Dr. Maurice Thomasson carried on work during trying times, declined permanent president post

While Dr. Jerome H. Holland is widely known for being one of the most important presidents in the history of Delaware State University, his status was assured by a decision made by Dr. Maurice E. Thomasson, a sociology professor at the time.

When the Delaware State College Board of Trustees offered the president’s job to Thomasson in 1952, he declined the post. His decision left the door open for the College to hire Holland as president the following year.

Dr. Maurice E. Thomasson
Acting President:
1949-1950, 1951-1953

Nevertheless, Thomasson is credited with filling the leadership void and keeping the College going two different times as acting president during the dark years of its history.

Born in 1892 in Drew, Ark., Thomasson’s academic journey included earning a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University, a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Minnesota and a doctoral degree from Columbia University in New York City. His doctoral dissertation was titled A Study of Special Kinds of Education for Rural Negroes, which the NAACP magazine The Crisis included in its list of Negro authors in 1837, noting it to be “an accurate and significant contribution to the problem of rural life and education.”

Thomasson went on to be a faculty member at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., prior to his arrival to the then-State College for Colored Students in Dover circa 1941.

La Verne Thomasson, his wife, was twice a graduate of Boston University in her native city. Her maiden name and her graduation year are unknown and it is not clear when exactly they first met or what year they married.

What is known is that she and her husband would teach sociology as the sole faculty members in that academic discipline at Delaware State College from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Thomasson witnessed the ups and downs of Delaware’s only black college in the 1940s, which saw the College obtain its first provisional accreditation in 1944, only to have it revoked in 1949. The College’s enrollment of 132 students in 1942 tripled by 1948 due largely to the influx of black World War II veterans who possessed the GI Bill provision that paid for their education.

While the enrollment increased, the institution — renamed Delaware State College in 1947 — was not able to expand its campus infrastructure to accommodate the student population growth. This contributed greatly to significant student dissatisfaction, leading to a 1949 student strike and a subsequent state hearing to investigate the management of the College by the administration of  President Howard Gregg.

The hearings ultimately led to Gregg’s dismissal, and Thomasson was tapped in September 1949 to serve as acting president of the College — two months before a visit by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. In the wake of that visit, the accrediting body issued a scathing report on DSC and revoked the College’s accreditation.

With the hiring of Dr. Oscar Chapman as president in April 1950, Thomasson returned to his role as the faculty head of DSC’s sociology studies. However, upon the controversial dismissal of Chapman in mid-1951, Thomasson was once again called upon to serve as acting president.

It was during that second acting president period that Thomasson was called to testify in the consolidated Delaware integration court cases Gebhart v. Belton and Bulah v. Gebhart, which challenged and ultimately overturned the state’s segregation laws in public school systems. In an excerpt of his testimony in the 1952 state case in the Court of Chancery, Thomasson gave his sociological perspective on segregation and how its hinders black youths from becoming “a good person.”:

…I don’t think that in a segregated situation it is possible to produce a person who is fully normal, completely satisfactory. There are some conditions inherent in the segregated situation that just simply warp a person’s personality. Now, for one thing a person who goes to school in a segregated school goes to that school by virtue of the fact that the State of which he is a part has said he is inferior. That is, the State has embodied that in the law, and the law has been sustained by the courts. He is told as he goes there in the school segregated by law that he is inferior.

Doctor, do you mean to say that the law expressly states that a school system set apart for the compulsory attendance of persons of a certain color is inferior, or do you mean that that is the implication of such a law?

It is the implication. I can see no reason for setting up a separate system of schools unless the persons who set the schools up think that for some reason or other the persons designated for that school are not quite fit to go to the regular schools.

Those cases were ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and consolidated among the other cases that were heard in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Thomasson’s testimony was submitted as evidence to the country’s high court in those deliberations.

Following DSC’s accreditation loss, there were increasing calls from state officials for the College to be closed down. Others were calling for the institution to be reduced to a junior college. Amid its difficulties — which included a dramatic drop in enrollment — the DSC Board of Trustees looked toward Thomasson as a possible leadership solution in 1952.
Not only did Thomasson turn down the permanent president post, he also wanted to step down as acting president and return to teaching. The board granted his request on Jan. 15, 1953, and for the rest of his academic career he would teach sociology along with his wife at DSC. Thomasson retired from teaching  in 1967.

Memories of the Thomassons

Donald Evans ’59 actually began his DSC studies in 1952 only to be interrupted by a few years of Army service. But during that initial
freshman year, Evans was in Thomasson’s class.

“He was very soft-spoken man. He taught in a voice that was almost a whisper,” Evans said. “He was a very nice man, but I don’t think he had the personality to be a (permanent) president of a University.”

Following his retirement from teaching, his wife La Verne would continue as a sociology professor — including being named head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1968 — and teach until her retirement in 1974, one year after her husband’s death. She would be named professor emeritus in 1975.

 “La Verne Thomasson was a dedicated sociologist and I thought she was a really good teacher,” said Dr. Donald A. Blakey ’58. “She was definitely interested in the expansion of education for blacks in Delaware; a lot of the sociology we studied was about the Negro.”

Blakey also recalled that she was very dedicated to her husband. “She spoke well of him and referenced him frequently in class,” he said.
Shortly after her retirement, La Verne Thomasson moved back to her native state of Massachusetts and lived in Hyannis, Mass., until her death in 2003.

-- Story by Carlos Holmes