July 11, 2018

A Resurgence of Interest In Unique Bordentown School

“TUSKEGEE OF THE NORTH”: On a 400-acre campus in Bordentown, African American high school students received quality academic and practical educations between 1886 and 1955. This illustration shows the Georgian buildings and acres of open land that made the school a haven for generations of students. (Courtesy of John Medley, Class of 1954)

By Anne Levin

John Medley had just graduated from junior high school in rural Blackwood when his stepmother heard about a boarding academy located not far away. The Bordentown School, also known as the Manual Training and Industrial School of Colored Youth, sounded almost too good to be true — especially in the early 1950s, when the education of African Americans was hardly a national priority.

Medley’s enrollment at the school changed his life. “It was like a new world,” the 84-year-old resident of Columbus recalled last week. “It gave me a foundation in life.”

For some 70 years, Bordentown was a haven of high academic standards that also required students to learn a trade. Medley, who graduated the year before the school closed, was among those to attend what was often called “the Tuskegee of the North,” after Booker T. Washington’s famous institute in Alabama.

The school had to shut down in 1955 after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that made separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional (the school was operated by the state of New Jersey). In ensuing years, the Georgian-style, 400-acre campus served intermittently as an institution for disabled children and a youth correctional facility. Its future is uncertain.

Most area residents are unaware of the unique history of The Bordentown School. But in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest. A Place Out of Time, a 2010 documentary by Dave Davidson, interviewed alumni and historians and showed rare archival footage. Mildred Rice Jordan, a retired Rider University professor and granddaughter of the school’s founder Walter Allen Simpson Rice, wrote the 2017 book Reclaiming African American Students: Legacies, Lessons, and Prescriptions: The Bordentown School Model.

This year, students from Cherry Hill High School East made Compromised by Conflict: The Bordentown School and the Struggle for Black Education, a film that won an award from the New Jersey Historical Commission. Writer and education historian Connie Goddard, who was interviewed for the film along with Medley, has written scholarly articles about the school.

“The school was unique because it provided both a solid academic education as well as trade classes,” she said. “Particularly from 1930 on, students graduated with a regular secondary education degree equivalent to what they’d get at any other high school in New Jersey. The teaching staff was fully certified academically, and the trade instructors came from pretty good institutions as well.”

Part of the appeal of the school was that the faculty lived on campus. “This was very much a self-contained community in many ways, definitely in loco parentis,” Goddard added. “A lot of the children were from what used to be called broken homes. This provided a family structure. But a lot of solid middle class families sent their children there, too, because it was good and it was free.”

Ex-slave Walter Allen Simpson Rice founded the school in New Brunswick after serving in the Civil War, moving north, and becoming a minister. Starting with eight students in an old frame house, the school grew and moved to a farm in Bordentown in 1896, and was taken under the auspices of the New Jersey Board of Education in 1903.

The school thrived, operating self-sufficiently on a year-round basis with its own farm, cattle, and orchards. Lecturers included Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson. Harvard University graduate William R. Valentine was principal from 1915 until the late 1940s, stressing the approach of offering serious job training as well as rigorous academics.

Students had to contribute to the upkeep of the school. All of the laundering, printing, cooking, and raising of produce was done on campus. “I looked at a list of graduates from the 1950s, and so many wound up doing entrepreneurial things,” Goddard said. “There were architects, furniture designers, social workers — a lot of entrepreneurial spirit.”

For Medley, who has become a kind of unofficial historian of the school, “It was the best experience you could have as a teenager,” he said. “The students came from all over — not just the U.S. We had people from British Guiana, Trinidad, and South America, too. You had to have a trade as well as an academic education. I studied the nomenclature and maintenance of auto mechanics.”

Medley went on to be a driving instructor and maintenance mechanic in the U.S. Marine Corps, and then worked at the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles, retiring as a supervisor. “We still had trouble getting jobs,” he said. “But the determination and inspiration we got from the teachers enabled us to continue. One door closed, another one opened up. But you had to have the initiative.”

Medley began researching the school and collecting memorabilia a few decades ago. He has displayed his collection at reunions and is hoping to find it a permanent home. ‘I’m trying to work out a place where some educational institution can put it on display,” he said. “It’s considered a hobby for me, so I can’t qualify for grants.”

As for the future of the property, it remains uncertain, said Goddard, who has toured the campus. “Of the 20 or so buildings, there are still a half dozen left, like the auditorium and eating facilities,” she said. “The barns have been taken down, but the chicken coop is still there. Basically it’s a couple hundred acres of prime land sitting there that’s not really well used. It would be terrific if it could be used again, but it’s not clear how this could happen.”