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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 African-American 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 African-Americans, 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.
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 interviews 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.
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.”
This article was originally written for and featured in the Newark Post. By Karie Simmons firstname.lastname@example.org