“TUSKEGEE OF THE NORTH”: New Jersey’s Racially Isolated ‘Bordentown School’

by William “Duke” Smither

“For a seventy-year period, when America cared little about the education of African-Americans, and discrimination was law and custom, The Bordentown School was an educational utopia. An incubator for black pride and intellect, it taught values, discipline, and life skills to generations of black children…” (Anonymous)


Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh—I mean, a deep down-in-the-belly howl– at how America often looks at itself through misty, racially-tinged lenses of deep-rooted cultural bias. These awkward sensations just seem to creep into the room whenever those touchy “conversations on race” entered certain interpersonal, spatial zones. Though not surprised, I’m often amazed how we easily arrive at different, pigheaded conclusions, given the same evidentiary findings– historical, archeological and geological— while trying to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Instinctively, being the compassionate nation we’ve proven to be, with the intellectual courage we claim to have, we ought to know better. But, I’m beginning to think that our feeble-minded ‘political correctness’ has seriously altered our ability to be straight-up about our past—like with the “Bordentown School,” founded in 1886, an educational and cultural oasis for African-Americans, when segregationist politicians were scheming to keep academics out of black schools (see, http://www.pbs.org/aplaceoutoftime).

Human Rights Manipulated

Tack on the volume of ‘missing pages’ from our classroom history books– especially the chapters and related footnotes on school segregation, desegregation and, in many cities, re-segregation— and you get some idea of what caused the blurry childhood looking-glasses that many of us—black and white— were peeping through, while growing up, during the waning years of Old Jim Crow.

A recent research project, involving the passionate pride and purpose associated with various all-black schools in the United States, reminded me of those years when African-American educators, in particular, were indeed Black America’s unsung “heroes” and “sheroes.” I recalled my own experiences with the vital, nurturing role they played in developing young black minds, effectively undermining systemic racism and inequality, while planting the seeds for the ultimate demise of skin-deep white privilege and make-believe White Supremacy. This particular probe highlighted the cultural and social landscapes of an institution– the “Bordentown School” of Bordentown, New Jersey— appropriately dubbed, the “Tuskegee of the North.”  The Bordentown School assembly

Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era gave the genteel South’s white ruling class a fit, at a time when the legal and mental constructs which separated the races were easing up. On paper, slavery was abolished. And, the 1870 parchment-paper’s 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, preventing federal and state government from denying the right to vote (based on race, color or prior servitude) was sending the cultural-manipulating, ruling class into a tizzy. The so-called “Enforcement Act,” The Civil Rights Act of 1875, passed by the last biracial U.S. Congress of the 1800s, “guaranteed” African-Americans equal treatment in access to public transportation, facilities, accommodations and the right to serve on juries. But, the walls came tumbling down again, in 1883, following judicial review by the U.S. Supreme Court which declared the 1875 statue unconstitutional.

With the federal government now in retreat from earlier civil rights enforcement activities, and a white-controlled bureaucracy back behind the nation’s steering wheel, the doors to America’s hyper-segregation were pried open even further. Although legislation and abolitionists namely in the North spoke loudly against segregation, America’s black-and-white duality intensified and racial animosities became entrenched.

On the run-up to America’s so-called “Separate but Equal” doctrine, another tier of freedom-suppression tactics entered the picture, blanketing the nation’s political landscapes. Back then, folk were taught that Heaven itself was segregated. It’s when thousands of African-American Civil War veterans were routinely buried in segregated cemeteries, with vanishing headstones, now forgotten or lost to the scourge of time and overgrown bushes and weeds.

Separate but Equal—to What?

The “Bordentown School” started as a self-sustaining, co-educational, vocational school, from a two-story residence in Bordentown (Burlington County), New Jersey. It was unique because most schools like Bordentown were located below the “Mason-Dixie Line,” which distinguished “slave” and “non-slave” states.

Originally established as a private institution under the name, “The Ironsides Normal School,” by Rev. Walter A. Rice, a college-educated, former slave and minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was later co-opted by the state of New Jersey as the “Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth,” in 1894 (Born in 1845, Rev. Rice was from Lauren, South Carolina and fought in the Union Army, during the Civil War, but went to New Jersey to complete his education, following his military service). In 1896, the boarding school relocated to the city’s outskirts where sixth- through twelve-grade boys and girls were instructed in various trades, based on the customary gender roles of racial segregation and “Jim Crow”-sanctioned public education.

Bordentown SchoolAccording to archives, Rev. Rice initially modeled the school on Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University), within the vision and industrial-training-focus provided by Tuskegee’s first president, a beloved former slave and energetic educator, named Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington. However, between 1897 and 1915, Bordentown was led by James M. Gregory, a Howard University graduate and follower of W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented 10th” hypothesis, a more progressive view that one in 10 black men would become leaders of their race, stemming from scholastic/ classical education, writing books and social activism, in order to “…guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races” —NOT the industrial education, as proposed by Booker T. Washington and white benefactors. (***Note – Also see WEB DuBois viewpoint/ Sept 1903: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-talented-tenth/)

Yet, perhaps the most influential leader at Bordentown was Dr. William R. Valentine, a graduate of both Columbia University and Harvard University. He was Bordentown’s principal from 1915 – 1948, who sought to create a curriculum balance between DuBois’ theory and Washington’s concerns. And, everyone was expected to pitch in to run the school, no matter what their focus happened to be. But, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 1954), declaring that the state-mandated “separate but equal” policy for public schools was unconstitutional, the school closed in 1955, allegedly from its inability to attract white students.

Detached Functionality

That’s about the time I was already attending one of the nation’s many “Rosenwald Rosenwald-School-Frankfort-KY-1957[1]Schools,” Rosenwald Training School, in Frankfort, Kentucky, across the road from Kentucky State College (now, Kentucky State University). It was a “training school” because we were the cross-the-road practicing ‘laboratory’ for KSU’s elementary education majors. “Rosenwald Schools” grew from the partnership between Sears, Roebuck & Co. CEO, Julius Rosenwald, and Booker T. Washington. Similar to Bordentown, these were important institutions within Black America’s unique quest for educational and sociocultural development within the politico-economic system which kept them in a brutal, mostly poverty-stricken underclass. Yet, they became breeding grounds for pride and excellence within the African-American community. And, I’m forever grateful for KSU’s student-teacher brigades and the extra nuggets or wisdom and inspiration they eagerly shared.

In the 10th grade, I was fortunate to attend another school, even more akin to the “Bordentown School”– Lincoln Institute“Lincoln Institute”– an all-black boarding high school in Shelby County, Kentucky, but never fully appreciated its impact until long after I departed for newly mandated desegregated schools. Like many all-black schools, founded after Reconstruction, “Lincoln Institute” was originally intended to be a college, as well as a high school, but wound up offering vocational and academic high school classes. While there, I also worked in the cafeteria and on the dairy farm that produced its own food for the 444-acre campus. It’s when I began to realize the value of my earlier childhood experiences of growing up, working summers on my grandparent’s farm in Zanesville, Ohio, where I herded cows and played with hogs– perhaps, more than most folk played with pet dogs.

Although attending Lincoln for only one year, it was a significant part of my preparation for the desegregated high school, and associated racial realities, in my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky, the following year. Lincoln’s principal back then, Whitney Young, Sr. (the school’s founder), was a friend of my deceased Baptist-minister dad. But, it was my mother, feeling Lincoln was better suited to steering me away from budding juvenile delinquency, who orchestrated my attending Lincoln. She was right. It had many positive influences.

But, frankly, I was more interested in public schools back in my hometown, where I could play football and run track again, while not having to work for my tuition or room-and-board. Thus, with one of my sister’s help, I sold my mother on the idea of staying with my elder sister and her husband– and their six kids– while my mother continued working and going to nursing school in Pennsylvania. Besides, with my new, surrogate “two-parent family”– with three new ‘brothers’ and three new ‘sisters’ (nephews and nieces)– I felt better-armed for the internal struggles ahead with school desegregation. Unwittingly, black athletes had a unique role within the reawakened fight for Civil Rights. And, like many athletes of the late 1950s, I willingly accepted the bit-part as one of the legions of “soldiers” drafted into the Civil Rights Movement– at least, that’s the visualization which was fixed in my mind, mentally preparing for what lay ahead.

Similarly Proud & Disciplined…

But, before the pivotal years of school desegregation, institutions like the Bordentown School and Lincoln Institute played an important role, too.  They were similar in many ways. As with Lincoln’s environs, except for dress codes, Bordentown was long nestled in the 400-acre, Georgian-architectural style campus, overlooking the Delaware River, before the shifting legal landscapes of the 1950s, the Bordentown School became an elite campus community, fostering black pride and intellectual discipline, with a unique camaraderie between black students, from working class families, and the scholarly the black teachers who taught them. It was an environment where boys, in military uniforms, and girls, in neatly tailored white-and-black uniforms, marched in step to high academic expectations and elevated performance standards, graduating to become entrepreneurs, tradespersons, educators, lawyers and doctors.The Bordentown School steps

In its heyday, it was nicknamed the “Tuskegee of the North,” after Booker T. Washington’s famous historically black university, in Tuskegee, Alabama (according to archives, it was also known as the “Black Forest Hills” because its tennis facilities attracted black athletes barred from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association). It included two working farms, 30 uniquely designed campus buildings— built by students and staff– plus, an auto shop, seamstress department and other vocational instruction, as well as college preparatory programs (Lincoln had only one working farm and half the buildings, but similar-size acreage).  Its academic reputation for excellence attracted visiting dignitaries and lecturers, such as theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, and civil rights activist-actor, Paul Robeson. But, Einstein not only gave lectures, he was moved to sponsoring scholarships to its brightest students, as well. Its invigorating mix of classroom, cultural and social training was stimulating.

…And Inspirational, Still

Even its initial name, “The Ironsides Normal School,” was inspirational. It came from the US Navy’s famed three-masted, wooden-hulled warship, the U.S.S. Constitution, widely known as “Old Ironsides,” during the War of 1812. Sitting on the farm site purchased in 1816 by the U.S.S. Constitution’s commander, Commodore Charles Stewart, the school’s alma mater was metaphorically dubbed “Mother Ironsides.” According to a Delaware Heritage Trail brochure (at http://www.delrivgreenway.org/heritagetrail/Bordentown-School.html), it says:

Bordentown School Alma Mater

“Proudly stands our Mother Ironsides
Framed against the sky,
Overlooking field and river
From her hill-top high.

Ironsides, Mother, School we love!
Loud we sing to thee.
Pledging thee thru all the ages
Love and loyalty.”

Included among Bordentown’s distinguished faculty was Judge William H. Hastie (1904 – 1976), the first African-American federal district court judge, in 1937, who notched another ‘first’ as a federal appellate judge, in 1950, and a contender for the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1961. He taught at the Bordentown Manual Training School between 1925 and 1927, before attending Harvard Law School, becoming the second African-American (behind Charles Hamilton Houston) to serve on the Harvard Law Review where, in 1990, and like President Barack Obama– the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president in its 104-year history— he was lightyears beyond the mental grasp of white supremacists, further debunking their sickening rhetoric of racial superiority and white-skin privilege. Hastie, a recipient of the NAACP’s prestigious “Spingarn Medal,” was also among the group of committed attorneys and jurists who worked on case strategies that led to the momentous decision in “Brown v. Board of Education,” in 1954.

Interestingly, Simon Haley, the father of author Alex Haley (author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” 1976, and “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” 1965), also taught at Bordentown. Alex Haley’s brother, George W. Haley, past U.S. Ambassador to Gambia (who died in May 2015), graduated from the Bordentown Manual Training School. And, I imagine that deceased, die-hard bigots are scratching to get out of their silky satin-lined coffins.

Storied pasts like the “Bordentown School,” as well as associated faculty and alumni, will be inspirational for generations to come, in spite of the schemes to suppress its mission or mere existence. Of the many lessons learned from racially isolated environments of the past, a quote often attributed to pro-football’s Hall of Fame Coach, Vincent “Vince” Lombardi, stands out for me the most: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins, is the man who thinks he can.”

Understanding America’s inherent, cognitive biases and social realities is complicated—but, not impossible. Getting beyond our feeble-minded ‘political correctness’ is another matter. Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh… and, keep on stepping.

(Also, see:  http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/bordentown-school-1886-1955)






About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.