Middlesex County News

A Dark Past: New Brunswick’s Only Racially Segregated School

Credits: Courtesy of the New Brunswick Free Public Library

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - As the American Civil War drew to a close in the mid-1860s, slavery gave way to Jim Crow Laws, the de jure institutionalized racism​ that stretched into 20th​ century America.

For African Americans across the United States, it meant the ​painful ​segregation of public schools, residential neighborhoods, businesses, transportation and virtually any public place.

New Brunswick found itself to be no exception to the norm, and shortly after the Civil War, the city had its own racially segregated school, lasting a​n entire decade.  

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Known as the Hale Street School, the school sat at the corner of Hale Street and Jersey Avenue, then known as Old Trenton Road.

The school opened in 1872, having been constructed a year earlier, and accommodated 100 students in its two rooms.

It was designated solely for African American children, who at the time were referred to a​s​ “colored children.”

“You have to remember the historical context,” said Bob Belvin, a local historian who oversees the city’s library. “Even Abraham Lincoln had said that African Americans needed to live separately. I mean this is the guy who ​gave us Emancipation Proclamation.”

During the preceding decades, African American students were ​shuffled between different schools across the city.

In one instance, they were moved to a mission building on Hamilton Street, and later to a private residence on Church Street.

In 1882, the New Jersey State Legislature outlawed the practice of segregated schools, and the students were integrated with the city’s white students​, creating many new challenges and obstacles in the early years.

The Hale Street property changed hands several times during the 19th century until it was closed and demolished in 1901.

“It’s a matter of context, and the fact that New Jersey rejected that quite soon, it was a short period of time,” Belvin said. “We know that in the south​ segregation continued into the 1950s.”

Looking forward

City officials have said they want to shine a light on this segment of New Brunswick’s history, ​al​though it’s ​still ​in the works how exactly that will be done.

Edward Spencer, a member of the school board, said city officials might put a commemorative plaque at the former site of the Hale Street School.

“Segregation was the way of the life and I think that by denoting this place, it does put something out there for people to see and understand what existed at the time,” Spencer said at a January school board meeting.

The specifics of the recognition haven’t been finalized, Spencer said, but they’ll entail some kind of collaboration between the city, school district, library and Rutgers University.

Currently, New Brunswick, Highland Park and the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers are working to reverse the trend of hate incidents which have been on the rise through their “Windows of Understanding: We See Through Hate,” art project.

The “Windows of Understanding” project is a local effort to combat hate through art. For the next month, the artwork will be on display on dozens of businesses on Main Street Highland Park and New Brunswick’s two business districts: George and French streets.

TAPinto New Brunswick is partnering with ProPublica to track hate crimes in the region. The partnership is part of a nationwide project to track and report bias incidents across the country.

Editor Daniel J. Munoz, dmunoz@tapinto.nettwitter.com/DanielMunoz100

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