On Monday, November 14, 2022, we observed the 72nd anniversary of being the first integrated high school in Delaware. We invited James Owens '53 and Fred Smith '54, two of the first black students to enroll, to speak to our students about their experience and what Salesianum means. They were joined by classmate Frank Joyce '54, who welcomed them into the brotherhood. This was one of the most significant moments in Delaware history, an event that took place at Salesianum, ushered in by the most ordinary of events. On Tuesday, November 14, 1950, five students—Thomas and Alfred Connell, James Owens, Fred Smith, and Willie Jones—walked through the door at the original Salesianum on 8th and West Streets. Fr. Thomas Lawless, the principal, was waiting with class schedules in hand. They were the first black students enrolled at Salesianum and in any Delaware high school.
This seemingly everyday occurrence—walking through the door at school —was anything but ordinary. The five students were Black, and in 1950, Delaware was the northernmost segregated state, where racial separation was observed in restaurants, theaters, hotels, and schools. At the time, Howard High School was the only option for Black students. No other public, private, or Catholic school would admit them.
Fr. Lawless had met with these students and their families only a few days earlier in their homes. The students had all attended Catholic grade school at St. Joseph’s on French Street near downtown, a parish that served Black families. Four of the five students who arrived at Salesianum previously attended Howard; the fifth commuted by train to the closest Catholic high school that would accept him in Philadelphia.
When they arrived at school in jackets and ties that morning, Fr. Lawless walked the students to their first-period classes. After they took their seats, there was only a brief pause before classes continued. The historic moment was remarkable in how uneventful it was; it was as if the new students had been there all along. Salesianum students had turned an uncertain moment into an ordinary day of school. Fr. Lawless later remarked, “I see nothing to apologize for other than the fact that it wasn’t done years ago.”
The message to Salesianum and the state that day was clear: it was time for segregation to end. And where better for a new beginning than at Salesianum? Then and now, a brotherhood that claims to Live Jesus must welcome all and see in our differences a reflection of the very face of God. Where Black students had once been denied, they were finally invited to take hold and never let go.
The theme for this school year—Stay Rooted, Grow Always—means not only remembering that we stand on the shoulders of giants but also that we are called to follow their example. Seventy-two years ago, the ordinary act of walking through the door was nothing less than a leap of faith. In the same way, today’s battles will be won not only in big moments but in the little victories, person to person, that play out in school each day, gradually fashioning us into the brotherhood we are called to be. Only then can the ripple effect go beyond the walls of Salesianum to help create a better world. For “opportunities to do great things do not come often, but at every moment we can do little things with great love.”