Gibson honored, recalls adversity and triumphs

MILFORD — In years past, Doug Gibson swam through the murky waters of segregation through the unknown rivers of integration and emerged as a visionary.

He made such a splash in the Milford community over the years that both his church, St. Paul United Methodist Church in Milford, and Delaware State University honored him this year for his experiences and world-renowned, hand-carved waterfowl decoys.

“I like them because we were farmers, and we had ducks all the time. Ducks made a good project for wood,” he said. “I could spend 30–40 hours on each. There’s very few people who put that much detail in them.”

Fashioned much like he saw his father do time and time again, the Trappe, Md. native says making the ducks was a source of relaxation. “My father used to make decoys with crude tools and that gave me a chance to try my hand at it. Out of seven boys, I was the only one bothered by it,” Mr. Gibson said.

(L-r) Delaware State University Provost Tony Allen, Institutional Advancement VP Vita Pickrum, Douglas Gibson, DSU Acting President Wilma Mishoe, DSU Trustee John Allen and DSU alumna Reba Hollingsworth gather at a reception in honor of Mr. Gibson and his hand-carved duck art. Mr. Gibson donated 10 works to the University.
Special to The Chronicle/Delaware State Univeristy

“I was interested in waterfowl and couldn’t afford to buy decoys, so we had to make our own. Most people in my hometown were poor the same way. We just made our own. We had hand me downs, holes in our shoes, planted our own garden. You had to do everything yourself. There was no money to be spent. We had to be creative, resourceful. If you had an income, you were very fortunate.”

Waterfowl, then, became something to hunt to help the family. Decoys made hunting easier.

Mr. Gibson’s decoys today are not working decoys; rather, they can be found around the globe to decorate homes, businesses and the like. He even takes them to shows.

“There are real ducks that could walk into a show and not win an award, but my ducks will,” he said with a smile.

Bravery meets adversity

Perfecting the artistry behind his waterfowl decoys took decades. But he took some time off to experience life before returning to the basics his father taught him as a boy and expanding on it to create his own art.

He entered the Navy after graduating from Robert R. M. High School in 1941, working in the commissary department. He served in the Southwest Pacific based in Oahu, Hawaii.

“Girls took woodworking and the guys took home economics, that’s how it was,” he said. “I was capable of doing everything I needed to do in the commissary and knew all about it because of that high school class. In my days now, men just didn’t do kitchen work. I just moved into that role and did that and wasn’t ashamed about.”

Under United States Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Mr. Gibson worked on a war ship during World War II.

“It was tough. He would tell you that you’ve got the best equipment in the world, so why the hell didn’t you get it done,” Mr. Gibson recalled. “The Navy has several fleets. A fleet is bigger than Milford. In fact, it’s about as big as Kent County. You don’t want to get in trouble with the fleet.”

After about five years of service, Mr. Gibson used his G.I. Bill to better his education. He first attended the University of Delaware.

“While I was in the Navy, I had a chance to see how good it would be if I got an education,” he said.

Moving forward was his goal. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Education from what was then Delaware State College, now Delaware State University, and eventually a Master of Science degree in School Administration from the University of Delaware.

“When I went to the University of Delaware in 1952, I could buy a sandwich in the Canteen, but I couldn’t stay and eat it. I was not allowed to live on campus, either. The University of Delaware was segregated. My story is not very pleasant.”

This was just two years after the Delaware Court of Chancery demanded the University of Delaware allow the enrollment of African-American students. He persevered.

“I came here [Delaware] into a segregated system and stayed until it changed over,” he said confidently.

Splitting wood to find the flock

He took his first teaching job for $2,300 per year at a St. Mary’s County School in Maryland — this covered room, board and a car.

A year later, he found a better opportunity in Milford, Del. where he and wife Dorothy would raise their children — Dawne and Darrald.

“Then I was making $3,500 a year at Milford. I thought I could jump over the moon. Teaching was not a good thing to make money. It was a secure thing, but not a big deal for making money. And it wasn’t fair,” he said of his job at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School.

“In Seaford, for example, white teachers didn’t have to have a degree. Blacks needed a degree. How the hell are you going to teach school with just a high school education? Civil rights and WWII ended all that. The black voice was heard after WWII. Before, it was just case aside. Why? Because the guys who fought WWII were determined to change. And there was change. They didn’t just wait for it to happen. All they would tell us is just wait it’ll happen, but it’s a lie. Black teachers were fired, arrested, intimidated, all of that.”

But Mr. Gibson was determined. With a passion for education and doing the right thing, he pressed on even when it became a struggle.

“You know what I used to tell my wife? Every time I left her home, I would put $300 on the table to get me out of trouble. The reason is because I would always do what was right and what was right was not popular. I was supposed to conform to any situation. I was lucky. The reason I was lucky is because as the opponents looked into it, even though whatever I was doing conflicted with what they were doing, what I was doing was right. She knew I was going to tell the truth or say something that would not conform to what the customs were. I was not Uncle Tom’s son. And he was not my father’s brother,” he said.

“When I started out, St. Mary’s County was like being down in Mississippi. I was willing to get arrested versus change my policy. I was going to stick to what I thought was right and good. And coming to Milford was really an upgrade.”

Mr. Gibson began teaching at in the Milford School District as an industrial arts, or woodworking, teacher in 1954. This was the same year the Milford Eleven became the first African-American students at Milford High School after the United States Supreme Court ended “separate but equal” in 1954 through the Brown Vs. Board of Education case.

Despite their pleas, the first African-American students to graduate the high school wouldn’t be until 1962, although Mr. Gibson continued to teach and help pave the way for the community.

“Those kids were some of my students. Milford was known all over the world because this town was really the guinea pig for integration. There were people here that said there will never be a black kid in school. It was people who didn’t know and had backgrounds that were a little rust. They weren’t up in the times. It was unheard of to have black teachers teaching in a white situation. And I was one of the victims of that at the time,” Mr. Gibson said.

“But, to tell you the truth about it, they weren’t even sure what they were doing. They were trying to get attention. They wanted to get seen and heard, and I was right in the middle of that. It was a good test through tough times. And most people who were segregationists I’m sure are very, very disgusted with themselves now. Just what they were trying to stop is what they had to eat. It was customary to be segregationist at that time. That was the thing. People didn’t know it wasn’t going to work.”

He said the students understood better, adding, “I know I was one of the best teachers in Milford because I loved children and what I was doing. My classes were all white and they found out there was no difference between a white teacher and a black teacher. You had to use your own mind and common sense and do what you had to do.”

Nothing would get in between Mr. Gibson and his support of local children. After hearing of a new, national program called Head Start which began in 1964, he knew he had to continue leading Milford through change and bring this opportunity to local students.

“I have two children, and I’m going to brag. My children were very bright. We didn’t do anything to push them. Instead, we made it so everything they needed was given to them. We made a commitment to them to have what they needed. Both my children were top flight students all the way through school because things they needed were made available,” he said.

“The Head Start program I wanted because the parents needed to be schooled. I was the one who brought it here. So, once you get the parent on track of improvement that helps the student along. And unfortunately, I found that for many black people, the only information they got was on the street. They didn’t read the news, watch the television or nothing. You’re not going to get very far with that.”

Mr. Gibson thinks Milford may have even been the first Head Start location in Delaware.

“I was seeing students that were top flight students whose parents probably couldn’t even read or write. When you teach school, you can see the difference in students, their localities and what their home lives were like. It’s your job as a teacher to bring them together without embarrassing them. This program did just that,” he said.

Swimming along

Mr. Gibson moved on again after teaching in the Milford School District for 16 years, this time to teach college courses at Delaware Technical and Community College in architectural design for 20 years.

He also donated designs for the Delaware Agricultural Museum in Dover and a few churches in Delaware and Maryland like St. Paul United Methodist Church in Milford and Philadelphia Pentecostal Holiness Church in Ellendale.

He served on the Milford City Council for four years, earned a lifetime achievement award from the Milford-Slaughter-Neck NAACP and was previously appointed to sit on state committees such as the Governor’s Wetlands Committee and the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Carving ducks, however, is what he came back to when work was finished. Mr. Gibson was even named the Artist of the Year by the Delaware Chapter of Ducks Unlimited in 2000 and now judges Delaware Duck Stamp competitions.

He has been been asked to compete with his artwork all over the world and invited to demostrate and exhibit his pieces at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. In 2004, Mr. Gibson was also invited to be the Delaware representative for waterfowl carving at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.

He believes he has created more than 2,000 waterfowl carvings, ten of which are now permanently on display on the first floor of Delaware State University’s William C. Jason Library.

Mr. Gibson says he’s proud of his accomplishments and the role he has played in Delaware, and offered one piece of advice: “You have to believe in yourself to be good at anything; otherwise, you’re not good at anything.”

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at

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