EGG HARBOR CITY — During the height of segregation at the old Egg Harbor City Public School in the 1930s and 1940s, black students were taught by black teachers in the rear of the building. White children were taught by white teachers in the front.
But at lunchtime, the children in first through eighth grades all played together, former students said Friday at the unveiling of a Memorial Wall exhibit called “When We Were Colored” at the Egg Harbor City Community School.
“We played baseball and Simon Says and all kind of things. We played on the swings and Maypole together,” said Edna Ingram, 89. The former clothing factory worker and airport screener was a student at the Public School from 1931 to 1939, and was the driving force behind the creation of the exhibit, working with a committee of 11 people since 2009.
The large, two-story building was also called the Pike School, because it was located on the White Horse Pike between Chicago and Buffalo avenues. It’s the site of a supermarket today.
“Kids are kids. We blended in and played together on the playground at lunchtime,” said Clifford Mays Jr., 79, a longtime City Council member, retired social services executive and Korean War veteran who was a student there from 1939 to 1947. “Then the bell rang, and we went our separate ways.”
He said both black and white students knew that segregation was wrong.
“When you got off of the bus, you had to line up in back of the school, while white students lined up out front,” Mays said. “Anybody with common sense knew it was stupid to separate the kids.”
Mays graduated from eighth grade in a segregated service in 1947. That’s the same year that then-Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll and a new state constitution ended segregation in New Jersey schools, starting in the 1948 school year.
Ingram said she especially wanted to honor the black educators.
“We got a quality education,” Ingram said. “Those black teachers taught us at a great pace. Mrs. Costley would go and visit the white classes, and if we were behind, she made us catch up.”
The exhibit pays tribute to the black teachers, all now deceased. They were Ada F. Costley, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher who was also the principal of the black students; first- and second-grade teacher W.C. Greene; third- and fourth-grade teacher Emma O. Hodges; fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Rosalie Hatcher, who was replaced by Annie C. Wilson; and sixth-grade teacher George Dickerson.
Most of the black teachers were educated at what was then called Glassboro State College, now Rowan University.
After integration, only Wilson and Greene stayed, said former student Lenora Edmonds, who entered school in the 1950s. Costley may have retired, because she had been teaching there since 1923, but no one is sure, she said.
Dickerson took a job with the Atlantic City School District, but documentation hasn’t been found for where Hatcher and Hodges went.
“I often speak about the power of a good teacher,” said Community School Principal Jack Griffith, “and how as we get older, we remember our teachers. We remember how they made us feel.”
He kept running into proof of those words as he visited print shops and frame shops with art teacher Karen Porreca, who designed the exhibit, he said.
“I went to the printer with the images, and ... here comes the owner from the back of the print shop. He says, ‘There’s Mrs. Wilson. I went to that school,’” Griffith said. The printer, who was white and attended after the school was integrated, did the work for free in Wilson’s honor.
Then, Griffith visited a frame shop, and its owner was another former student of Wilson. He gave them a good deal, too.
“He was smiling with memories he had of this woman, and how she made him feel,” Griffith said.
The Egg Harbor City district wasn’t always segregated.
“When my mother and father moved here (in the 1920s), the school was mixed, but by the time we came along, it was segregated,” said former student Estella (Blocker) Williams, 84.
Only after larger numbers of black families moved to town did the school segregate its classes, she said.
The kindergarten, held in a separate small building, remained integrated. So did the high school at the time, which was in what became Fanny D. Rittenberg Middle School.
But other aspects of the city were also segregated. Ingram said the movie theater had a side for blacks and a side for whites, as did the Egg Harbor City Lake.
And high school activities sometimes ran up against segregation elsewhere.
Egg Harbor City’s Cornelia Mays was the valedictorian of her 1947 high school class. On a school trip that year to Washington, D.C., she said the 10 black students on the trip had to stay at Howard University, a black college, while white students stayed in a hotel.
“They never told us we’d be separated,” she said.
Dickerson was the group’s chaperone, and while he was black, he was quite fair-skinned, she said. He was forced by police to leave where the black students were staying, she said, because he appeared white.
“It goes to show how life goes on and things change,” she said.
Eighth-grader Evan Goldsboro spoke at the event, representing today’s students. All of the students at the Community School have been given lessons about the exhibit.
“As students in 2013, we have the world at our fingertips. If we want to find out information, we have it with the click of a mouse,” Goldsboro said. “Thank you. It’s because of your persistence and courage that we have the opportunities we have today,” he said to the former students in attendance.
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