A city champion fuels old school memories

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Photo courtesy of The News Journal

Saturday afternoon was more than just a state championship game to Wilmington, Delaware residents of a certain age.

Howard High School of Technology, almost 20 years into its third incarnation, played David to Sanford School’s Goliath, slaying the three-time defending Delaware boys basketball champs 81-62, giving the Wildcats their first state crown since 1996. Even more than a smaller team beating a bigger one, it took older folks back to a time when Howard was the only high school in the city of Wilmington that blacks could attend.

The story of Howard High begins with the same man Howard University in Washington, D.C. is named after – Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard. Gen. Howard was a leader in the Union army of deep religious beliefs who took two big losses in the war, but went on to help start Howard University and the colored high school on Wilmington’s East Side, both starting in 1867.

Other than William C. Jason High School in Sussex County and the old Delaware State College High School in Kent County, Howard was the only secondary school blacks could attend until the advent of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and with the founding of the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District and desegregation becoming law in Delaware in 1978, Oliver Otis Howard High became Howard Career Center.

Howard High, known for its excellent in math and science, soon became a small school power in track and field and basketball, producing talents such as John Irving (Hofstra), Kenny Hynson (Cheyney’s point guard on their 1978 D-II championship team) and former Washington Bullet A.J. English. The football program is on the rise and placed their first player in the NFL when former Penn State DT Devon Still suited up with the Cincinnati Bengals this season. In an interesting twist, Sanford’s coach (and arguably the greatest high school hoops coach Delaware’s ever had) Stan Waterman? Yep, Howard Career Center graduate.

The history of Howard is important because it is now literally the last quasi-public high school in a city that is predominately black. Black kids from East Side, Southbridge, West Side, Eastlake and Northside are routinely bused to schools in districts based outside of the city. Even though times have changed (on paper anyway), Howard High still represents the city of Wilmington as a whole.

So when this group of Wildcats, thought to be smaller and less talented than Sanford, eventually ran away with the game and the championship trophy, a celebratory spirit was present in all neighborhoods. That feeling of overcoming in spite of your obstacles and still being proud of who you are and where you came from was felt by people like my mom (who graduated from Oliver Otis Howard in 1972) to her oldest son (who graduated from Howard High School of Technology in 1999).

Saturday’s game was beautiful for a ton of other reasons because it reunited a lot of Howard alumni better than Facebook ever could. Everywhere I turned in the Bob Carpenter Center Saturday, I saw someone I went to school with, a teacher, someone my older sister or my mom went to school with. That sense of unity, community and pride that marked the black experience during the Civil Rights era was present for a 90-minute high school basketball game and it was awesome to see.

Even if it was just for two hours Saturday, the old school was alive and well and Wilmington residents couldn’t be happier than to hear that old chant once again – “You should’ve been a Wildcat!”

And most of us are glad we are.

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