NORTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – At a special program Feb. 15, North Plainfield Middle School welcomed retired educators Theodora Lacey, a civil rights pioneer, and Martha Gundy, who as a student experienced integration. During their visit, Lacey and Gundy shared their personal experiences with a large group of seventh and eighth graders gathered in the school’s media center.
“Here, the English classes are studying the civil rights movement and are learning a lot about the history of it [such as] integration, the great migration, Jim Crow laws and what the daily impact on life was like,” said North Plainfield Middle School Principal Dr. Lennox Small, who worked alongside both Lacey and Gundy in Teaneck for 16 years. “Often, when the kids are learning about past events it is contextualized in a textbook or they are these mythical figures and that's it. Theodora Lacey and Martha Gundy are here to talk about their experiences and bring life to what our students are reading and learning about.”
Lacey, now 84, grew up in Montgomery, AL under Jim Crow laws and, during Wednesday’s program in North Plainfield, spoke at length about her experiences during the historical Montgomery Bus Boycott. Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks in Dec. 1955, the boycott was a 13-month political and social protest campaign against racial segregation on the town’s public transit system that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Additionally, Lacey’s family and Parks were good friends and her late father, while serving as president of the board of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was part of a committee that recruited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to serve as pastor.
Lacey describes her fight for equal opportunities as part of her “DNA’ and after relocating north and settling first in New York and then in Teaneck, NJ, joined the League of Women Voters and the PTA. She got a job as a science teacher for Teaneck Public Schools and in the early 1960s was instrumental in spearheading the integration of Teaneck Public Schools. As a result of her efforts, the district, in 1964, became the first in the nation to integrate without a court order.
“At your age, I wasn't allowed to be in the same room. Everything was segregated – schools, parks, theaters, restaurants, restrooms and even the water fountains,” Lacey, who retired from teaching in 2007 after nearly 40 years, told the students. “I didn't visit the zoo until she was 13 because, prior, people of color were not allowed in.”
Gundy was in fifth grade when she relocated to Teaneck from New York. At the time she graduated, Gundy said there were less than 90 ‘faces of color’ in a class of 640 students. Although she aspired to go to college and pursue a career into education, Gundy said her high school guidance counselor put off signing her college recommendation because he felt she should pursue a career as a secretary, despite the fact that she could not type. Following college, however, she returned to Teaneck, working for the district for more than 40 years – first as teacher and then as a guidance counselor, replacing the same person who didn't want to sign her recommendation a few years earlier.
“If you have your mind set on something know you can do it even if there people closing the door on you,” Gundy told the students. “Keep going to the next door until you find someone who is going to give you that opportunity.”
During their visit with North Plainfield students, both Lacey and Gundy also had the opportunity to answer student questions on topics ranging how Dr. King would perceive civil rights in today’s society’ and suggestions for ways to practice non-violence along with thoughts on recent presidential election.
“We all have a story to tell. Our story begins even before we are born. It begins with our ancestors and no matter how much you learn, if you are unable to take that education and make a difference in someone’s life then it was for naught …” advised Lacey. “You don't have time to waste. You are writing you’re history now. Be kind. Be honest. Be open. Speak up. Stand up.”
Following the program, NPHS English teacher William Saccardi said, “It was truly an honor to have them here today. “For them to share their experiences and for the students to hear them firsthand, is definitely something we cannot recreate in the classroom.”
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