From the Latin word meaning “fifth,” Quintus House is named for the five original Black students they admitted to Salesianum in 1950, the first school in Delaware to do so. On Tuesday, November 14, 1950, 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 their class schedules in hand as they arrived. No one else knew they were coming.
Every year, Salesianum observes the anniversary, one of the most significant moments in Delaware history. This seemingly everyday occurrence—walking through the door at school—was anything but ordinary. In 1950, Delaware was the northernmost segregated state, where racial separation was observed in restaurants, theaters, hotels, and schools. Howard High School was the only secondary school option for students of color. No other public, private, or Catholic school would admit them.
All five students had all attended Catholic grade school at St. Joseph’s on French Street, a parish that served Black families. Catholic parishes separated by race, ethnicity, or culture were not unusual at the time; in Wilmington, St. Patrick’s, St. Ann’s, and St. Elizabeth primarily served Irish families, while St. Hedwig’s and St. Anthony’s served the Polish and Italian communities, respectively. Boys from those culturally and linguistically diverse neighborhoods came together to form a brotherhood at Salesianum. But in 1950, one group was still noticeably excluded: the Black community. Four of the five students who arrived at Salesianum that morning had been attending Howard; the fifth had been commuting by train to the closest Catholic high school that would accept him, in south Philadelphia.
Fr. Lawless attempted to desegregate Salesianum once before, inviting three Black students to enroll as freshmen to start the 1947-1948 school year. But when word got out over the summer, many voiced concerns that racial tension might engulf the school. His religious superiors, fearing backlash and an exodus of White families, ordered Fr. Lawless to revoke his invitation to these families. He reluctantly complied, but did not give up.
Three years later, when those superiors had moved on to new assignments, Fr. Lawless quietly set his plans back in motion. He had learned a lesson in 1947: fear of the unknown made it easy to oppose the idea of desegregation, but it would not be as easy if that student was already in a desk. So, when he met with five Black students and their families in 1950 and invited them to transfer to Salesianum, he told them to keep their agreement secret. When they arrived at school in jackets and ties on the morning of November 14, Fr. Lawless walked the students to their first period classes and introduced them. After a brief pause, they took their seats, and classes continued.
The moment was remarkable for how uneventful it was, as if the new students had been there all along. Salesianum students, both Black and White, turned a moment of uncertainty into an ordinary day of school. The youngest of the five newest Salesians, Willie Jones, took his seat behind fellow freshman Felix Rapposelli, who immediately turned around and said, “If anyone gives you any trouble, let me know.” But no trouble ever came, and the two remained friends throughout their lives.
Despite some predictions, not a single student left Salesianum after November 14. In fact, enrollment grew so steadily in the years that followed, it soon became obvious that the building at 8th and West, pushed beyond its limits, would need to be replaced.
As that historic school year came to a close, Vice-Chancellor Collins Seitz of the Delaware Supreme Court, a Catholic lawyer and judge who had urged Fr. Lawless to take action, spoke at Salesianum’s graduation on June 4, 1951. He said to the graduates, “You will never be worth your salt if, at some time in your life, you don’t take up a worthwhile cause and fight its fight.” Seitz went on to write the legal decision that desegregated Delaware public schools. His rulings were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and proved influential in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 that declared segregated schools unconstitutional in the United States.
But before that, Judge Seitz needed a first domino to fall in a school with the courage to show what was possible. Thanks to a bold invitation, and to the five boys and their parents willing to take a leap of faith, Salesianum became that school. Fr. Lawless later remarked about November 14, “I see nothing to apologize for, other than the fact that it wasn’t done years ago.”
Today’s school, and today’s world, face different challenges. But just as in 1950, our fight is won in the little victories, person to person, and brother to brother. The historical marker on our front steps reminds us that Salesianum is more than a building; on November 14, 1950, when five young men walked through our doors, the “living stones” of this brotherhood more truly reflected the image of God. We honor that legacy whenever we do something to strengthen this brotherhood, or to share that spirit with the world beyond our walls, always remembering that “opportunities to do great things do not come often, but at every moment we can do little things with great love.”
These men never thought of themselves as heroes but, in fact, were pioneers whose simple decision to attend Salesianum made a powerful statement that reversed many years of injustice and discrimination.