At the Table: On Individuality
Don Blakey wasn't trying to become the first black legislator from below the canal. He was simply being Don Blakey.
“I’m not a follower,” says Blakey, who has been affiliated with Delaware State University for more than 50 years. “I don’t necessarily do everything that everybody else does. So I question things.”
Photograph by Pat Crowe IIÊ
Donald Blakey does things his way. Rather than join DT for lunch during our scheduled March 26 interview, for example, he asks if we can chat in a small office at Delaware State University. Blakey, who teaches speech, aviation and Kiswahili at Delaware State, explains that he is manning a weeklong display about East Africa at the university’s Education and Humanities Center.
Blakey, a youthful looking 71-year-old, appears professional but comfortable in blue jeans, a navy blue sports jacket, a blue dress shirt, a necktie that features African lions and a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots. Arranged on a nearby table is a collection of African memorabilia, including photos, brochures and a goatskin.
Blakey has been affiliated with DSU for more than 50 years as a student, alumnus, coach and faculty member. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Delaware State in 1958 and is enshrined in the school’s sports hall of fame for his baseball and football exploits.
In 1968 Blakey became the first black school administrator in the Caesar Rodney School District, where he served as an assistant principal and transportation supervisor. He became the first, and so far only, African American to serve as a Kent County Levy Court commissioner. In November after 18 years in county government, the Camden resident was elected to represent the 34th district in the House of Representatives, becoming the first black legislator from below the C&D Canal.
The discussion is occasionally pre-empted as students drop in to check out the African display. African music plays in the hallway, sometimes interrupted by a lion’s roar and other animal noises that echo from just outside the door, which leads us to ask:
DT: Will you tell us a little bit about what’s going on here today?
DB: This is the English slash foreign language department. One of the instructors came up with the idea that students should know more about each one of the languages being taught. This is Kiswahili. We deal with the culture because I don’t think you can separate culture from language and keep them abstract.
DT: You are the first African American to become a Kent County Levy Court Commissioner and you are also the first black legislator from below the C&D Canal. What does that mean to you and why did it take so long?
DB: It’s been a wonderful pleasure and an awesome responsibility to be a Levy Court Commissioner for my particular district, which was the fifth district. And it’s with the same awesomeness of being the representative of my representative district, which houses the Levy Court district that I worked for. Dolores (his wife) and I worked a long time in the community—not working toward this kind of outcome, but to be of service to the people that we had been working with as teachers and administrators and school bus supervisors and having our children’s theater. We just wanted to give back to the community whatever we could give back to them in whatever form that they required of us.
DT: I guess dealing with school bus issues could be as contentious as anything you’d deal with in politics.
DB: Absolutely. But I think people recognize that when you look at both sides of the issue—and I try to do that—and then you make a decision based on the evidence that was available coming from both sides and try to work toward as much of a compromise as you possibly can. In some instances you can’t get there and you have to go ahead and make your decision.
But most people will give a little bit if they can get a little bit. I thought that was one of the things that I could be working toward: to get people to see that everybody can win. You can’t win all, but you can win a lot of what it is that you are after. So if everybody walks away from the table with something, I think you can make progress.
DT: What in the world took so long to elect a black legislator from downstate?
DB: I’m just going to have to give credit to the people in my community. They weren’t looking at it from a racial point of view. They were looking at it from: Does he have experience? Does he stay in contact with us? Will he do his best to get the job done? Has he done that in the past? I think, for the most part, the answer has been yes. There have been a number of other people who I thought should have been the first, but for some reason, the chemistry wasn’t right at the time.
DT: Many folks have gone into the legislature with the intent of doing good things, but not all of them are able to keep constituent service at the fore, for whatever reason. How do you continue to serve your community and not get involved with the lobbyists and all of the special interests?
DB: I don’t think you can get away from the lobbyists. I mean, they’re there. (He laughs.) It’s like breathing air. They’re all around you. But I think, as I’ve been told and as I’ve done in Levy Court—because there are lobbyists at the Levy Court level, but not as many and not as intense—is to study both sides of the problem, talk to both sides so that you get a full understanding of what is going on, then make a decision. You’re going to satisfy somebody, and you’re going to make someone else not happy about the situation, but if you have the evidence and the circumstances point to a certain conclusion, then you’re on much better ground than if you only listen to one side.
So what you’re talking about is, yes, I’ve had lobbyists talk to me about certain things in medicine, in the business of abortions and things like that. But there are two sides to that, and I’m going to listen to both sides. As I said before, I would try to get both sides to give up something, because if both sides can walk away from the table saying, “I won something. I didn’t get it all, but I won something,” it’s a much better situation than the other way.
DT: You make it sound easy.
DB: I just live that way.
DT: You’re a Republican. How many people of color, especially from below the canal, are Republicans?
DB: I think there are a lot of them, but they won’t say it. A lot of people don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Dolores and I are both Republicans.
I guess I got to be a Republican, not because of a political issue or anything of that nature, but basically because when my grandmother put me on a train to come here, she said, “Don’t make an ass out of yourself.” We (he and Dolores) both like elephants, so we chose the elephants, not knowing what the elephant was going to lead to in terms of politics or anything of that nature. I have nothing personal against Republicans, Democrats, Green Party or anything else. I think the issues that we have to deal with, that need to be ameliorated through working together, hammering things out and, again, both sides walking away with something—that’s what politics is all about, I think, is compromise.
DT: Now, if you don’t mind running this by me again, your grandmother put you on a train…
DB: My grandma put me on a train from Washington, D.C., in 1954. She gave me a bag of sandwiches and $20 and a hug and said, “Do the best you can. Just don’t make an ass out of yourself.” What she really was saying was uphold the family values.
DT: Was she telling you to not become a Democrat?
DB: No. But I use that.
DT: So tell me how the elephant results in you joining the Republican Party.
DB: Well, obviously you have a symbol. And everybody knows when you show the symbol on the wall and one is an elephant and one is a donkey, then you say, “Oh, I like the elephant. That’s what I want to do right there.” That’s how I became a Republican. (He laughs.) That’s the way it happened.
DT: But I assume you would have changed your affiliation if you didn’t agree with the party’s stance on issues?
DB: Well, I’m not a joiner. I’m not a follower. And I want to qualify that, because it may seem that I’m overstating myself, but I don’t necessarily do everything that everybody else does. So I question things.
DT: You said there are a lot of black Republicans around, but they’re not admitting it. Are they registered Republicans or are they just voting that way?
DB: I can’t tell whether or not they are registered. I’m assuming that most of them are registered. But they’re not vocal about it.
DT: Why not?
DB: Well, I guess it’s like the kid that walks through the cafeteria with the suit on when everybody else is in T-shirts. For the most part, the student that wants to be different won’t be different if he walks through the cafeteria with a T-shirt on. But he can do things because he’s under the radar, so to speak. The student that walks through the cafeteria with the suit on, everybody’s going to look at him. They’re gonna ask him why he’s dressed like that. Everybody doesn’t want attention called to themselves like that. So this is only an assumption, that those African Americans who are not vocal or visible want not to have attention drawn to themselves. They want to vote the way they want to. They don’t want to get drawn into these arguments about what this party did for that group or the other party did for this group.
DT: You chair a committee and you’re a member of three others. That’s quite a lot to deal with during your first year, isn’t it?
DB: Yeah, but it’s not unusual. I’m up to multi-tasking. I’ve had experience in transportation. I’ve had experience in administration. I’ve had experience in the school system and I have 18 years of Levy Court experience, so I think that they trust me with a bailiwick that has a lot of responsibility to it. I appreciate that, and I will attempt to do the very best I can to be up to date and to really help to try and solve problems. I’ve got a learning curve that’s kind of steep. But that’s what helps to get me up in the morning.
DT: What were the remaining issues that you wanted to address in Levy Court?
DB: Still, it’s going to be growth and how to control growth. There’s been the issue that people want to have the infrastructure in before the growth occurs versus those that want to have the growth then put the infrastructure in. I’m working from the opposing point of view of each of them and saying, let’s do them together. As you grow, you put infrastructure in. But don’t get it too far ahead. They have to be close.
The governor has said, “Discover Delaware.” They’ve got signs as far west as Ohio: Discover Delaware. New York: Discover Delaware. We’ve been discovered. So now we have to handle that. So it’s not a county problem as much as it is a state problem.
Do we want all these people here? Do we want to build a road that carries them all the way from Philadelphia straight into Ocean City? That’s one of the issues that’s coming up right now with the Milford area. Even further down, the state wants to improve the highway system to carry people through the state to get to Rehoboth, where they can’t go anywhere because it’s gridlock. It seems another kind of thinking needs to take place there. I’m not sure what that is, but I think if we put our heads together, we can probably figure it out.Ê D