It was a perfect example of how history forges lasting links with the present.
On May 7, Trenton Education Association (TEA) members and their president, Naomi Johnson-Lafleur, welcomed NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer, and community members for a melancholy tour of a school that made civil rights history 70 years ago.
In 1944, Trenton parents Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams won the first-ever desegregation lawsuit in America – a victory that paved the way for the May 17, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case and the end of legal segregation in America’s public schools.
Today, the Trenton school named in their honor is in disrepair, and awaiting state funding to fix a chronically leaking roof, damaged floors and ceilings, rotting window frames, and many other problems.
Johnson-Lafleur led Van Roekel, Steinhauer, members of the press, and others on the tour, where they saw first-hand the need for immediate, drastic action by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA).
Van Roekel brought a national perspective to the event, and called out the SDA, which has been sitting on billions in state school repair and construction money.
‘Spend the money’
At an outdoor press conference following the tour, TEA members held large photos of the disrepair inside the building.
“New Jersey is lucky,” he told the crowd. “You have a fund that is earmarked – why in the world would you not spend it? Take the money, spend it, upgrade the schools and if you run out, ask for more. The students are worth it. The work matters, and here it is 60 years later and we’re talking about separate but unequal. Unequal in opportunity, unequal in facilities and it’s not right!”
Steinhauer underscored the school’s historic significance.
“Next week, our nation will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. What few people know is that 10 years before that decision, the first-ever school desegregation case in America was right here in New New Jersey, and it was filed on behalf of two parents in Trenton,” he recounted.
“Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams were mothers who simply wanted their children to have a good education at this school. Because they were willing to stand up for their children, millions of students across New Jersey and America have had better educational opportunities over the last 70 years.
‘What would they think?’
Janice Williams of the Trenton Education Association displays “A Tale of Two Schools,” a poster that compares two schools in Essex County that are nearly the same age. The schools are less than a mile apart, but a difference in ZIP code has determined which one has more resources for maintenance and upgrades.
“But I cannot help but wonder what they would think if they’d been on the tour we just took through this building,” he said.
“What would Mrs. Hedgepeth and Mrs. Williams think about the learning conditions for children who attend this school today? What would they think about a leaking roof that leaves ceilings, floors and windows warped and damaged? What would they think about broken, crumbling floor tiles, unusable water fountains, leaky faucets and decrepit bathrooms? What would they think about broken thermostats that leave rooms so hot students struggle to learn?”
Steinhauer said the learning conditions for too many children in New Jersey are deplorable.
“What sort of mixed message does it send when we tell children that education should be their highest priority, but then send them to schools that appear to be our state’s lowest priority?” he asked.
“We hear a lot these days about ‘no excuses’ when it comes to student learning. But when it comes to the schools those children learn in, we hear an awful lot of excuses coming from the SDA. Enough is enough. We don’t need promises. We don’t need excuses. We don’t need finger pointing. We need action.”
Orange school also toured
Earlier in the day, he and Van Roekel traveled to Orange, where they joined Orange Education President Mary Karriem in a tour of another decrepit school building.
“We visited the Cleveland Street School in Orange,” Steinhauer said. “Children there face conditions very similar to what you saw here.”
Karriem came to Trenton to join the Hedgepeth-Williams tour, and talked about the Cleveland Street School’s terrible physical condition.
“But I wish you could see that school like I see it. When I am at that school, those hallways and classrooms are filled with children. Those children want to learn,” she said. “They deserve the same opportunities that other children in New Jersey take for granted. And the teachers and staff at Cleveland Street school do an amazing job of overcoming the obstacles they face.
“But the hard truth is, until the adults in charge at the SDA do their job and provide the students at Cleveland Street with a safe, healthy school that is designed with learning in mind, the children and educators there will always be at a disadvantage,” Karriem said.
“There might be no better way to honor the spirit of Hedgepeth-Williams and Brown vs. Board of Education than to ensure that children in our poorest communities get the facilities they need and deserve so that they can learn and thrive,” said Steinhauer.