Next year, when the
Delaware Historical Society commemorates the 50th anniversary of the
Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the civil unrest that
followed, a group of high school students will be ready to offer
insights from the community about that difficult time.
In a partnership that included the University of Delaware and the
state’s first Freedom School, the society’s Jane and Littleton Mitchell
Center for African American Heritage this year piloted the Freedom
School History Scholars Summer Program.
Over seven weeks this summer, 14 high school students learned how to
do historical research, conduct oral history interviews and create
museum interpretations for use in the Mitchell Center exhibition titled
They studied at the Freedom School — a literacy and
advocacy program — part of each day and then conducted research and
interviews at the Delaware History Museum with the assistance of museum
staff members and UD English education and graduate students.
“These high school students chose the 1968 project as their service
project for the summer,” said Melva L. Ware, an adjunct faculty member
in the School of Public Policy and Administration who oversaw UD’s role
in the project. “It was a great learning experience for them and a real
opportunity for the University of Delaware to take part in a
collaborative community effort led by the Historical Society.”
Decades before this summer’s Freedom School History Scholars were
born, Wilmington was torn by several days of violence in 1968. National
Guard troops were mobilized to patrol the city for the next nine months —
the longest military occupation of any U.S. city since the Civil War —
despite calls from residents and city political, religious and business
leaders for the governor, Charles L. Terry, to withdraw the troops.
The three UD undergraduates, all prospective English teachers, were
recruited and trained by Deborah Bieler, associate professor of English.
They worked with the younger scholars and said the experience taught
them a lot about engaging students in learning and also about the civil
rights movement and Wilmington’s history.
“I believe that the key take-away from this … directly stems from the
interviews that students have conducted with members of the Wilmington
community,” said Shanna Abram, a UD senior majoring in English
education. “In addition to historical research, we have been able to
learn powerful stories that we want to share with others.”
The high school students interviewed community members who lived
through the events of 1968, many of whom came to the museum to speak to
the scholars as a group. In addition, Ware said, some informally
interviewed family members who remembered the riots and their aftermath
but perhaps had never before talked to the teenagers about that
“The project is very student focused, and we’re learning side by side
with them,” said Rebecca Robbins, also a senior English education
student at UD. “The fact that we as teachers are asking questions and
learning from the research not only makes us seem more human, but it
reinforces the idea that student and teacher ought to be partners in
As she, Abram and fellow student Alessandra De’Angelis prepare for
their own classroom student teaching this year, they said they’ll draw
on much of what they did this summer.
“One of the most rewarding aspects from this summer experience has
been the collaboration and learning how to be flexible — flexible in
terms of planning and ultimately knowing that it is important to focus
on student-centered approaches, practices and techniques to ensure that
learning is as engaging (and fun) as possible,” Abram said.
UD graduate students also worked with the summer project, assisting
the high school students in finding resources for their research and
evaluating the success of the project.
Jessé Edwards, a master’s degree student in urban affairs and public
policy, said the research help she provided wasn’t directly related to
her graduate work but that the process “helped me improve my own
Doctoral student Nancy Contreras, in the Department of Sociology and
Criminal Justice, worked with Ware during the summer to assess the
reading skills of students who took part in the Freedom School and also
to interview the summer history scholars about their views of that
At the conclusion of the program, the 14 summer scholars presented
their work to an audience of family and community members. The
historical society expects some of the students will use their new
knowledge to serve as volunteer guides to the 1968 exhibit.
Michele Anstine, chief program officer for the Delaware Historical
Society, described the summer program collaboration as “a wonderful
experience for all of us.”
“We hope to continue the experience for the students, to whet their
appetite for history and research,” Anstine said. “We also see it as an
opportunity to build a bridge between teenagers today and older
The high school students have come “to see that there’s a personal
connection with history,” said Angela Winand, head of the Mitchell
Center and the museum’s diversity programs.
Ware hopes the connections among the project partners will continue, including the benefits she sees for the University.
“Among many other advantages to this project, we see it as a way for
UD to build a pipeline, with students becoming interested in history and
in research, taking that interest from high school to undergraduate to
graduate school,” she said.
More about the project partners
The Delaware Historical Society operates several properties, including the Delaware History Museum, the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage and a nationally recognized research library.
The Mitchell Center, which honors a couple who dedicated their
professional lives to working for equal rights for Delawareans, includes
the exhibition “Journey to Freedom,” which explores the state’s African
The Freedom School
in Wilmington is the first in Delaware and is part of a network of
literacy, academic and social action programs founded through the
Children’s Defense Fund and modeled after the Mississippi Freedom Summer
Project of 1964. The Delaware program is located at Mother African
Union Church and operates in conjunction with the Peter Spencer Family
The University of Delaware students participated in the summer history scholars program with support from UD’s Community Engagement Initiative and the Office of Graduate and Professional Education.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape