The United States of America has been plagued with the pervasive iniquity of racism since its conception. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution served as a turning point in terms of citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws, signaling the foundation of a truly more equitable union. Though this 1868 action formed the basis for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other landmark decisions regarding equal rights, it failed to holistically rid the country of the archaic and malicious practice of discrimination. There have been several instances in which people of America have challenged such treatment, and in notable cases, their voices have mitigated their situation and in turn, have marginally improved the country as a whole. The Hedgepeth-Williams case exemplifies such monumental change as its decision resulted in lasting benefits across the country.
Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education was a 1944 New Jersey Supreme Court decision in a legal action which served as a precursor to the Brown v. Board of Education case that ultimately prohibited racial segregation of school systems throughout America. It is an undeniably significant part of Trenton’s history and a crucial step in mitigating race relations in the entire US. Facing the Trenton, New Jersey Board of Education were mothers Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, whose respective children were denied entrance into their local neighborhood’s junior high school, Junior High No. 2. The principal stated that the predominantly white school was “not built for Negroes.” Though the placement into Trenton School System schools was—and is in 2016—dependent upon the distance from which a student resides from the school, African American students were forced to attend the all-African American New Lincoln School. This school was located 2.5 miles away from the Hedgepeth and Williams children, an inconvenience compared to the much closer location of Junior School No. 2. In September 1943, Hedgepeth and Williams swiftly filed a lawsuit against the Trenton Board of Education under the grounds of racial discrimination.
Dr. Paul Loser, a former superintendent of the Trenton Public Schools, participated in the case’s final ruling—he argued that separate schools allowed students to focus on their schoolwork more effectively, and that similar races provide similar positive experiences both socially and academically as students have more in common. Hedgepeth and Williams worked to disprove this argument and advocate for civil rights. The mothers petitioned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in order to acquire a lawyer who would fully understand the urgency of the lawsuit and sufficiently represent the values of individuals across the country. The lawyer they saw fit was Robert Queen, who saw the case through to the Supreme Court. He advocated the desegregation of Junior High School No. 2 through an emphasis on the precedence of the 1881 law prohibiting racial segregation in education. Having desegregated swimming classes at Trenton High School several years prior to this case, Queen argued directly with Dr. Loser. When asked if the students had been excluded from Junior 2 on grounds of color, Dr. Loser stated that “it was better for the black students.” Queen then retorted: “In that case, do you consider it advisable to set up separate schools for minority groups such as Italians, Poles, Jews, Hungarians and Germans?”
Queen’s perseverance cinched the case on January 31, 1944, as New Jersey’s top court ordered immediate integration of all state public schools. According to the official case report, it was ruled that Junior School No. 2 unlawfully discriminated against the students and that it was in a direct violation of N.J.S.A 18:14-2—a statute which states that it is unlawful for boards of education to exclude children from any public school on ground that they are of negro race.
The impact and legacy of the Hedgepeth and Williams Supreme Court case is quite extensive, within the government of the State of New Jersey as well as on a national level. The legal work of these two women, Hedgepeth and Williams, created the desegregated education system for their children that New Jersey knows today, allowing for the availability of equal educational opportunities for all children. Furthermore, the court case acted as a precursor for the national fight for educational desegregation. The U.S. Supreme Court cited this case multiple times in their ruling for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, a decade later. At the time, Hedgepeth-Williams was the only state anti-segregation legal precedent in the country, which then influenced the Supreme Court’s overturning of the national “Separate but Equal” doctrine. Indirectly, this makes the city of Trenton the origins of equal education in the United States.
In addition, the Hedgepeth-Williams case caused or indirectly contributed to several other changes in law and policy, especially in education, in New Jersey immediately following the court’s ruling. Among the most important are the Fair Employment Act, the ratification of the New Jersey Constitution, and the ruling of the Booker v. Plainfield case of 1965. The Fair Employment Act was enacted in 1945, the very next year. As the name describes, it spread the prohibition of discrimination further than the classroom, allowing equal employment options. The New Jersey Constitution was ratified in 1947, granting ideal education opportunities for all children and forbidding any form of segregation or discrimination. Lastly, the Hedgepeth-Williams case served as a legal precedent for the Booker v. Plainfield case decades later in 1965. This N.J. Supreme Court Case further worked to end any and all legal support for prejudice and discrimination in the State’s educational system.
Going further into the case’s legacy, approaching these changes from a social perspective rather than a legal one, there is a much more hopeful and heartwarming story to be told. The photo below is from Trenton Central High School, and it was taken in 1973. A noticeable aspect is the fully realized dream of the aforementioned court cases, the dream of an integrated classroom. Secondly, one should take note of the two individuals on either end of the front row. From left to right, these men are Tom Grice and Tom Passarella. In an indirect way, these two have been present all throughout our work this semester and within our entire podcast itself. Aside from giving interviews themselves, nearly every one of our contacts have gone on to describe what it was like in their classroom, elaborated on the influence these men have had on their music careers, and had a story featuring them that left you inspired, laughing, or both. These two men, living legends in music education for the city of Trenton, and their work exemplify what Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams set out to achieve.