Graduates of the former Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School (DIAS) returned to the site of their alma mater last Thursday to celebrate the legacy of the former school for African Americans and to create an oral history record of their experiences.
A historical plaque was unveiled at the site where African Americans learned agriculture, mechanical trades, domestic arts, reading, writing and mathematics from 1904 to 1993. The site is now the home of Delaware County Community College’s Downingtown Campus.
“It is an honor to be here today because DIAS changed my life for the best, and I met my husband, William George,” said 1974 DIAS graduate Gail George, according to a statement from the college, which coordinated the event along with the East Brandywine Township Historical Commission.
“It warms our hearts that the land is still used for educational purposes. The unveiling of the marker is a monumental event for us,” said Barbara Thomas, another 1974 graduate.
L. Joy Gates Black, the college’s president, said DIAS had made an “important contribution” to Chester County and the Greater Philadelphia region. She thanked, among others, Ruth Bennett, retired director of the college’s Downingtown Campus, who worked on organizing the event.
Carol Sinex Schmidt of the East Brandywine Township Historical Commission said that even though she grew up in the area she did not know about DIAS until 2013 when she discovered a “treasure trove” of DIAS historical documents and photos archived at Temple University.
With that discovery and the oral histories about the school from alumni, “we are able to keep the memory alive,” she said.
DIAS was founded in 1904 by William A. Creditt, pastor of Philadelphia’s First African Baptist Church, to provide African Americans with education and training leading to good, family-sustaining wage jobs. John Trower, a wealthy catering business magnate and a member of Creditt’s church, provided funds to purchase farmland for the site.
The co-ed school opened with 30 students in grades 6 through 12, and Creditt was the first principal. Teachers and students lived on campus and the school adopted the motto: “self-help through self-worth.”
DIAS provided education and child services until 1993. Delaware County Community College purchased the site in 1999 and opened its Downingtown Campus there in 2002.
In addition to academic disciplines, DIAS offered classes in carpentry, plumbing, automotive technology, home economics, typing and business training. Fruits, vegetables, eggs and milk were raised or grown on the campus. Sports programs were added in the 1920s, along with classes to aid students in poise and self-assurance, public speaking, grooming, scouting, chorus and public debate. During the war years, students also received instruction in first aid, military drill and civil defense.
One student at the school was the late American jazz singer and bandleader Cabell “Cab” Calloway III, a grandson of Creditt’s sister. In 1921, Calloway’s parents, concerned about him skipping school, gambling and going to horseraces, sent him to DIAS for about a year, according to the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
“That year in Downingtown made a big difference,” Calloway was quoted as saying. “I walked into Downingtown a little boy, and I came out a man. What made the difference was being away from home and having to make it on my own … Downingtown was a turning point for me.”