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1957

This history of school segregation in our midst took place on the border of Orange and East Orange, and therefore it is relevant to the residents of both cities. It was recorded in the 1976 book "Homeboy Came To Orange" written by Ernest Thompson and Mindy Thompson, who lived through those times and experienced them first hand from 1956 to 1971. The book is available from Amazon.com and I encourage anyone interested in this period of our combined histories to get it and read it.

Gerrymander Map Printed in the Orange Transcript c.1958

In 1957, the map shown above was a deep secret of the school district of Orange, NJ.

Ernest "Ernie" Thompson had just moved to Orange with his wife, Maggie, and his daughter Mindy, who at the time all this happened was in second grade at the Oakwood Avenue Public School in Orange, and a stone's throw away from East Orange. The school was segregated and inferior to the other near-by schools in Orange and East Orange. Maggie Thompson got a glimpse of the secret map and knew that it showed an illegal "gerrymander" to force Black students who should have been able to attend the better Heywood School into the segregated Oakwood Avenue school... unless, of course, those students were White, and then they would have been sent by bus to Heywood School.

Ernie organized a group of parents of Oakwood Avenue School students on January 8, 1958. He first had to convince the parents that it was a cause worth fighting for, to end discrimination and segregation not only of Black children, but also of Black teachers who worked for the Orange School District. The first order of business was to make the entire affair public and get it published in the local newspaper of the time, the Orange Transcript.

The following section printed in red is an excerpt from the book that shows what happened next:

No sooner had the meeting adjourned than the establishment got word of it. A neighbor came around that very night to offer a deal: His daughter and Mindy would be transferred to Lincoln Avenue school if Thompson would keep quiet. Ernie threw him out, saying, "We are not in this fight for ourselves alone. Either we fight for all children or we don't fight. We make no deals with children's futures."

Word spread that Thompson was a radical and a subversive and fear was aroused among the members of the committee. One called to say that he had seen the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) on the post office list of subversive organizations. He was sorry, but he couldn't be on the committee anymore. Another never said why she dropped out-she just never came around again.

A story was prepared for the press but everyone on the committee had a good reason why he or she couldn't sign it. Finally Ernie and Maggie agreed that she would have to do it. Ernie took no chances that the story would be shelved or run on an inside page. He met with the reporters, showed them the map, and convinced them of the existence of injustice. The Transcript made it its lead story that week with a banner headline, "BIAS CHARGED IN SCHOOL ZONING. "

The newspaper interview charged that the gerrymander had resulted "no less than in the South, in an overwhelmingly all-Negro separate school with inferior facilities for this modern competitive age;" that the board transferred white children from Oakwood to other schools; that no Black teachers or coaches had ever been appointed to the high school; that Oakwood was not a front-line school and that the city had direct responsiblity for de facto segregation in Oakwood, since it had created and maintained an all-Black federal housing project adjacent to the school. (The Former Building on Parrow Street that has just recently -2010- been torn down).

It demanded that the gerrymander be wiped out, that Oakwood be brought up to the level of the other schools, that Black teachers be hired throughout the system, including the high school, and that the housing project be integrated.

The result was that a large spotlight had been turned on the city of Orange and its school district. The NJ Division Against Discrimination (DAD) was required to act, and began an investigation that resulted in the Orange Board of Education being ordered to redraw the lines to eliminate the gerrymander. Children from that section were re-districted into Heywood School, effective the following September. Black teachers were assigned at schools throughout the city of Orange. Oakwood Avenue School had smaller classes once seventy-five or so of its students had been transferred to Heywood, and better books were provided for the school.

This did not end "de facto segregation" in either Orange or East Orange, but it was a start and it showed the people most affected by it that the power was in their hands to make changes.

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