Trenton celebrates 80th anniversary of Hedgepeth-Williams decision

Ten years before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, two determined mothers in Trenton, Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, simply wanted their children to attend the newly built Junior #2 school in their neighborhood. But in grades 7-9, the policy of the Trenton Board of Education was to enroll students in schools based on skin color. 

On Feb. 28, 2024, the descendants of Hedgepeth and Williams, as well as the descendants of attorney Robert Queen, gathered to mark the 80th anniversary of Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education, Trenton. This landmark decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court brought an end to the official segregation of New Jersey’s public schools. Queen was the attorney who took the Hedgepeth and Williams case to the state Supreme Court. 

The celebration was held at the former Junior #2 School, which was renamed Hedgepeth-Williams Intermediate School in 1991.

Keli Tianga,
great granddaughter of attorney Robert Queen.

The Hedgepeth-Williams decision

Editor’s note: Most of this section of the article is an edited version of the “About Us” section of the Hedgepeth Williams Intermediate School’s website. 

Until 1944, four of Trenton’s middle schools, Junior #1 through Junior #4, were attended exclusively by white students. Trenton’s Black students were required to attend the New Lincoln School, later known as Junior #5. Today it is the home of the Luis Muñoz-Rivera Elementary School.

New Jersey was home to many segregated public schools despite a state law dating back to 1881 that prohibited such racism. 

In mid-20th century Trenton, many residents lived near the factories where they worked. Consequently, these neighborhoods were racially diverse, as were the enrollments of the elementary schools that served them. All students, regardless of race, attended Trenton Central High School because the cost of duplicating the athletic fields, labs and swimming pool was prohibitive. 

In 1939, a brand-new Junior #2 was built in the neighborhood in which the Hedgepeth, Williams and Snyder families lived. Their children, Janet, Leon and Dolores, respectively, had been playmates and classmates through sixth grade. In the fall of 1943, the rising seventh graders applied for admission to Junior #2. 

Dolores, who was white, was admitted, but Janet and Leon, who were Black, were turned away by a school secretary. Their mothers appealed the decision, which was first ignored, then denied by the school principal. It was soon also denied by the superintendent and the board of education. 

Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way

Hedgepeth and Williams petitioned the NAACP, which assigned Queen to their case. When Queen discovered the 1881 law, which had never been enforced, he pursued the case all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Dr. Paul Loser, Trenton’s superintendent at the time, testified that Junior #2 had not been “built for Negroes” and claimed that Black students were “better off” when separated from white students. 

On Jan. 31, 1944, the court rendered its decision, ordering the Trenton Board of Education to immediately enroll Janet Hedgepeth and Leon Williams in Junior #2 and admit all Black students to all Trenton public schools by the end of the school year. The decision prohibited any school district in the state from denying admission to students on the basis of skin color. 

Ten years later, Thurgood Marshall—who in 1967 became the first Black person to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice—cited the Hedgepeth and Williams case, forming the basis of that court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Hedgepeth and Williams also influenced the passage of the 1947 State Constitution outlawing discrimination in all public affairs, ending the “Separate but Equal” doctrine in all government agencies and in the New Jersey National Guard 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did the same thing for the rest of the nation. 

The Williams Family
The Hedgepeth Family

Historical marker unveiled

An all-day celebration began in the foyer of Hedgepeth-Williams School, with Berline Williams’ grandson, Daniel Napoleon, serving as emcee. He first introduced the school’s current principal, Adrienne Hill and the district superintendent, James Earle. Both spoke about the important legacy of the school.

Napoleon introduced Queen’s great-granddaughter, Keli Tianga, who had initiated the petition drive to have a historical marker placed at the school.

“Robert Queen was affectionately called ‘lawyer Queen’ by community members and neighbors,” Tianga said. “He loved Trenton, he loved its people, and he took great pride in using his legal training to help Black people gain equal access to our nation’s resources.”

Tianga noted that while Hedgepeth-Williams was one his most noteworthy cases, Queen also worked to integrate Rider University in 1941. In 1933, her great-grandfather, a Howard University graduate, argued before the state Supreme Court to desegregate Trenton Central High School’s swimming pool.

“If the promise of this nation is working, there will always be change,” Tianga said. “But we don’t want any student who attends Hedgepeth-Williams, or a person in the neighborhood, to not know the reason why this school is named what it’s named. I hope that in reading the marker, students and neighbors not only take great pride in the history of their community but are inspired by the proof that it is ordinary citizens who have always brought about the greatest change in our nation.”

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora noted that the anniversary celebration drew not only members of the Hedgepeth, Williams and Queen families and school district staff and leadership, but the lieutenant governor, legislators, city council members, and Mercer County leaders.

“Today, as we unveil this commemorative plaque, we not only honor the memory of the Hedgepeth and Williams families, but we also reaffirm our commitment to the principles of equality and inclusion,” Gusciora said. “We acknowledge the progress we’ve made, but we also recognize the work that still lies ahead.”

Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way quoted her daughter, Fiona, saying, “This is one of the greatest days evvvverrrrr!”

Way noted that one of the highlights of her life was meeting the four surviving members of the Little Rock Nine who braved angry mobs, under the escort of federal troops, to be the first students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“Their story is only possible because of what was established and accomplished here in 1944,” Way said. “We are stronger as a state because these two families fought to make educational access free and fair. Let us remember to continue to make our own spaces more diverse and inclusive.”

Students celebrate Hedgepeth-Williams

In a packed auditorium, one beautifully accented by the Art Deco architecture that recalls the school’s 1930s construction, over 500 students in grades 6 to 8 celebrated the anniversary.

Led by the school choir, students sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” What followed were art exhibitions, poetry and musical presentations from the school’s band and choir, as well as a solo from Principal Adrienne Hill. 

Sixth graders presented the story of the Hedgepeth-Williams case. A student group called the Living Wax Museum presented the stories of famous Black Americans including Martin Luther King Jr., first self-made female American millionaire Madame C.J. Walker, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph, “father” of the video game cartridge Jerry Lawson, first Black woman in space Mae Jemison, youngest known person arrested during the Civil Rights Movement Audrey Fae, actors Michael B. Jordan and Will Smith, and entertainers Michael Jackson and Beyoncé.

Hedgepeth-Williams Teacher of the Year Shinetta Campbell offered remarks to close the student program.

A Hedgepeth-Williams student tells the story Gladys Hedgepeth.

Community luncheon celebrates Hedgepeth-Williams

The day continued in the school’s gymnasium with a luncheon hosted by the Trenton Paraprofessional Association (TPA). The walls were covered with student-created art commemorating the anniversary of the Hedgepeth-Williams decision. Other decorations, including table coverings were in the school’s colors: orange and black. 

Berline Williams’ granddaughter, Pamela Haughton Owens, who served on the 80th anniversary planning committee along with TPA President Betty Glenn, Daniel Napoleon, Carol Perry, Gaye Taylor and Michelle Walker, opened the luncheon program.

Haughton Owens spoke to the importance of remembering and teaching the story of Hedgepeth and Williams.

“The Hedgepeth and Williams decision and the changes it influenced are virtually absent from New Jersey’s rich civil rights history,” Haughton Owens said. “But this history must be infused in the social studies curriculum that is taught in every public school in Trenton, in New Jersey and in this nation so that students and staff get a full understanding of how Hedgepeth and Williams has benefited them.”

The Trenton Paraprofessionals Association hosted the 80th anniversary celebration.

Among the dozen speakers at the luncheon—including school district, government, union and church leaders—was Trenton Councilwoman Yazminelly Gonzalez who told the audience that she is proud graduate of Hedgepeth-Williams Intermediate School. She delivered her remarks in English and Spanish and expressed her gratitude to Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams. 

“Their courageous spirit and commitment to education is what paved the way for me to attend this school,” Gonzalez said. “Their efforts are why we are able to stay here together all as one, no matter where we came from or what language we speak.

On behalf of Trenton City Council, Gonzalez presented proclamations to the Hedgepeth and Williams families.

“As we know,” Gonzalez concluded,” the Hedgepeth-Williams decision came 10 years before Brown v. Board. That speaks to the motto of this city: Trenton makes, the world takes.”

Members of the Hedgepeth and Williams families were well represented.  Gladys Hedgepeth’s grandson, Gilbert Hedgepeth, and Berline Williams’ son, Arnold Williams, both spoke. 

“My grandmother Gladys Hedgepeth’s unselfish devotion to the cause of fighting against the deeply entrenched barriers of institutional racism, racial prejudice, segregation, Jim Crowism and discrimination cannot, and must not, be depicted as ‘just ordinary,’” Gilbert Hedgepeth said. 

He traced his grandmother’s long-term association with the Trenton chapter of the NAACP, particularly her advisership of the Trenton Youth Council. She led the youth to create group and holiday activities for soldiers housed at Fort Dix during World War II, purchase goods to assist needy residents in Trenton, organize travel and lodging for Trenton’s teens and young adults to attend NAACP youth conventions around the country, and plan campus visits to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Arnold Williams, Berline Williams’ youngest son, traveled from Arizona to attend the anniversary event. He brought with him an official proclamation from the state of Arizona honoring the Hedgepeth-Williams decision. 

“I was born in 1944, so I am a legacy child of the Hedgepeth-Williams decision,” Arnold Williams said.

Daniel Napoleon added that in addition the proclamation from Trenton City Council and the state of Arizona, proclamations had been received from the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly through Sen. Shirley Turner and Assembly members Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Anthony Verrelli, and from the U.S. Congress through Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman.

The keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Darrell L. Armstrong, placed the anniversary celebration in the context of Black History Month.

“When we look at Black History Month, we remember that for Black people, our history is in our stories—passed down from generation to generation to generation to generation, because for so many years we weren’t able to record our experiences or our history through any official means,” Armstrong said. “So we passed down our stories, expressions, dances, traditions, recipes, recollections, truths and lies. The preservation of the story is the essence of the black experience.”

Armstrong recounted the Hedgepeth-Williams story and the lessons it reveals: the courage and resilience of African Americans—particularly Black women, the power of education as a tool for social change, and that honoring the past allows us to embrace the future.

“As we commemorate this 80th anniversary of Hedgepeth and Williams versus Board of Education, we must remember the sacrifices and struggles of those who came before us while also looking towards the future with hope and determination,” Armstrong said. “It is our responsibility to continue the legacy of the civil rights movement, to stand up against injustice and to work towards building a more inclusive and equitable society for all.”