“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” That was the message that author and Civil Rights activist Orlando Camp gave to students at Milford High School on Tuesday, February 18. Mr. Camp is a member of a very special group in Delaware history that attempted to desegregate American schools in 1954.
Mr. Camp and 10 other students had attended the All-African American Benjamin Banneker School until 1954 when the Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling struck down the Plessy vs. Ferguson separate but equal doctrine. Dubbed the Milford Eleven by national media of the time period, Mr. Camp and his classmates became some of the first African American students to attend a previously all-white school.
“At first there weren’t problems,” Camp recalled. “We got along well with the white students in the summer time and the teachers were cordial enough,” Camp continued.
However, a few days into the school year, things changed. A man named Bryan Bowles came to town from Baltimore, and feeding off the racial tensions of the time period, incited a near riot in protest in the local community. The Milford Eleven were only in the Milford School District for 28 days, but their impact was far reaching.
“We were before the Little Rock Nine, and we made it possible for Milford to eventually integrate,” Camp explained to the nearly 200 hundred students gathered in the MHS library.
In attendance was Charles Hammond, one the first African American graduates from Milford High. “They (The Milford Eleven) paved the way for us,” Hammond recalled.
Mr. Camp spoke to nearly 500 students in three sessions during his visit. He described the visit as a positive one, reiterating the message “Never let one negative event impact who are.” Mr. Camp went on to explain that he graduated from a different high school after leaving Milford and then joined the Army where he became Soldier of the Year in 1963. He took the lessons learned from his Milford Eleven experience and used them to motivate himself. Mr. Camp also served as Vice President of Marketing for a major firm in New York as well as for former Governor Minner’s administration.
His presentation ended with a picture of Mr. Camp standing beside President Obama, whom he met during his campaign stop in Wilmington. “The world has changed a lot since 1954, and the president symbolizes that to me.”
Mr. Camp recently published a book about his life and experiences as a member of the Milford Eleven.