History in Our Own Backyard
The bell rings on a sunny Wednesday
afternoon. Some children who are playing down by the nearby railroad tracks
jump at the sound, and hurriedly make their way back to the school building. If
they don’t make it back on time, they’ll surely feel the wrath of Mr.
Woolfrord! As they tumble into the building and settle into their rickety
wooden chairs, the cold air envelopes them like a blanket over their shoulders
– there’s no heat to be had in this one-room schoolhouse. Little boys and girls
open their torn, hand-me-down books to the first lesson, taught by a teacher
making just $85 a month. A few of the books are missing pages, so some students
are forced to share with their fellow classmates.
This scene might
have been one of many played out almost a century ago at The Buttonwood Colored
School in New Castle, DE. Financed by Pierre S. DuPont, it was one of 80
schools built to teach African American children in Delaware. Due to neglect
and the ravages of time, this historical landmark had fallen into severe
disrepair. If it were not for the efforts of Teel Petty and her husband Eugene
Petty, both former Buttonwood students, this citizen of history might have
faded into distant memory. The school is now known as The Buttonwood Colored
School and Museum.
The neighborhood of Buttonwood, located on the northeastern edge of New Castle off Route 9, was established in 1902. The neighborhood is comprised of one main street, Buttonwood Avenue, which intersects several smaller lanes, including Arbutus Avenue, Lincoln Street, Meehan, Railroad Avenue, New Castle Avenue and Foster Avenue. This historically black suburban neighborhood has been the stronghold for African-Americans, drawing residents from both Wilmington and the town of New Castle. Residents of Buttonwood have, without exception, commented on the vibrant sense of community in the neighborhood over the years, centering on the family, church and school.
The neighborhood takes is name from the adjacent estate, Buttonwood Plantation, built by James Booth, Sr. in the early 1800s.
Booth, a prominent statesman and judge, played a critical early role the abolition of slavery. Among other activities, he participated in the Delaware State Constitutional Convention in 1776, which led to a ban on the importation of slaves into the state. A portion of the state constitution attributed to Booth made clear his anti-slavery position:
No person hereafter imported into this State form Africa ought to be held in slavery on any pretense whatever; no Negro, Indian, or Mulatto slave ought to be brought into this State for sale from any part of the world.