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1943: School spirit
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
They were a couple of 12-year-old kids who wanted to go to the same classes as their playmates.

But in September 1943, when Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth tried to get into their neighborhood school in Trenton's Wilbur section, they were told no.

Junior High No. 2 was "not built for Negroes," the principal explained.

And Leon and Janet, good students thought they might have been, were black.

Therefore, they had to walk 2 1/2 miles to a different school -- the all-black New Lincoln School.

Those were the rules of the Jim Crow era in Trenton. But to the angry mothers of Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth, the rules just weren't fair. Indignant, they filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education of Trenton, demanding to let their children go to the same school as white kids.

The Hedgepeth-Williams lawsuit would lead the state Supreme Court to make a historic ruling -- abolishing racial segregation in New Jersey.

It would even be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade later in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education case, which made integration the law of the land throughout America.

Winning the fight for integrated schools meant tearing down a color bar that had endured through all of Trenton's history.

Blacks sat in the balconies of movie theaters, while whites got the best seats. Blacks could swim at public pools from noon to 2 p.m.; whites got to swim the rest of the day. Blacks were relegated to their own schools, like the Old Lincoln, Livingston, Escher and Nixon schools. Whites got bigger, better-maintained buildings in which to learn.

Jim Crow was not enforced with Southern-style heavy-handedness. There were no "whites only" signs in public places, no lynchings. But, as genteelly as possible, white society kept blacks on the outside looking in.

At the same time, however, in the early part of the 20th century, changes were taking place that would doom racial segregation.

World War I had triggered one of the greatest population movements in American history -- the exodus of dirt-poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers from the South. By the millions, they came north for better jobs and the chance to join their own communities in big industrial cities.

In Trenton, most of the black newcomers came from Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. They settled in the industrial North Ward and on Spring Street and Passaic Street in the shadow of the State House.

In 1920, there were 5,315 blacks in Trenton, 4 percent of the city; by 1950, they made up 11 percent of the city. Today the figure hovers around 50 percent.

The blacks of Trenton were not just hardscrabble poor, but skilled factory hands, teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

One of them was Robert Queen, an eloquent lawyer who reinvigorated Trenton's branch of the NAACP. Another was Lottie Dinkins, a Lincoln School teacher whose son, David, sought his fortune in New York City. In 1989, David Dinkins would become New York's first black mayor.

The African-Americans asserted their rights as their numbers swelled. The high school required black students to take swimming lessons on Friday afternoon only, while white kids could swim the rest of the week. In 1932, Queen sued to stop the practice. The state Supreme Court struck down the school rules and ordered the school pool integrated.

Once America went to war against Nazi Germany in 1941, the defense of Jim Crow became weaker than ever. How could the country discriminate against blacks when we were fighting for democracy? The state's own lesson plan for teachers clearly instructed: "We must impress upon our students the truth that there is no superior race."

Still, despite integration at the high school level, despite the preaching of equality, Trenton's middle schools were strictly Jim Crow.

The New Lincoln School, on North Montgomery Street, was built as a black-only junior high school in 1923 -- and celebrated as a sign of racial progress, not barriers. Mayor Frederick Donnelly even boasted about it in a campaign brochure entitled "A True Friend of the Colored Race."

There was no talk on integrating middle school -- not until Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams came along.

Booker Williams had come to Trenton in 1917 to work as a machine operator at Crescent Wire while his wife, Berline, raised seven children in a cramped household at 7 Parker Ave. George and Gladys Hedgepeth lived at 31 Walnut Ave.

Both mothers served as volunteers for the NAACP; Mrs. Hedgepeth also belonged to the city's Interracial Committee for Unity. All their lives, they had put up with petty discrimination --- but they also never wavered in believing they deserved equality.

"My mother saw that black people were treated differently than white people," said Williams' daughter, Thelma Smith. "But our neighborhood was mixed, and we all took care of each other. We had Italian neighbors, Jewish neighbors, Polish neighbors. We were all in poverty, but it was a poverty of money, not a poverty of spirit.

"As kids, I don't think we were even conscious of color. We just played with each other. We'd be out on the street, jumping rope, playing red-light, rolling around on scooters. Or we'd have a Popsicle on the front porch. And our parents would be sitting around to make sure we didn't get in trouble."

Leon Williams was due to leave Cook Elementary School in the fall of 1943. His mother, Mrs. Williams, wanted to enroll him in Junior No. 2 at Cuyler and Gladstone, two blocks away -- but his assignment was for the blacks-only Lincoln School, 16 blocks away.

Mrs. Williams went to the principal's office to ask for a transfer. Transfer denied. She went to the Board of Education. They ignored her.

Meanwhile, when Mrs. Hedgepeth asked for a transfer for her own daughter, she was met by the same reponse: That Junior 2 "was not built for Negroes."

On Sept. 13, 1943, the school year began. Mrs. Hedgepeth and Mrs. Williams enrolled their kids at the Lincoln School -- but they also filed suit against the school board to let their kids into Junior 2.

The NAACP took over their legal defense and argued it all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court in less than a month.

The parents' lawyer was Robert Queen, the same man who had desegregated the swimming classes at Trenton High. Now, he had to cross-examine Trenton's school superintendent, Paul Loser, asking him why blacks were excluded from the white junior high schools.

First, Queen read the letter of the 1881 law that prohibited school boards from excluding children based on race, color or creed. Then he zeroed in on his target:

"Aren't Leon and Janet excluded from Junior 2 on the grounds of color?" Queen asked Loser.

The superintendent hesitated for a moment. Then he said the answer was yes, but only because it was better for the black students. Blacks, he said, tended to segregate themselves anyway, and they would have "better opportunities for leadership when they are segregated."

"In that case," Queen shot back, "do you consider it advisable to set up separate schools for minority groups such as Italians, Poles, Jews, Hungarians and Germans?"

Loser was stumped.

When the Supreme Court made its ruling on Jan. 31, 1944, the justices were unanimous: Mrs. Hedgepeth and Mrs. Williams won. "It is unlawful," said Chief Justice Newton Potter, "for boards of education to exclude children from any public school on the ground that they are of the Negro race."

The Hedgepeth-Williams case, a landmark of racial justice, had even broader ripples in American judicial history.

In 1954, an NAACP lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, would cite the state's decision as one of several precedents for overturning racial segregation everywhere in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him -- and ruled that year that every school in America must open its door to black children.

In Trenton, meanwhile, Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth were quickly admitted to Junior No. 2. Over the next year, more than 200 black children transferred from the all-black Lincoln School to white junior highs.

The Lincoln School began enrolling white students in 1946, and was renamed Junior High School No. 5. Principal Patton J. Hill took on the task of integration with cool-headed aplomb, and became one of the first black men in the United States to run a school with white children. Patton J. Hill Elementary School on East State Street is named after him.

Thanks to the court ruling, future generations of black kids would get to attend integrated schools. One of them was Leon Williams' younger brother, Ernest, who went on to become Trenton's first black chief of police.

Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Hedgepeth, and the children who integrated Trenton's junior highs have all died.

But Ernest Williams is still around, and still keeping the memory of the Hedgepeth-Williams case alive.

"When my mother stood up to the Board of Education, she opened a lot of doors," recalled Williams, who retired as police chief last month. "She taught us kids a lesson. If you work hard, keep your self-respect, and get an education, you can achieve anything. But it all starts with education."

In 1992, Williams convinced the school board -- now presiding over a school population that was 95 percent black or Latino -- to do something in honor of the landmark integration.

And that was how Junior High School No. 2, the school that once tried to keep out two 12-year-old black children named Hedgepeth and Williams, became the Hedgepeth-Williams Elementary School.