BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- Forty-eight years ago Lonnie and Pernell Brice moved from Baltimore, Maryland, into a home on Hamilton Avenue across from Franklin Court. When they moved in, most of Hamilton Avenue was all woods, and “we picked blackberries in the woods over there. That’s all gone now,” said Pernell during a recent interview held via Zoom.
A Franklin Court resident, Ed Duggan, “held a welcoming party for us,” on the cul de sac, Pernell said. The neighborhood was very different from the way it is today. He recalled “there were no fences … The kids could run across the backyards” to their friends’ homes. They built tree-houses in the woods, and the parents never worried, “They could have fun, it was very safe,” he said.
There has been a huge change in town since that time. The fire department has its headquarters on Hamilton near Roosevelt Avenue; the Berkeley Heights Rescue Squad and YMCA are across the Snyder Avenue intersection on Locust Avenue, which now has a traffic light. Hamilton Avenue “is a thoroughfare to the train station and carries a lot of school traffic,” said Lonnie. Still, most times it’s quiet, she said. Whether it will remain that way after the Toll Brothers townhouse development off of Hamilton Avenue and the senior citizen housing development on Locust Avenue are built remains to be seen.
What they do know is, “We are the only couple who are still here,” from the time they moved in, Lonnie said.
As have many long-time residents, the Brice family has contributed to the history of the township, including the re-naming of a district school.
As Pernell tells the story, they moved in when Tom Hughes was the principal of the Berkeley School. Pernell and Hughes became good friends. The two men could talk about any situation and Pernell remembered when his daughter "was called the ‘N’ word -- Tom handled it right away." When Hughes left the Berkeley School, he came to the Brice’s home for a farewell dinner with his wife and “a shopping bag filled with sheet music,” said Pernell. Hughes’ wife was a music teacher in the Millburn school system. “He put on a straw hat and serenaded my mother … We have a picture of it ... When they wanted to rename the school, and there was some controversy about that, we went over, and I said ‘Let me tell you what Tom Hughes did for my daughter,’ and I talked about the relationship and what he had meant to my family and, to our pleasure, the school was renamed the Tom Hughes Elementary School.” Both remembered that Flag Day was an important day for Hughes, and are pleased that it is still celebrated at the school.
Lonnie said the children had a pretty good experience at the school despite the times when their daughter was called the “‘N’ word,” because Hughes took care of it. “Our son didn’t have that problem, because he was involved in sports, which makes a difference. He played football with the junior high school and plus he was in the band, he was a pretty good drummer and loved the music department,” she said. “They had a pretty good stay here, growing up in Berkeley Heights,” she said, in the schools and the neighborhood.
Both their children went to private high schools -- their daughter to Mount St. Mary Academy and their son to Seton Hall Prep, then both went on to college -- Monique to the University of Pennsylvania and his son, Pernell III, to Duke.
Pernell, a graduate of Hampton University with a degree in Chemistry, said they chose Berkeley Heights in part because it was an easy commute to Western Electric in Springfield. It continued to be the perfect spot for his commute when he worked at AT&T in Basking Ridge, and after he retired from AT&T, to his new career as a second grade teacher in Westfield.
Lonnie, who graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore, also had an easy commute when she worked as a social worker in the Newark school system for 32 years, the last 20 years at Barringer High School. “I loved what I did, I helped a lot of teenagers,” she said.
In the summer, she ran Camp LenoLoc at Bear Mountain for the Orange YWCA for 12 years, and still volunteers for the “Plainfield Shut-in Council” which cares for shut-ins in Plainfield, distributes fruit for Thanksgiving, plants for Easter, hosts a social in the spring with entertainment and luncheons from time to time.
Lonnie’s volunteer work also includes programs sponsored by her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the sorority to which Kamala Harris belongs, and she has been honored with the Sojourner Truth award, the sorority’s highest national award, for her work with the camp and her community volunteer efforts, including AKA’s hosting of a Christmas Luncheon for residents of Richmond Towers in Plainfield and for serving for 18 years as chairperson of AKA’s African American Cultural Celebration, a Black History Celebration. She joined AKA at Morgan State. Her daughter, who is also a member, joined the University of Pennsylvania graduate chapter.
“Two years ago Morgan State University honored my wife with an honorary doctorate degree for things she did back when she was in college,” Pernell said.
Lonnie filled in the background, “When I attended Morgan, it was located in an all white neighborhood. There was a shopping center a couple of blocks away. We could not go to the restaurant. We could not go to the movies. We could not go to the shopping center at all. What we did was, we would walk up to the shopping center, and we would protest. We protested for four years when I was at Morgan and even before I got to Morgan they would protest in a very peaceful way … How things change, Morgan bought the property and has facilities there. It’s a big difference. Those of us who participated got an honorary degree,” Lonnie said.
Lonnie is starting to reduce the number of volunteer jobs she has. She chaired “for at least 15 years” a clothing drive through Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church in Plainfield which started with “two or three bags of clothing” to distribute and ended up with “more than 3,000 items of clothing to give away … I am in the process of maturing, so I gave that up, and this year I also put aside the Black History Celebration,” she said. That celebration continues to be part of AKA’s mission and was held on Zoom on Sunday, Feb. 28.