Are there any racially integrated towns in NJ that last?
When I moved to Maplewood in the summer of 2005, I was looking for a pool. I took the bus and train up from South Jersey and was without a car. I walked over to Columbia High School, famous for graduating Zach Braff & Lauryn Hill (the same year), Elisabeth and Andrew Shue, Roy “You’re going to need a bigger boat” Scheider, Alfred Kinsey, Max Weinberg of the E Street Band and Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), hoping they’d have an indoor pool. There was none. However a man and his young son noticed I looked lost and asked me what was up. After a back-and-forth, he told me to hop in his car and he’d drive me to the community pool on the other side of town. It wasn’t the fact that he was black that made me leery of getting in his car; it was that, in my experience, strangers of any race don’t make that casual offer. But I figured he was with his son, so why not?
I got in and during the ride over, the man described why he made the offer. Maplewood and South Orange were special places, he explained. They were historically integrated towns and he wanted a good community for his son to grow up, with reputable schools. (Years later, even that infamous New Jersey stereotype map was kind to this area calling it, The Melting Pot.) As the man dropped me off, I thanked him and checked out the pool. After that ride I knew I was in a unique place, but surprisingly, a familiar one.
Maplewood/ South Orange was like my hometown of Ewing, the people up here just had more money. They were places where blacks and whites (along with a small, but growing population of Hispanics and Asians) lived together and for the most part, got along. Today, I realized that I might have grown up in a bubble though. Through my research, I’ve found that there are few places like these in the state.
One of the most integrated towns in the Garden State (and as a result public school districts) is North Brunswick. The public school district is pretty much a quarter Asian, Black, Hispanic and White. But a closer look, reveals white flight. That statistic can be misleading though; as America gets more diverse, a dropping white population should not be a surprise. However, if historical data is taken into account, I don’t think I’d define North Brunswick as historically diverse: a place where people of different races lived together for many decades without a big influx or exit of a group.
Neighborhoods change all the time. But I’m looking for a relative pattern of consistency. I’m already frustrated with how to define this, but hopefully I’ll find out more in the New Jersey State Archives this summer, when I have time to dig into old census records. My initial findings have revealed only a handful of towns in New Jersey that were historically and consistently diverse:
- Maplewood and South Orange (who share a high school) (Essex)
- Ewing (Mercer)
- Montclair (Essex)
- Buena Vista Twp (Atlantic)
- Pemberton Township (Burlington)
- Mt Holly Twp (Burlington)
What I’ve been trying to find are “sweet spots,” places where blacks and whites have historically lived together in relative harmony, along with others. My findings have been sobering. Not only have I found a lack of places that fit this historically diverse definition, the above “good” examples are places with troubles of their own.
- In Maplewood and South Orange, the ACLU recently filed a complaint against Columbia High School, saying:
the school’s tracking and discipline procedures create a racial disparity between students
This is not new; Nancy Solomon won a Peabody Award in 2009 for her radio documentary on Columbia High School on why this “good school” was failing black students.
Despite these problems, the two towns are very progressive. They talk about their issues and still celebrate their integration. But it takes a lot of work.
- My hometown of Ewing looks pretty good on historical data, but there is still a large portion of families who choose not to utilize the public middle or high school. My own experience in Ewing’s public schools was a mixed bag, which I will (probably with a lot of emotion) elaborate on in a future post.
- Montclair is similiar to South Orange/ Maplewood, though they use a magnet system in the schools, which “ensures racial balance” and allows parents and children choice in elementary and middle schools. However, there is only one high school and there are concerns that the township is gentrifying, which is starting to show up in school population data:
- Buena Vista Township, in the southern Pine Barrens, is an interesting case study. I interviewed Mark Demitroff about the town he grew up in (he’s the white kid in suspenders in the class picture at the top).
Blacks returned at the end of WWI. They had come up from the South to work factory jobs in Philly and New York, then vacated when the doughboys went off to fight. All good things come to an end, and with the soldiers’ return they wanted their jobs back. No way did the Blacks want to return South, so they came to settle cheap farm plots in the Pinelands where old Black charcoal camps had been.
Demitroff went on to tell me that because of some local & state government actors, plus others at the Pinelands Commission pushing forward a sewer system in the Buena Vista Twp hamlet of Richland, (to lead the way for development) it could threaten the demographic makeup of the township.
- Pemberton Township and Mount Holly will take more work, but I’m interested to learn how Fort Dix affects Pemberton Twp and how historically Quaker values, which were progressive, not only toward blacks, but also women, have affected Mount Holly.
The lack of historically integrated towns in New Jersey shouldn’t come as a surprise with the state’s tradition of home rule. Some municipalities were created just to isolate blacks. The late Dr. Clement A. Price wrote that by the 1930s, blacks referred to New Jersey as “the Georgia of the North” (though with its Quaker influence, I doubt they meant many parts of South Jersey).
As the above town examples show, it’s not all bad. But overall, there are not a lot of sweet spots in the Garden State and that is alarming if integrated schools are a future goal. Merging school districts looks attractive and was recently done in my district, but try doing that with demographically different areas. It won’t happen.
Any future school integration here will probably be from charters, technical schools or magnets. Some think this will further segregate remaining public schools and I also think that’s valid. It’s a Catch-22.
I still have a goal to sift through state archives this summer and I’d like to interview historians and activists in these handful of Garden State “sweet spots” to see if there are lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic.