In 1896, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, set the stage for one of the most prevalent eras of segregation and discrimination in the history of our nation. While this pervasive period of inequality, at a national level, would begin to crumble in the mid-1950s with Brown v. Board of Education, a more local case decided here in New Jersey in 1944 would start a ripple effect that would bring us to the Brown decision and an end to the segregation of public schools and public spaces.
Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education would become a game changer for New Jersey and eventually the nation. Undeniably the most significant part of Trenton’s history, this case served as a landmark civil rights case for New Jersey and a monumental step in addressing civil freedoms and race relations across the country.
“The issues of racial inequality and civil rights have always been a part of modern history, especially in the middle part of the 20th century,” said Raj Parikh, Esq., Partner at Genova Burns. “Hedgepeth and Williams vs. Board of Education was the first time that the State was forced to directly address racial segregation and take a serious look at civil rights across New Jersey. This decision also exemplifies the monumental change in law and regulation as well as a shift in basic human rights that created a wave of desegregation across the country.”
In the middle part of the 20th century, many people living in Trenton worked in the factories and lived in nearby neighborhoods. Since these factories, at the time, employed whomever was needed, the resulting residential neighborhoods were racially diverse, and the elementary schools and single high schools were emblematic of that diversity.
Such was not the case for the City’s five junior high schools, where four of the schools were exclusively for white students and geographically spread across the City. Trenton’s children of color were solely admitted to the Lincoln School, commonly known as Junior #5. These students were required to travel to and from the school the best way they knew how, and due to rampant poverty at the time, many walked in all kinds of weather.
The case began when two mothers, Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams challenged the Trenton Board of Education when their children were denied entrance into their neighborhood’s local junior high school. Though the Board’s placement rules were, and continue to be, that students are admitted to their nearest school (Junior #2), the children of these two women were required to enroll in the junior high school more than two and half miles from their home (Junior #5). As a result, these mothers filed suit in September 1943 on the grounds of racial discrimination and that the nearest school offered better facilities and opportunities for a quality public education.
Dr. Paul Loser, a former superintendent of the Trenton Public Schools, would play a significant role in the case, arguing that segregated schools allowed students to better focus on schoolwork and that children of the same race better understood each other positively contributing to their academic and social achievement.
Hedgepeth and Williams, under a petition to the NAACP, were granted an attorney, Robert Queen, to argue the case. Queen would argue the case through the lower courts and all the way up to the New Jersey Supreme Court, arguing that desegregating Junior #2 was warranted under an 1881 law that prohibited racial segregation with regards to public education and that the law had clearly not been enforced strongly.
After much deliberation, the case came to a close on January 31, 1944, when the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed unanimously that Junior #2 should be desegregated, thereby forcing all schools across the state to not deny entrance of any student on the basis of race. Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education created many long-term effects that challenged the status quo and impacted our nation’s pace towards civil rights. Among these are:
- Initiated the nullification of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, and provided significant legal precedent for the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which would essentially outlaw school segregation nationwide.
- Motivated the 1947 State Constitution which, in part, outlawed discrimination in issues of public affairs, and contributed to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, a major civil rights law that reduced discrimination through the New Jersey Department of Civil Science and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
- In 1993, Trenton’s Junior #2 was renamed the Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School in honor of these mothers who fought for the civil rights of their children and ultimately impacting the future of countless others.
This case taught New Jerseyans, and Americans as well, that everyone deserves an equal opportunity to be the best that they can be without a judgement based on race.