For decades, School Hill was the center of life in Newark’s African-American community that surrounded New London Road and Cleveland Avenue. Children from the neighborhood were educated at the New London Road School, and its grounds were used for everything from athletic events to social gatherings.
Now, the neighborhood is all but gone – a casualty of changing times and development catering to university students – but for one day on Saturday, School Hill was once again the center of activity, not just for former residents of the neighborhood but for the broader Newark community.
“Right there in that building is where it all started,” former resident Conway Hayman said, pointing to the old school, which is now owned by the city and serves as the George Wilson community center. “It’s great to be home.”
Hayman went to the New London Road School for his early education, and after schools were desegregated, he attended Newark High School, where he became a star of the football team. He went on to be a star lineman at the University of Delaware and ultimately played six seasons for the Houston Oilers. He still lives in Houston.
“It’s always good to come home and see people,” he said. “Newark is my home, and it’s always going to be a place I love.”
Hayman was among dozens of former residents who returned to School Hill for Saturday’s event, which served as both a reunion for the families who once lived in the close-knit neighborhood and a broader celebration aimed at sharing and promoting the community’s legacy.
Sponsored by Friends of School Hill and the city of Newark, the event featured free food, music by several local groups and a display of old photos. Historian and former resident Syl Woolford gave a presentation featuring old yearbook photos, which drew a number of cheers from audience members who recognized themselves or family members.
Organizers hope the celebration becomes an annual event.
“Without this community, Newark wouldn’t be the city it is today,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said. “This is what we should be celebrating.”
The community traces its roots back to 1786, when free black families settled near New London Road. At some point, the area was designated as the only place black families could live in Newark, Woolford said, noting that, not coincidentally, the area was near the town dump.
The first school opened on Cleveland Avenue shortly after the Civil War, and the building that is now the George Wilson Center was built in 1922, one of a number of black schools funded by Pierre. S. duPont.
The community continued expanding in response to racial segregation elsewhere in Newark, and it eventually was home to a number of businesses, including a barbershop, a gas station, a pool hall, a convenience store, hair salons, an ice cream parlor and more.
“It was a close-knit family,” former resident Sandra Draper said. “Everybody helped everybody else.”
She shared fond memories of church services, Sunday school and vacation bible school at the community’s three churches – Mt. Zion, St. John’s and Pilgrim Baptist – as well as playing outside with other neighborhood children.
“The children were taught to respect your elders. If you were doing something you had no business doing, anybody could chastise you and steer you in the right direction. By the time you got home, your parents knew about it, and you never did it again,” Draper said. “Back then, a village did raise a child.”
Neighbors treated each other like family, she added.
“Parents would sit on the porch, catch up on the news and maybe gossip a little,” she said. “It was just a good time.”
Another former resident, Sandra Marrows, concurred.
“We learned from this community and had each others’ backs,” Marrows said. “It was our own community, and we were self-sufficient.”
Most students from the community attended Howard High School in Wilmington after aging out of the New London Road School, but that changed in 1954, when Newark High School was desegregated as a result of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board decision. The New London Road School closed four years later.
Woolford said the community began to change after schools were desegregated and many of the community’s businesses closed once black residents were welcome at businesses on Main Street and elsewhere.
In the 1960s, the area was rezoned from single-family housing to multi-family housing, opening the door for developers to buy up houses and convert them into student housing, Woolford said. That trend has continued though recent years, and the neighborhood is almost entirely occupied by students, many living in large, modern townhouses that have replaced the old homes.
“The community would have held together if it hadn’t been a gold rush,” said Woolford, who resisted lucrative offers for years but finally sold his property at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and New London Road five years ago.
While the loss of the neighborhood continues to be a source of pain for many former residents, Freeman Williams, who helped organize Saturday’s event, said he hopes the celebration changes the tone of the conversation.
“It’s really focusing on a new beginning,” said Williams, who grew up on Kennard Drive and went on to serve as superintendent of the Christina School District. “We’re not focusing on the fact the community doesn’t exist in the way it has in the past but really trying to network and focus on the historical context of the community.”
Williams estimated that the event drew more than 400 people, including former residents as well as other Newarkers getting their first introduction to the neighborhood’s legacy.
As she addressed the crowd, Draper reiterated that the New London Road community still has an important story to tell.
“I just want you to know this neighborhood was very close-knit. Lots of good people came from this neighborhood,” Draper said. “The neighborhood has changed, but in spite of it all, we go on and remember where we came from and we’re going to continue to lift up those who come after us.”