At the center of The Good Community, my work-in-progress, are schools. In 1864, the fictional town of Blaineton, NJ has two schools. One is the Blaineton School, located on Third Street on the town square. This is where the white children attend. The other school is the Water Street School, located in the section of town where the black population primarily live. The schools of Blaineton are segregated.
This was not an unusual situation in New Jersey at the time. (Indeed there is still controversy in the state. Even though segregation is no longer legal, there is de facto segregation based upon where students live and where school districts are located.) In her essay for The Journal of Negro Education, Marion Thompson Wright explains that in 1844 legislators New Jersey passed a law stating that all people should benefit from the educational fund intended to help support public schools. That “all people” statement indicated that funds were not to be withheld for reasons of race, creed, or color. However, a legal precedent for segregation was established a mere six years later when, in 1850 a Morris County township wanted to create a separate district for children of color. Wright notes it was not until 1881 that a state law was passed “forbidding the exclusion of any child from a public school because of religion, nationality or color” and “the legislature initiated a chain of events which led to the outlawing of segregation” in New Jersey.1
In 1864, schools in New Jersey were not yet “public” schools as we know them. School districts could not tax citizens for school construction, nor could they sell bonds. There was no such thing as compulsory education for all children ages 5-16, nor were the number of yearly school days set at 180 days. These changes would happen in 1867 and 1871.2
The common schools in Blaineton during 1864 would be supported in part by New Jersey’s state educational fund, but also by funds given by the town after the school board's request for funding was approved. Children attended if their parents didn’t need them to work on the farm or help in the business, and the school year had two three-month terms.
If you have read Walk by Faith, you no doubt will remember that young Chloe Strong did attend the Blaineton School. She was the only child of color there and in The Good Community, we find out why. Miss Benny, the school’s head teacher, tells Maggie, “We had a different school board then. They made a special dispensation for Chloe. Otherwise, they would have ordered her to attend the colored school on Water Street.”
The reality for Blaineton's children of color is that they had to go to the Water Street School, a school that was in terrible condition, had far fewer resources, and one teacher.
When orphans Mary and Addie Brooks show up at Greybeal House, Maggie and Emily are distressed to learn that the two young black girls cannot attend the Blaineton School. When they visit the Water Street School, they find that only five children are in attendance, not surprising since a large number of black families relocated to Canada in response to the rise in racist behavior that came as a response to the war. What is worse, now the school is located in a ramshackle building and their teacher is a girl of fourteen.
All that prompts Maggie, Emily, and Maggie’s sister-in-law Abigail to start a school in Greybeal House. And they decide that any child, regardless of color, ethnicity, or religion, may attend.
I bet this will go down well with certain people in Blaineton. Don’t you?
See you Friday!
1Marion Thompson Wright, “The Racial Integration in the Public Schools of New Jersey,” The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 23, No. 3, Next Steps in Racial Desegregation in Education (Summer, 1954), p. 282.
2 “New Jersey’s Public School Buildings: A Brief Field Guide,”
http://www.nj.gov/dep/hpo/publicschools.pdf (downloaded 02/23/2018).