A lawsuit filed by Louis Redding led to the University of Delaware becoming the first desegregated state-funded undergraduate institution.
The majority of first-year students who recently settled into the newly-built residence hall at the University of Delaware probably had never heard of Louis Lorenzo Redding, the pioneering civil rights lawyer whose name is emblazoned across their brick dormitory building.
But, in 1950, Redding singlehandedly changed the course of the university when he successfully filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 African-American applicants who had been denied admittance to the university because they were Black. As a result of the lawsuit, UD became the first state-funded undergraduate institution in the nation to desegregate by court order.
Founded in 1743, because the University of Delaware had to be forced to admit Black students, it has long been a source of public embarrassment—a black eye across its storied history.
But in recent years—partly due to efforts made by UD president Dr. Patrick Harker—the university has been engaged in an ongoing campaign to confront its discriminatory past and right historical wrongs.
“In no small measure, Louis Redding made us the university we are today,” said Harker in a speech announcing the decision to name a dorm after Redding. “He showed us the path to diversity, equity, and inclusion—to justice and fairness for all.
“We think Louis Redding deserves his name on a building,” Harker continued, “and we hope that the students who live in the building, or visit it, might be especially committed to sustaining this great man’s legacy.”
Born in 1901, Redding grew up in Wilmington, Del., but could not attend UD and was forced to complete his undergraduate studies at Brown University. After spending several years on the faculty of Morehouse College, he entered Harvard Law School and was the only Black in the graduating class of 1928.
Redding returned to Wilmington where he became the first African-American admitted to the Delaware bar and used his standing as a civil rights lawyer to publicly fight racial discrimination in housing and public accommodations.
But it was the lawsuit against UD in 1950 that won him the most adulation.
“He couldn’t come to UD but he made it possible for others to come here,” says Dr. James M. Jones, a professor of psychology and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Diversity.
Jones said that the decision to name the dorm after Redding is a step in the right direction and demonstrates that the university is interested in becoming a model for diversity.
“We can’t change the past, but we’re looking forward to effectively improving the university and making it accessible to a broad range of people,” said Jones.
Next month, Redding’s family will converge on the Newark campus for the dedication ceremony of the dormitory.
“I think it’s a step, but I also think it’s worth wandering across campus to see how diverse the university is,” says Redding’s daughter, J.B. Redding. “You look at the student population today and it’s not very heterogeneous.”
UD officials readily admit that they’ve struggled with minority enrollment and have had an equally difficult time attracting minority faculty to teach at the largest university in the state.
But they also point to the 24 percent of minorities who constitute the incoming freshman class—the largest in the school’s history—as an example that they are making steady progress.
Although Redding, who died in 1998, is not as well known as Thurgood Marshall, he was also instrumental in arguing several cases before the Supreme Court during his career that extended over five decades. Working with Marshall, Redding was a member of the legal team that argued the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.
The naming of the dormitory, UD officials say, will provide an opportunity to integrate Redding’s legacy into the day-to-day life of the university.
“It’s a very significant event in the history of the university and it sends a very strong and positive symbol to students in general and African-Americans and other minority students in particular,” says Leland Ware, who holds the Louis L. Redding Chair, an endowed professorship in the Study of Law in the School of Public Policy and Administration that the university created in 1999.
In recent years, other universities have taken similar steps to honor those who led the efforts to desegregate. In 2004, Barnard College issued a public apology to the then 94-year-old Dorothy Height, the longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, and awarded her with a degree, even though she had never attended Barnard. In 1929, Height applied to the women’s college but was denied entrance because the school’s quota for Black students—only two that year—was full. She was forced to attend New York University.
The University of Missouri renamed its Black Culture Center after Lloyd Gaines, an African-American who tried to integrate the university’s all-White law school in 1936. The law school erected a plaque and portrait of Gaines in the front entrance of the law school and a scholarship was created in his honor for deserving minority students even though Gaines never enrolled.
In 2006, the university awarded Gaines—who went missing in 1939 and was never found—with a law degree posthumously, making him the most famous African-American alum who actually never even attended the university.
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