board also found the university president’s residence to be “entirely inadequate and unsatisfactory,” resolving to move the president’s residence and devote resources to its maintenance.) In response, Redding and Jack Greenberg, also an NAACP attorney, began filing a lawsuit.
The suit was heard by the Delaware Court of Chancery, with the 36-year-old Judge Collins Jacques Seitz presiding over the case.
Redding and Greenberg represented the plaintiffs — Brooks M. Parker and nine other Delaware State College students who had been denied entry to the University of Delaware — arguing that the two institutions, as state institutions, did not offer equal opportunities, and that under law, the students deserved equal access to admission to the University of Delaware.
Morris, in a letter to the Board sent shortly after the complaint was filed, stated that Albert W. James, the state’s Attorney General, ought to represent the Board.
“All of the defendants [Trustees] are sued in their official capacity; consequently, I assume that as the University of Delaware is a State Institution and the questions presented by the complaint have to do with the public policy of this State, the defendants should be represented by the Attorney General … in his official capacity,” Morris wrote. “I have already asked [James] to represent me in my official capacity as a member of the Board.”
Yet, although representing the university in its capacity as a “State Institution,” James argued the opposite in court. Responding to section 3(a) of the Parker v. University of Delaware complaint, which pointed to the university’s status as a state institution and hence its obligation to adhere to state policy, James wrote the following in the defense, denying the allegations in section 3(a):
“For further answer to said allegations, these defendants admit that certain funds for the maintenance and operation of the University of Delaware are appropriated by the General Assembly of the State of Delaware out of the public funds but deny that all or substantially all funds for the maintenance and operation of said University are derived from public moneys,” James wrote.
In effect, James argued that the university should not be treated as a state institution, even though he was defending it as one.
A three-day trial ensued, drawing upon testimony from officials at both Delaware State College and the university, mainly hinging on the quality of education — and whether it was “equal”— offered at each school.
The students also testified in court, subject to pointed questioning about their course of study at Delaware State College, as well as their rejection experiences with the University of Delaware. In one cross-examination, in which James questioned plaintiff Irving J. Williams, Williams’ qualifications were called into question. Williams’ grades, mostly average, ranged from at the highest, an A, and at lowest, an F. The trial transcript does not provide any context concerning the grades.
“Well, don’t you understand that when you are admitted to a college or a university that there is a certain minimum requirement that you must have indicated in your previous scholastic work before you are admitted?” James asked.
“Yes,” Williams replied.
“Do you know what that is at the University of Delaware?” James pressed.
“No, I don’t,” Williams responded.
In addition to hearing the testimonies, Seitz, the judge, sought to determine for himself whether the facilities were equal, visiting each institution and finding a “gross disparity” between the quality offered at each, finding Delaware State College to be at a clear disadvantage, according to Peter Irons’ book “Jim Crow’s Children.”
Although careful not to question the constitutional legality of segregation in general, upheld under the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Seitz found the segregation in this case unlawful and ordered the University of Delaware to desegregate. The university complied, although not until after the brief consideration of a further appeal, as Gadsden notes in his book.
In sum, then, it appears that Seitz, Redding, Greenberg and the students themselves, who testified in the landmark case, were responsible for the desegregation of the University of Delaware — not Morris, the chair of the Board of Trustees, whose defense sought to prevent it.
“The Morris Library administration would do well to review the story presented in their timeline, as it misrepresents the facts contained in their own archive,” Gadsden stated in an email. “More importantly, this timeline erases the memory of the courageous students who rejected their second-class citizenship and labored to desegregate and democratize the University of Delaware in ways that still resonate today.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Albert W. James as “Smith” in several attributions following the first mention of James.