Lessons for Today from a Landmark New Jersey Desegregation Case

Next week, on May 17th, it will be the 69th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In this case, the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” racial segregation was unconstitutional. This landmark case did not happen in isolation. Students, families, and educators from around the country had been challenging racial segregation. The Albert Shanker Institute is privileged to share the history and legacy of Hedgepeth-Williams v. Board of Education written by Kean University President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D.

Education has the potential to be the great equalizer that truly changes the trajectory of people's lives. The struggle to realize that potential has a long history here in New Jersey. Looking back, we know Black activists were demanding civil rights reform in education here in the Garden State more than a decade before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated public schools across the nation in 1954. Concerted efforts by the NAACP, other advocates and mothers weary from discrimination in education led to legal battles that paved the way for changes and pivotal federal legislation. One of the precedent-setting cases that helped the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was New Jersey’s Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education.

In 1943, two mothers from Trenton, Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, attempted to enroll their children in a neighborhood middle school. The school, the women were told, wasn’t “built for Negroes.” As a result, they enrolled their children in a Blacks-only school more than two miles away while simultaneously filing lawsuits against the Board of Education of Trenton. Represented by Robert Queen of the NAACP, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled intentional segregation in public schools to be a violation of New Jersey law. Schools in New Jersey would no longer be segregated.

The broader impact of the historic ruling was profound. It resulted in a massive shift in the national landscape of racial justice and the American judicial system as a whole. The next year, New Jersey's state legislature passed a fair employment practices act, with a fledgling enforcement division, that prohibited racial discrimination in hiring practices. The number of Black teachers rose exponentially. Further racial barrier-breaking developments also occurred. New Jersey’s State Constitution of 1947 codified the desegregation of public schools. In 1949 a civil rights bill in the state banned discrimination in public accommodations. New Jersey became a model for New York and Pennsylvania, and ultimately the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the courts, the Hedgepath-Williams decision proved to be a precedent on which proponents of desegregation could build the historic case that ended legal racial segregation in schools across the nation, Brown v. Board of Education. In his legal brief for that case, attorney Thurgood Marshall cited the Hedgepeth–Williams decision. Ultimately, racial segregation was deemed unconstitutional -– even if the segregated schools were otherwise equal in quality.

Today, nearly eight decades since the Hedgepeth-Williams ruling laid the groundwork for even more dramatic reforms nationwide, race-based inequalities remain pervasive in our schools. How do we follow in the footsteps of our predecessors and fulfill the mandate secured by trailblazers like Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams? We need to compensate teachers equitably across districts to attract and retain quality candidates of all races to the field, but specifically Black educators. We must offer professional development, research opportunities, and holistic support to new and early-stage educators so they can succeed. Without these resources, we are setting young teachers up for failure before they even begin. When our educators feel whole, their students can be at the top of their game, too.

Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the power and importance of Black students seeing people who look like them in the classroom and in leadership positions across academia. Last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Trenton’s population was nearly 50 percent Black, 37 percent Hispanic and 13 percent white, yet the hiring of teachers of color there and elsewhere is slow to catch up to the diversity of its students. Imagine how much greater our students’ academic achievement will be when more Black educators teach Black children Black history, as well as all of the other subjects they are taught in school. Or how high their standards and visions of self-actualization will soar when students of color see themselves more fully represented in the sciences and research, the arts, business, sports, civil rights and in positions of leadership in these fields and others.

It’s also high time we invest more in higher education. We must continue to demand funding and resource allocations for our schools and universities, particularly prioritizing underserved communities. From pre-K through college and into graduate school, we must find and reach the undiscovered brilliant minds, the dreamers, the entrepreneurs, the leaders who are right there in our midst waiting to be put on an educational path that lets them become their full selves. Education is a pathway to upward mobility. It is a way for students to break free from the cycle of poverty and oppression in order to achieve their dreams. When we invest in equal education for all, we are building a stronger future for all of us.

In God’s eyes, we are created equal. However, history and current events remind us that we are not all treated equally. Everyone hears a lot about self-determination and being the architect of their own future. That’s easy to say when you are born into privilege and opportunity. It is a much more difficult proposition for anyone facing racism, systemic negligence and prejudice throughout their lives. We, as a community, cannot ignore the disadvantages that hold so many of our people back. Instead, we must leverage our positions as educators to create programs and deliver resources that will make a difference in students’ lives. And, like the activists of today and decades past, we must work relentlessly to make sure that governments and systems of education do their part. Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education is a call to equity in action as much now as it was in 1944, and we must rededicate ourselves to its moral imperative.


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