One of the four newest members of the Delaware Women's Hall of Fame.
The word “can’t” doesn’t exist in Reba Hollingsworth’s vocabulary.
“When you say you can’t do something, that just means you haven’t tried,” Hollingsworth said. And it’s true: from overcoming racial prejudice growing up in 1930s Milford to learning to sing while in her mid-60s, there’s very little Hollingsworth hasn’t tried and overcome.
It’s that kind of spirit that has led to her becoming one of the four newest members of the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame.
Hollingsworth, along with former Second Lady Jill Biden, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt-Rochester and former Smyrna School District Superintendent Deborah Wicks will be inducted at a Sept. 27 ceremony at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino.
The nominations were announced July 27 by Gov. John Carney, who said all were role models. They are, Carney said, “women who go above and beyond to positively contribute to their communities every day.”
Hollingsworth was nominated by Delaware Heritage Commission chair Richard Carter.
“I’ve known Reba for 25 years and I’ve been astounded by her life experiences, her brilliance and her service to others,” he said. “My life has been enriched by knowing Reba and the challenges she had to face as a black woman growing up in southern Delaware.”
‘We didn’t have to bow and scrape’
Hollingsworth came into the world in October 1926 and grew up in the Jim Town area of Milford, the second child of Solomon and Rachel Ross. As the oldest girl in what became a family of seven, she recalls taking on what would be considered grown-up responsibilities even before reaching her teen years.
While her father worked as a skilled carpenter, Hollingsworth’s mother labored as a laundress with unfulfilled dreams of earning a college degree.
Both encouraged their eldest daughter to pursue more than the ninth-grade education available in Milford’s segregated schools.
The racial divide in lower Delaware was both subtle and overt, Hollingsworth recalled.
“People didn’t make any bones about knowing their place,” she said. “You could go to downtown Milford and you didn’t see any blacks unless they were cleaning or doing demeaning work.”
When she was around nine years old, Hollingsworth was sent to dust the Walnut Street home of school principal Robert E. Shilling. She did such a good job Shilling’s wife suggested she someday might find a good job cleaning houses.
Hollingsworth did not like the implication.
“I told Mrs. Shilling that I’d go to school so I would not have to clean anyone’s house except my own,” she said.
“My mom and dad always taught us we didn’t have to talk low, we didn’t have to bow and scrape,” she said. “You look people in the eye and say what’s on your mind in a respectful way. I wasn’t being belligerent, I was just telling her how I felt.”
After ninth grade, Hollingsworth went to Dover in 1942 to attend the Booker T. Washington School. It was in the same building as today’s elementary school, she said.
She rented one bedroom in a home across the street, where she cooked her meals and paid 35 cents each weekend for a bus trip to visit her family in Milford. After completing courses at Booker T. Washington, she went on to the Delaware State College laboratory high school, where two years later she received her diploma.
Matriculating at Delaware State College, Hollingsworth worked to earn a degree in home economics education, graduating in June 1949. College life then was much different than today, she said. The school had a curfew and a student could be expelled for receiving too many late-night demerits. She worked different jobs, including hairstylist, to make ends meet.
Summers were spent earning enough cash to pay for courses and room and board each school year. Finances were so tight she still owed $100 at graduation, and didn’t receive her diploma until she paid the balance three months later.
Segregation and Klan meetings
While at college, Hollingsworth worked one summer as a kitchen girl at a New Jersey resort where she met handsome young bellhop Berlin Hollingsworth. It took almost 18 months for the couple to decide on marriage, but they finally wed in December 1947.
That began a happy 68-year union that lasted until his death in October 2016.
“We learned to respect each other and decided that if we had disagreements to settle them before the sun went down,” she said. “My mom and dad were good examples. They were married 63 years and I never saw them have an argument.”
Along the way, they greeted a daughter, Vivian O. Dancy, a grandson, William J. Johnson, and two great-grandsons, Jeremiah J. Johnson and Jayce A. Johnson.
After graduation, Hollingsworth began her teaching career in South Carolina, but returned to Delaware after 12 months.
“I was making only $1,000 a year,” she recalled. “I found I could make more money back in Delaware waiting tables.”
Conditions were such that even though she had a college degree, Hollingsworth spent three years working in restaurants and selling cookware. In 1954 she finally was hired to teach science and home economics at the segregated William C. Jason Comprehensive High School in Georgetown, now the Owens Campus of Delaware Technical Community College.
At the time, Delaware was in the throes of court-mandated school integration, a situation exacerbated by rabid white supremacist Bryant Bowles, who had come to Delaware to whip up anger against the merging of black and white schools.
“I remember him here and the Klan meetings,” Hollingsworth said. “It all might have been alright if he had not come to Delaware and instigated all sorts of things.”
Bowles would ride through the streets of Milford with a bullhorn shouting his segregationist screed while many black men, including her father, armed themselves, just in case.
“It was horrible,” Hollingsworth said. “There was so much tension in Milford.”
Desegregation finally took hold statewide. By 1966 the Jason school was scheduled to close the following year. Hollingsworth took this opportunity to apply for a position at Dover High School.
She found herself in somewhat unfamiliar territory.
“I interviewed as a home economics teacher, but I guess they thought they needed a black woman guidance counselor,” she said. Although her home economics experience had given her some background in student counseling, Hollingsworth took a nine-hour course in the subject at the University of Delaware before beginning her new job.
Hollingsworth found such fulfillment in the field she went on to earn a Masters of Education degree in guidance and counseling at the University of Delaware, graduating in 1970. That was followed in 2001 by her Ph.D. degree in counseling, earned at Pacific Western University.
‘Do something positive’
Despite her teaching activities and earning three degrees, Hollingsworth has managed to find time enough to be involved in myriad social and community activities.
Most noteworthy is her passion in the pursuit of civil rights and equal opportunity for all. She is an expert on parliamentary procedure, a lifetime member of the NAACP, past president of the Afro-American Historical Society of Delaware and a longtime member of the Delaware Heritage Commission. First appointed in 1987 by Gov. Mike Castle, she’s been reappointed by every governor since and is the vice chair.
She was presented the Governor’s Heritage Award by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2007 and is active in the national Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She helped write legislation approving a special license plate and her car now proudly carries the DST-1 registration.
In her 90s Hollingsworth has kept up the pace of her earlier days. In 2014, she and Berlin established an endowed DSU scholarship for financially strapped students, starting with a personal $10,000 donation.
“Both of us graduated from there and at the time it was the only place we could go to college,” she said. “We knew students still need the help we did. We wanted to provide a mechanism for these kids to go to college.”
A longtime marital and premarital counselor, she and Berlin published “The Hollingsworth’s Secrets to a Long, Happy Marriage” in 2016 and have sponsored student study tours in Europe and brought European students to the United States.
In August 2017, the university established the Dr. Reba Hollingsworth Counseling Center at its Early College High School.
Hollingsworth admits she was overwhelmed by the honor.
“All these things happening to me have been very heartwarming,” she said. “I sometimes wonder what I did to deserve all this attention.”
She feels the same about her Hall of Fame nomination.
“I guess people see something in things that I just take for granted,” Hollingsworth said. “I do these things because there’s a need or because it could benefit someone along the way.”
As she approaches her 92nd birthday, Hollingsworth continues to look forward.
She feels America’s children still are its hope for the future, but they need someone to show them the right path.
“They need to know their limits, and they’ll stretch things as far as they can take them,” she said. “We as adults haven’t done our duty in helping kids to develop. The prisons today are full of kids who have no business being there, but they’re there because they were not taught.
“Children today just need direction and they need people to listen to them.”
And she credits the wisdom of Solomon -- her father, not the Biblical figure -- for her direction in life.
“My father told me that as long as you’ve got your health, you’re supposed to do something positive because you have a short life to live but a long time to be dead.”