Delaware Public Media

History Matters: The Thelma Young Collection

Mar 28, 2014

History Matters digs into the Delaware Historical Society’s archives each month to explore connections between key people, places, and events in history and present-day news.

March’s History Matters looks at the life and legacy of Thelma Young, a woman who helped to pave the way for women and African Americans in Delaware.

"For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." - Virginia Woolf

Thelma Young (née Thelma Trice) came to Wilmington with her husband Echols in 1925 after graduating from Kansas State Teachers College.

Shortly after arriving in Wilmington, she began teaching home economics at Howard High School in Wilmington, the state's only 4-year African American high school, all the while earning a bachelors and eventually a master's degree from Columbia University.

Once Wilmington's School districts were desegregated, she taught home economics in the Licensed Practical Nursing Program at Wilmington's Brown Vocational High School up until 1965 when health issues forced her to retire.

While being well known as a devoted teacher, she was even more renown for her work and involvement in both women's and professional clubs. A lot of her life outside of school was devoted to Delaware's chapter of the National Council of Negro Women and Wilmington's first Young Women's Christian Association that eventually lead to the creation of what is now the Walnut Street Y.

"She was involved in a lot of these professional organizations to really foster the growth of this middle-class African American community of professionals," said Kimberly, a Delaware Historical Society Graduate Assistant who chose not to have her last name published.

Young was also involved with educational organizations for women and African Americans such as her sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho and Delaware State University.

"She was the first African American female trustee of Delaware State University," said DHS Chief Curator Connie Cooper. "I think that is another sign of her place in the community and the respect that people had for her."

Despite her involvement and prominence in the community, one will find little information on Young with a simple internet search.

"Unless you are an African American women of a certain age to have some actual memory of her, probably people don't know her very well at all," said Cooper. "But she really deserves to be well known."

"I think the type of woman she was is sorely underrepresented in history," said Kimberly. "I think we tend to focus on the extremes and I think she represents this fantastic growing middle-class professional woman that is often overlooked."

To help spread the word about Young, the Delaware Historical Society is in the process of developing an online exhibition based on records saved by Young's families that will be available to the public very soon.

"Throughout the state, there are many women like her who really worked hard, belonged to organizations, and contributed a great deal to their communities," said Cooper. "I think we need to remember her for herself but also as an example of a certain type of women of the mid 20th century."

This piece is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.