Belton v. Gebhart (Bulah v. Gebhart) - Delaware
The final challenge to segregated schools in Delaware came by way of two separate cases with identical issues. One case developed in the suburb of Claymont and another in the rural community of Hockessin.
Segregated Howard High School was a continual source of frustration for African American parents in suburban Claymont. Although their community had a well maintained school in a picturesque setting with spacious facilities, African American children could not, by law, attend the Claymont school. Instead they were transported daily on a twenty mile round trip to Howard High School located in an undesirable section of Willmington. Not only was the distance an adverse factor, class size, teacher qualifications in terms of advanced degrees, and the incomplete curriculum also angered African American parents. Students interested in vocational training courses had to walk several blocks to the run-down Carver annex, regardless of the weather.
In March of 1951, eight African American parents sought legal counsel from attorney Louis Redding. At his urging these parents asked state education officials to admit their children to the local Claymont School, they were denied. Consequently, Redding agreed to take their case.
In the rural community of Hockessin, Mrs. Sarah Bulah only wanted equal opportunity for their adopted daughter, Shirley Barbara. While a bus carrying white children passed her home each day, she had to drive Shirley two miles to an old one-room schoolhouse designated for African American children. Sarah Bulah decided to share her concern with state officials, so she wrote to the Department of Public Instruction and to the Governor. Their replies reaffirmed that no bus transportation would be provided because "colored" children could not ride on a bus serving white children. Undaunted, Mrs. Bulah made an appointment with attorney Louis Redding.
In both cases attorney Redding was ready to challenge the notion of not permitting integrated schools. Both Sarah Bulah and the parents from Claymont including Ethel Belton were prepared to sue in order to change state law. Their case would name the State Board of Education as the principal defendant. The Board members were specifically charged. The first name among the members was Francis B. Gebhart. The resulting cases were called Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart.
Judge Collin Seitz, in this case ruled that the "separate but equal" doctrine had been violated and that the plaintiffs were entitled to immediate admission to the white school in their communities. Although a victory for the named plaintiffs, his decision had not dealt the sweeping blow to segregation they had hoped for. The decision did not apply broadly throughout Delaware.
The Belton and Bulah cases would ultimately join four other NAACP cases in the Supreme Court ruling in Brown.