For Historic Trenton’s Day in the Life, we’re looking back through newspapers from the beginning and examining everyday problems, solutions, and needs during historic Trenton’s past. Today, in honor of Black History Month, we’re looking at America’s First Black Principal of a desegregated school.
Born and raised in Coffeyville, Kansas, Patton Joseph Hill had no idea of his impact on New Jersey’s Capital City. He started his education at Indiana University but was interrupted as he fought for freedom in France in 1917.
After returning to the states, Hill completed his degree at Indiana University, where he graduated in 1920. Throughout the years before his move into Trenton, Hill received his master’s degree from the same university and began his work as a principal across Kentucky and West Virginia. During that time, he started a family with his marriage to Hilda Wharton and together they had four children.
In 1933, Hill moved to Trenton, New Jersey, to serve as principal of New Lincoln Junior High School. At the time, Trenton was segregated, with only one school in the district admitting black students. The New Lincoln School was built in 1923 and was the fourth and final school built exclusively for African American children until 1943 when two Mothers teamed up with Trenton lawyer Robert Queen known for taking racism head on.
Queen had been a longtime and prominent lawyer in Trenton, successfully arguing against the swimming pool segregation at Trenton Central High School before the New Jersey Supreme Court. In 1943, Queen represented Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams in the landmark school desegregation case Hedgepeth-Williams v. Trenton Board of Education. To learn more about this case, head over to this link: https://www.trentondaily.com/hedgepeth-williams-and-the-fight-for-education/
Hill was going on to his ninth year as principal of the New Lincoln Junior High School. In 1946, he became the first Black Principal in the nation to be in charge of the integrated school. The name changed from New Lincoln School to Junior 5 to match Trenton’s other junior high schools. Today that school is called Luis Muñoz-Rivera Community School. It serves as a full-service Community School partnered with Mercer Street Friends, provides therapeutic services to students, assists with decreasing chronic absenteeism, and works with parents and families as needed.
Hill received a special award from his Alma mater and was able to retire from Junior 5 in 1958. According to Trentonk12.org, “In 1968, he and his wife Hilda created a scholarship fund at Indiana University at Bloomington for students who work to improve race relations.” Then in 1972, Trenton Public schools built a school in his honor, naming it Patton J Hill Elementary school.
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