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Salesianum School marks 72nd anniversary of integration with panel discussion

Fred Smith (left) and James Owens, two of the five Black students who integrated Salesianum School in 1950, shake hands before an event at the school marking the 72 anniversary of their attendance on Nov. 14. They are joined by Salesianum graduate Frank Joyce (far left) and school president Thomas Kardish. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

Salesianum School welcomed two of its “heroes” back to campus on Nov. 14, as James Owens and Fred Smith returned once again to the community that welcomed them 72 years prior to the day. That made Salesianum the first in Delaware to integrate, and the date remains an important one on the school’s calendar.

The entire school community gathered that morning in the school gymnasium for a panel discussion with Owens and Smith, along with fellow Salesianum alumnus Frank Joyce, who befriended the five Black students who started at the school at Eighth and West streets in 1950. School principal Father Chris Beretta and president Thomas Kardish were also on the panel.

Father Beretta, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, told the students about the efforts of Oblate Father Thomas Lawless, a 1908 Sallies graduate who was the principal in the 1940s. Father Lawless proposed allowing Black students in 1947, but he was ordered to revoke his invitation because of feared backlash, Father Beretta said.

Three years later, with that leadership having moved on, Father Lawless revisited integration, but with a different approach. He welcomed the five pioneers without telling anyone they were coming. He figured it would be tougher to tell these young men to their faces that they weren’t welcome, Father Beretta said.

A historical marker from the state archives tells the story of Salesianum becoming the first school in Delaware to integrate. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

“It was time for segregation to end,” Father Beretta said.

Owens and Smith began that day at Salesianum, along with William Jones, Alfred and Thomas Connell.

A brotherhood that lives Jesus, Father Beretta said, must welcome all.

“As Father Lawless said at the time,” Father Beretta continued, “it was time to either stop preaching democracy or start practicing it.”

After a few more remarks, he introduced Owens and Smith, who entered the gymnasium from a back entrance to sustained applause that turned into a standing ovation. The pair waved and shook hands as they made their way to their seats. With family members looking on, the pair embraced.

The floor was opened for questions, with Kardish asking the first one. He wanted to know how they felt when they started at Salesianum.

Owens said it was a smooth transition. The five pioneers knew half the students from playing sports against them in Catholic Youth Organization.

“It was apprehensive, but I was welcomed without any problem,” he said.

Smith said the men are still brothers with their surviving classmates. He added that he never understood why people don’t like each other.

“God made us all the same,” he said. “Everybody’s supposed to love each other.”

Joyce said his friend Willie Jones was a student’s student, “a kind, loving person.”

Owens recalled how he ended up transferring to Salesianum from Southeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where he went his freshman year. He said his parents were members of the Catholic Integration Council, and Father Lawless was the guest speaker one month.

The priest visited the Owens home and invited him to attend Salesianum instead of taking the train every day to and from Philadelphia.

“My father said, ‘James, tomorrow morning you’re going to Salesianum,’” he said.

Smith had to leave the school during his senior year to help support his family, but he finally received his diploma during commencement in 2019. Father Beretta said that means he is a member of two Salesianum classes.

Owens and Smith faced questions about segregation in Wilmington, what their favorite and least favorite classes were, and backlash from the African-American community. One student asked about family support.

Smith said his family was happy he was at Sallies. Owens said that as the oldest of 11 siblings, he was expected to set an example for his brothers and sisters. Several of his relatives ended up at Salesianum and other Catholic schools.