Event helps pre­serve his­tory of School Hill

Former stu­dents rem­i­nisce about New Lon­don Ave. School

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By KARIE SIM­MONS ksim­mons@ches­pub.com

For some, the Ge­orge Wil­son Cen­ter on New Lon­don Road is just a brick build­ing used for birth­day par­ties, sum­mer camps and city events, but for those who grew up in the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods, it’s much, much more than that. It’s a piece of Ne­wark’s AfricanAmer­i­can his­tory and, for many years, the only place where they felt like they be­longed.

The build­ing was orig­i­nally built in 1922 as a school­house for AfricanAmer­i­cans, called the New Lon­don Av­enue School. The school, com­posed of four class­rooms and a cafe­te­ria in the base­ment, re­placed the area’s other school for black chil­dren, which was es­tab­lished on Cleve­land Av­enue in 1867. Chil­dren from the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods were ed­u­cated through

eighth grade at the New Lon­don Av­enue School un­til 1958, when de­seg­re­ga­tion took place and black stu­dents were in­te­grated into the other Ne­wark schools.

The school and sur­round­ing prop­erty, also known as “School Hill,” was an im­por­tant meet­ing place for neighborhood res­i­dents and for so­cial and recre­ational gath­er­ings as well.

In 1961, the city of Ne­wark pur­chased the build­ing and grounds. Sig­nif­i­cant ren­o­va­tions took place, and the New Lon­don Com­mu­nity Cen­ter opened in 1970. In 1977, the build­ing was re­named in honor of Ge­orge M. Wil­son, a leader in im­prov­ing hous­ing con­di­tions for Ne­wark’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity and a former city coun­cil­man.

On Satur­day, dozens of peo­ple came out to the Ge­orge Wil­son Cen­ter to share their ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up in the com­mu­nity and at­tend­ing the school through a joint ef­fort put on by the Univer­sity of Delaware Com­mu­nity En­gage­ment Ini­tia­tive, the UD li­brary, the city of Ne­wark, the NAACP and the Friends of School Hill to pre­serve the area’s his­tory.

Vol­un­teers col­lected and pre­served his­toric in­for­ma­tion, pho­tographed me­men­tos, scanned old pho­tos and filmed and recorded in­ter- views that will be up­loaded to UD’s web­site for the pub­lic to see.

Chris Kel­ley, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion spe­cial­ist at the univer­sity, con­ducted in­ter­views on Satur­day us­ing video and au­dio equip­ment to cap­ture peo­ple’s sto­ries.

“Every­one talked about the school and the neighborhood like it was a big fam­ily,” he said. “There was this sense of com­mu­nity, sense of fam­ily and sense of be­long­ing that was es­pe­cially im­por­tant dur­ing a time when they didn’t feel like they be­longed any­where else in the city.”

He said he heard from peo­ple who raved about the walk­a­bil­ity of the com­mu­nity, the tight-knit feel and how much the area has changed since, with sev­eral peo­ple wish­ing things would go back to the way they were.

That’s how 64-year-old Ray Bias feels. He grew up on Cleve­land Av­enue and Ray Street and played on the grounds around the school as a kid. His mother was on the soft­ball team, and he helped run an af­ter school pro­gram there in his 20s, once the build­ing re­opened as a com­mu­nity cen­ter.

“We didn’t have too many places we could go that weren’t too far from home, so this was like sa­cred ground,” he said. “Our par­ents, they knew where we were when we were here.”

Bias brought a few old pho­tos to scan on Satur­day and said look­ing at the other pic­tures and doc­u­ments on dis­play brought back good mem­o­ries from his child­hood, but also re­minded him how much the cul­ture of the com­mu­nity has changed.

“It was a vil­lage tak­ing care of a child pretty much. Par­ents didn’t have to worry be­cause ev­ery­body looked out for each other,” Bias said. “It was dif­fer­ent then. Now it’s a col­lege town. The univer­sity kind of took over.”

Alvin Hall, 80, at­tended the New Lon­don Av­enue School as a kid. His mother worked as the school’s cook, and his grand­fa­ther was the jan­i­tor. He said when­ever the snow melted, the hill out­side the school would be­come muddy and stu­dents would use their coats as sleds to slide down it.

“Then we would come home all muddy,” he said, laugh­ing.

Hall said the school was the hub of the com­mu­nity way be­fore it was of­fi­cially turned into a com­mu­nity cen­ter. He said peo­ple flocked to the fields be­hind the build­ing to play horse­shoes, base­ball, soft­ball and foot­ball, even us­ing the area to host pic­nics and par­ties.

“If your yard wasn’t big enough, you would come out here and set up a pic­nic un­der the trees,” Hall said.

Freeman Wil­liams, 64, grew up in the Terry Manor neighborhood and, like Hall, could of­ten be found play­ing on the fields around the school.

“This play­ground site was just over­run with peo­ple,” he said.

He said some of his fa­vorite mem­o­ries are play­ing base­ball there be­cause the com­pe­ti­tion was stiff and it took a lot of hard work to get on the field. He was pretty good, he said, re­call­ing a div­ing catch he once made in the out­field.

But School Hill was more than just a place to play. Freeman said a lot of im­por­tant val­ues were shaped there, like com­pe­ti­tion, team­work and how to work hard for what you want, and the adults were sup­port­ive, of­ten serv­ing as role mod­els for the chil­dren. He said it’s no co­in­ci­dence that many peo­ple who grew up there went on to be suc­cess­ful.

“There was a real creative, sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment that cul­ti­vated that,” Freeman said.

A hand­ful of sports stars came out of that com­mu­nity, like Gary Hay­man, who grew up on New Lon­don Road and grad­u­ated from Ne­wark High School in 1969. From 1974 to 1976, he played run­ning back, wide re­ceiver and kick re­turner for the Buf­falo Bills. Hay­man also played for the Seat­tle Sea­hawks in their de­but year of 1976.

Freeman lives in Chris­tiansted now, so he said he’s seen the com­mu­nity evolve over the years and has “mixed emo­tions about it.” On the one hand, he’s sad that some of the area’s his­tory is lost, but he’s also happy to see the city, UD and res­i­dents are col­lab­o­rat­ing to pre­serve what’s left.

“This is the be­gin­ning of some­thing unique that’s go­ing to have a long-last­ing pos­i­tive im­pact on the city,” he said.

Parks and Recre­ation Direc­tor Joe Spadafino said the city par­tic­i­pated in Satur­day’s event be­cause the his­tory of School Hill is the back­bone of the Ne­wark com­mu­nity. Plus, he said, it was too hard to pass up the op­por­tu­nity to cap­ture such unique in­for­ma­tion from those who grew up there.

“This kind of in­for­ma­tion you can’t Google be­cause it’s in their minds and in their hearts,” Spadafino said. “It’s mem­o­ries.”

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY KARIE SIM­MONS

Dozens of former res­i­dents and stu­dents came to the Ge­orge Wil­son Cen­ter on Satur­day to share their ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up in the com­mu­nity and at­tend­ing the New Lon­don Av­enue School.

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