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70 Years After He Was Drafted, Delaware School Honours Pioneer Black Student with Diploma

Only after being one of the first five black students to enroll at the Salesianum School, Delaware, in 1950, Fred Smith, just 18 then, had to leave school after he received a letter confirming his drafting into the Army. It meant one emphatic thing: no graduation.

Today, however, 70 years after all that time away, the Salesianum School decided to make that dream a reality by calling him back for that diploma that seemed to have never been.

(Photo: WILLIAM BRETZGER, The News Journal)

Now almost 85, Smith is still very active at work as a night security at Citibank. Being the Octogenarian he is, it has not stopped him from still trying so hard that right after his graduation on Friday, May 31, 2019, he returned to work that night.

Additionally, with the other four black students who enrolled with him in 1950 (Thomas and Alfred Connell, James Owens and Bill Jones) – four years before the Brown v. Board of Education landmark case that dismantled school segregation, the school further inducted them into the Salesianum’s Hall of Fame. He and James Owens are the only two of the five still living.

Smith was only one in the 12th Grade when he had to leave his family and friends in Delaware, as well as his classmates and teachers, to serve his country at Fort Hood, Texas and then South Carolina.

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The massive effort to desegregate public schools across the United States was a major goal of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1900s. The Salesianum Catholic School, became the first to desegregate its classrooms, allowing blacks in the school.

That was how segregation ended quietly at Salesianum after many attempts by the Rev. Thomas Lawless, the principal in 1950 who wanted to integrate the school in previous years but had been shot down by his superiors.

Joining the class of 2019 in his traditional white tuxedo, the brightly lighted face of Fred Smith glowed as he went up to receive his diploma.

Donning Salesianum’s traditional white tuxedo, he was given his diploma. Saturday, he and the four men who integrated the school were also inducted into Salesianum’s Hall of Fame. He and James Owens are the only two of the five still living.

For Smith, transferring to Salesianum was a way to get a better education. He had just graduated from St. Joseph School, and attended Howard High School for a few months.

“What do you mean, integrate?” he asked, when told he could switch schools. Why not, he thought.

“All of a sudden, you hear rumors that [parents] didn’t want black people,” Smith said. “I said, ‘I know I’m black, but how come they don’t want us there?’ I could never understand that. Why be separated in schools? We used to play ball with each other. Everybody’s human.”

(Photo: WILLIAM BRETZGER, The News Journal)

Despite the rumors, Smith walked in without a problem. He got along with his classmates and teachers, did his homework and kept busy with after-school jobs. He’d have liked to play sports, but when he wasn’t busy with school, he worked setting up pins at two bowling alleys near the school.

At 17, he joined the Navy Reserve to bring more money home. The next year, he was drafted.

Smith left the Army in 1957. He was offered a new contract, but it was time to go home. Back in Wilmington, he picked up jobs to keep his family afloat. He worked for companies like Hercules and Himont, and has been a security guard for the past 20 years.

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