This Week in History: The Legacy of Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams
Throughout the 20th century, the United States saw immense progress in advancing and protecting civil rights. However, these advancements would not be possible without the long-fought victories of the advocates and allies who put their lives on the line to fight for these freedoms. Two freedom fighters immediately come to mind are Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, the namesakes of the historic Hedgepeth-Williams vs. the Board of Education case. Through this landmark decision, schools in New Jersey were officially desegregated, and the case would serve as a precedent for Brown vs. the Board of Education. Thanks to the bravery of these two Trentonians, generations of children have had the opportunity to obtain a truly equal education.
In the 20th century, segregation was not explicitly written into New Jersey’s law. However, many districts did embrace “separate but equal” facilities throughout the state, and de facto segregation was the norm. During the 1940s, Trenton continued to see growing diversity in its population; at this time, up to 13,000 citizens were African-Americans. Despite this, Trenton Central High School was the only integrated educational institution in the city. Since the passage of the School Desegregation Act in 1881, Trenton had built several institutions that upheld segregated schooling in the city. In 1923, the City of Trenton constructed the Lincoln School, the final building constructed exclusively for the education of African-American students.
Although the new Lincoln School was not explicitly labeled as segregationist, it became evident that this school was still engaging in these damaging practices. Although elementary-school students could transfer to another institution, there was no other school for junior-high students to move to. In addition, parents of students at this school noted that the facilities were overcrowded and understaffed, providing an inferior education to the students’ more privileged counterparts. Conditions were described as unsanitary, and many students did not even have access to steady transportation. As these children continued to suffer injustices at the hands of the education system, parents began to grow increasingly frustrated. Two such parents were Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, whose impact is still felt by millions of students today.
In 1943, 12-year-olds Janet Hedgepeth and Leon Williams were assigned to attend the new Lincoln School. The students were expected to travel 2.5 miles in each direction, and the school lacked resources that other schools in the district enjoyed. Both Williams and Hedgepeth attempted to transfer their children to Junior High No. 2, but they were both denied by the school’s principal. When claims were taken to the Board of Education, the superintendent Paul Loser claimed that the transfer request would be approved, but at the start of the new school year, no action had been taken on the transfer request. This denial drove Hedgepeth and Williams to file a lawsuit against the Trenton Board of Education, marking the beginning of this historic case.
The NAACP played a critical role in supporting these efforts; both Hedgepeth and Williams were represented by Robert Queen, a local NAACP member who had previously been successful in helping to desegregate Trenton Central High School’s pool. Although the Trenton District Court declined to take the suit, an appeal to New Jersey’s District Court was successful. As a result, the NJ District Court ruled that schools could not segregate based on race, and the children of Hedgepeth and Williams and dozens of other students were granted access to all of the educational facilities in their region. This sparked the beginning of integration in Trenton and, eventually, the rest of the country. In 1993, Junior No. 2 was renamed the Hedgepeth-William School to honor the pioneers behind this momentous decision.
In 1954, Brown vs. the Board of Education was decided, and the law of the land was officially changed. Upon the Supreme Court deciding that school segregation was unconstitutional, students nationwide were granted educational equality. Brown vs. the Board of Education is regarded as one of the most critical cases ever deliberated. Still, these successes would not be possible without the bravery of two of Trenton’s very own. The names of Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams are forever etched in our nation’s history, and the community they called home could not be prouder of the legacy these historic ladies have left.
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