Monday, January 19, 2015

How two Jersey Girls ended school segregation before Brown v. Board

Being a life-long Jersey Girl, I thought I knew a thing or two about the Garden State. Despite our bad reputation (Unreal Housewives, Jersey Shore wannabees, mobsters, corruption, oil refineries, property taxes, pollution), New Jersey isn't such a bad place. We've got a swimmable ocean and skiable mountains. Despite Gov. Christie's best efforts, we still have one of the best public education systems in the country. No one grows better corn, tomatoes, blueberries or cranberries (and yes, I'll take that bet). We have the best—and most—diners in the country. We have to because we have the most people per square mile, and when we all want our Taylor Ham (not pork roll) and cheese on a roll, our diners must deliver! We're smack-dab between two cultural mega centers: NYC and Philly. We've got beautiful state parks and preserved farmland, funky urban centers and lots and lots of suburbs. 

We also have highly segregated and impoverished inner cities, which play an important role in the story I'm going to tell.

The state is home to many firsts. The light bulb, phonograph and motion picture projector were all invented here. The first baseball game was played here. The first Miss America pageant was held here in Atlantic City, home to the world's longest boardwalk and Monopoly's street names. The first Indian Reservation was founded here. The first drive-in theatre was opened here. Modern paleontology began here.

We even have an elephant hotel named Lucy. 

Yes, this is real
A boatload of people who've made significant contributions to American history, science, sports, the arts and culture were born here. The list is way too long, but here are just a few notables: Buzz Aldrin, Count Basie, Judy Blume, Grover Cleveland, Jon Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, Norman Mailer, Jack Nicholson, Paul Robeson, Queen Latifah, Dorothy Parker, Shaq, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Meryl Streep. 

So, imagine my surprise when I learned that two Jersey Girls led the fight for the desegregation of the nation's public schools right here in Trenton, a full decade before the 1954 US Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

Moms in Action!

This weekend I attended the 41st Annual New Jersey Education Association Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Celebration where the 2010-2011 second grade classes of Mrs. Kristine Burns and Ms. Susan Shields of Hedgepeth-Williams School—the former Junior 2 School—educated the audience on how their school became the first desegregated school in the United States. 

This is the book they wrote and illustrated. The ISBN# is 978-0-9914233-0-9. It should be a staple in every public school library in this country. It tells the story of what happened when two Trenton moms fought racial discrimination and won. 

When a new neighborhood school, Junior 2, would not allow Black children to attend, Leon Williams was forced to walk 5 miles to attend Lincoln School. There he met and befriended Janet Hedgepeth. After their appeals to the local board of education fell on deaf ears, their moms, Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, sued the Trenton Board of Education and won. 

Jersey moms fight back!

The real Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams
 The book says,
On January 31, 1944, the New Jersey Supreme Court said, "It is unlawful for boards of education to exclude children from any public school on the grounds that they are of the Negro race." 
Our amazing school was the first to let Black kids in, even though Junior 2 was "Not built for Negroes." 
That made New Jersey the first state to MAKE public schools let Black kids in to any school.

When history repeats itself, we must never forget

In an era when public education is reverting back to 'separate and unequal', when 'edupreneures' seek to profit off the invention of 'failing' schools and 'bad' teachers, when funding for public education is being slashed to the bone, when those who dare to speak the truth about the racial disparities of education 'reform' are bullied and intimidated, when public schools in our poor, urban cities are closed and converted to charters that weed out the most challenging to educate, when those who need the most from our public schools are actually losing the most, when concerned parents are characterized as nothing more than Chicken Littles, it's stories like this one that need shouting from the mountaintops! As Margaret Mead said, 
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

While this is what happened when two concerned parents said, 'Enough!' to separate and unequal education, it's also the story of the thousands of New Jersey parents (and the millions across the country) whose collective voices are united in a chorus shouting, 'Enough!' to the re-segregation, the cuts, the standardized testing, the 'rigor', the 'accountability' and the privatization of one of the most democratic institutions in our democratic society.

While Dr. King must be rolling in his grave at what is happening to public education today, I hope he sees that his dream has not been lost. The tide is turning. The fight to defend public education is only growing. Parents across this state and country are leading the fight. And we will win.

Rest assured, Dr. King, we will get to the mountaintop.

Educators who made a difference

Thank you, Mrs. Burns and Ms. Shields for being excellent teachers. Thank you for providing the time, space and guidance that allowed your young charges to own and share one of the most important moments in New Jersey history.

I leave you with this quote from the book's Introduction:
A further outgrowth of this project developed when a student suggested that our first African American president should visit our school. This child had clearly made the connection between the pivotal role that the Hedgepeth-Williams story played towards our nation eventually electing a president of African American descent and the need for President Obama to visit the school where it all started. This landmark decision set the precedent that the rest of the country would follow; a full ten years later.

Mr. President, are you listening?