There is a myth formulated by some that black folks weren’t (and aren’t) interested in education, and somehow – before the Brown vs Board of Education decision didn’t develop facilities of their own. I’ve previously discussed the “Jenny Dean” School in Mananas, Virginia and Maggie Walker in Richmond, Virginia.
The New Jersey Historical Society has developed a film about the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, or “Bordentown School” as known to locals.
Here is an old film about “Bordentown”. It looks to have been shot in the late 30’s or mid 40’s –
The school’s bloodlines go back to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. It was visited by Washington, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Joe Louis. Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole played there. So did Althea Gibson. Those are the big names.
But the small names preserve the legacy — people like Art Symes, Nate Hampton, Barbara Wheeler, and Betty and Lionel Hunter. They are among the few dozen former students who meet every July to remember what was.
It is part class reunion and part historic exhibit. The youngest are nearing 70 and there is urgency to their work, because they don’t want their school, which closed 54 years ago, to be any more forgotten.
The big, official name was the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth. But it was simply called “Bordentown” to New Jersey’s black working class, who sent their kids there. And to the nation’s African-American intellectual community, who went to teach them. And to the white progressive thinkers, who saw the school as a successful experiment in public segregated education.
A new film by Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards captures the history and successes of the school.
“A Place out of Time: The Bordentown School” will premier at 7 tonight at the Newark Museum as part of the New Jersey Black Film Festival. The film is narrated by Ruby Dee, who is expected to attend.
“The story is a documentarians dream,” Davidson said. “There are these great individual stories on the ground, and the characters are still alive to tell them. But their stories mirror that larger story told from above.”
The one-hour documentary weaves the big picture and small picture together. The film tells the history with black-and-white archival film and photos, and tells the back story of the national debate over “Negro education.” Bordentown was called “The Tuskegee of the North.”
But the color comes from the alumni who banded together 17 years ago to save memories of the school, then successfully petitioned the state for a beautiful black granite and bronze monument, in case the old buildings are ever torn down.
“Our teachers came from Harvard, Princeton, Radcliffe, Rutgers, best universities in America,” said Symes, who studied carpentry at Bordentown and went on to become an architect and professor.
Symes said this Sunday at the home of Norman Harris, an Elizabeth committeeman, who was hosting the monthly gathering of the “Social Club,” which plans the reunion, which will be held at the school Saturday.
Hampton, the group historian, said many graduates went on to academic careers. Barbara Wheeler at Kean. Symes at Southern University. Ivory Buck at Rowan. Henry Daniels was a high school principal. Augie Smith was an engineer with JCP&L, and teacher. Those, and many others met the expectations of the faculty.
“It was a village. It was a community,” said Betty Hunter. “They taught us how to take care of our rooms, and our clothes and our money. It was like living with a big family, where the other students were your siblings and the teachers were your parents. You didn’t want to disappoint them.”
Bordentown was laid out on 400 acres overlooking the Delaware River. The architecture was Georgian Colonial, like many academic palaces of the day. There were farm fields, and work shops. The boys were trained in agriculture, auto mechanics and building trades; the girls in cosmetology and the domestic arts. All were schooled in discipline.
Military uniforms for the boys. White jumpers and black ties for the girls. Marching and drilling formations. Precision calisthenics. Serious band and choir, that performed professional.
“We had a fabulous choir,” Betty Hunter said. “The school made money for our appearances.”
Scholarships were worked for. The school cost $15 a month. Students could earn that by doing extra work, like mopping floors, or waiting tables in the cafeteria. In their own dorms, they worked for free.
“We had to keep that place clean,” Betty Hunter said. “I don’t mean tidy. I mean clean. It was expected.”
In the film, Rutgers-Newark professor Clement Price speaks about the transitional time Bordentown represents. The school opened in 1886 and closed in 1955. Those years speak for themselves. The founder was a college-educated former slave, and it operated until integration of public schools became national law.
Price talks about post-slavery blacks being like every other ethnic group new to America’s opportunity.
“They wanted to carve out a place of their own,” he says in the film. “Learn a trade. Work hard. Remain frugal. Be patient.”
Get an education. Meet expectations.