Shirley Bulah rides to school on a once-segregated Delaware bus in 1954 photo
Most people don’t get the chance to contribute to the greater good on a public scale, but Assistant Professor of Finance David J. Wilk has had the opportunity to do just that with the formerly named Hockessin Colored School #107 (HCS #107) property at 4266 Mill Creek Road in Hockessin, New Castle County, Del.
The school will be redeveloped into a “Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Social Equity” after the Friends of Hockessin Colored School purchased the building from a sheriff’s sale in 2012. The group was formed that year with funding from the African American Empowerment Fund and a community fundraising effort with the goal of restoring the historic site.
The school has considerable history behind it, culminating in the 1952 court case Gebhart v. Bulah. Sarah Bulah brought the case to court, after her daughter Shirley was denied the right to ride on the same school bus which was going to the white-only Hockessin school #29, and instead had to walk to attend the Hockessin Colored School. Gebhart v. Bulah was part of four other cases combined into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision. The court’s ruling ended segregation in schools across America. Notably, the only lower court that found school segregation unconstitutional before it reached the Supreme Court was Delaware’s Court of Chancery and Supreme Court in Gebhart v. Bulah.
Wilk is the chair of the board for The Friends of HCS #107, along with other board members, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice C.J. Seitz—whose father ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Delaware Court of Chancery in 1952—Delaware State University President Tony Allen and Dr. Ray Blackwell, chief of cardiac surgery at Christiana Care Health System’s Center for Heart and Vascular Health.
The group spent many years identifying the ideal programming direction for the center.
“We wanted to make sure whatever money we spent for re-imagining the School would create an active pulse and connection to the community,” Wilk says, “so we kept asking ourselves and researching what would be most impactful to community needs.”
Wilk sees the location as the future home to public and private school education innovation, a hub for diversity training workshops, and an event and meeting space. He hopes that the center can become a location for studying the social determinants of health, park and open space, and the building will serve as an affiliate Brown v. Board National Park Service site, a commemorative of the Underground Railroad history of Hockessin, and more over the next few years of development.
“I want to dedicate the rest of my life to making sure that this place delivers value, impact and inspiration, as its history so richly deserves” he says.
The Friends of HCS #107 has recently entered into a partnership with New Castle County to become the 250th park in the County park system after signing a memorandum of understanding in August. The county pledged to contribute $172,000 to repay two outstanding property mortgages (which were used to save the School from Sheriff’s sale), maintain the building and its grounds, and pay for 75% of its operating expenses.
All of this gives Wilk one of his proudest personal achievements, one that’s legacy will continue to grow as time moves forward.
“I think this is one of the greatest blessings of my life, and that’s not hyperbole,” he says. “To be able to take a place that means so much to our history, having the privilege of learning about, and teaching all people how to be inclusive and accepting of others who are different than they are, is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever had in both my teaching and professional career.”
In today’s society, it seems all too common for people to spew hurtful opinions, language and actions towards others. The HCS #107 Center for Diversity aims to engage with all people on how to counteract that human instinct with thoughtful actions and verbal language.
“Nothing matters more than teaching people ‘the golden rule’ and just to be nice to each other, period,” Wilk says. “If we have the ability to change that human behavior pattern to create one where we are inclusive and value every single person, that’s as good as it gets.”