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.