MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Bernie Blanks points to his name on the blackboard in the small white schoolhouse on East Main Street.
The Whitesboro Grammar School operated from 1910 to 1967, teaching the children of this community from kindergarten until they went on to Middle Township High School. Behind a layer of Plexiglas in one room, the names of many who attended school there are written in chalk, along with the names of teachers.
“It was a very close community. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody went to school in Whitesboro until eighth grade,” Blanks said. “You got a great education. The teachers knew it was very important that you be prepared when you went on to high school. Everybody was pushed to get an education.”
When he was a student there in the 1950s, all of the students were black. In fact, the entire community was black, he said, with strong black-owned businesses catering to their neighbors.
“The town I grew up in was an all-black town. It’s no longer that, and that’s OK,” he said. “That’s what black people have fought for all this time, to be able to live where you want. It’s only reasonable that it would work the other way around.”
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Foundation as a planned community
Whitesboro carries the name of George Henry White, a lawyer and Republican congressman from North Carolina. At times, White is described as the last black congressman of the Reconstruction era, when new laws enacted after the Civil War gave former slaves and other black men the vote and with it unprecedented political power.
But as Shirley Green of the Whitesboro Historical Foundation Museum says, White was not alone in founding the community. He just put in the most money. In about 1901, a group of black investors launched the Equitable Industrial Association, including White, the Rev. J.W. Fishburn, Booker T. Washington and Paul Laurence Dunbar, a celebrated poet and novelist.
The idea was to build a planned, self-reliant community for blacks without the discrimination faced elsewhere.
At one time, Green said, Whitesboro had farms and poultry operations to grow food, a sawmill, shops and other businesses. In her home, Green showed off numerous displays, including models of the sawmill and the old Wildwood Junction railroad station near Whitesboro, as well as posters outlining the history of the community.
Green continues to teach about the history of Whitesboro at schools and community events.
“We’ve been trying to preserve as much of the history as we can,” she said. Green feels the sense of Whitesboro as a distinct community is at risk.
“No question. Absolutely,” she said. “Whitesboro has a problem.”
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Early this year, Whitesboro residents gathered at the Martin Luther King Center to hear plans for a new post office for their community. Postal Service representatives are looking for a spot to place a 12-by-40-foot trailer to operate as the new post office, including possibly the Whitesboro School property, owned by the township and leased to Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro.
For now, the post office boxes are in a corner of the MLK center. Some residents complained they were losing their Whitesboro ZIP code, 08252. As residents sign up for home delivery rather than a post office box, they are often listed in the Cape May Court House ZIP code, 08210. According to Green, that creates issues for deeds, insurance, package deliveries, even emergency response.
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Blanks is not certain people moving to Whitesboro now will feel as deep a sense of connection and belonging as did his generation. Freed from the weight of discrimination — or at least from some of its most public and virulent expression — the unique history and importance of a black community may not seem as important to some, he said. As older residents die and families move away, he’s afraid the Whitesboro where he grew up may become little more than a spot between two signs on Route 9.
But the community continues. Each year during Labor Day weekend, the Whitesboro Reunion draws big crowds. The event began in 1988 as a way to keep those community connections strong as people moved from the area for jobs.
Blanks points to a thriving homework club at the MLK Center and other activities. Plans call for new tennis courts at the center, and on the same night as the post office meeting, residents crowded the gym for the activities underway. Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro offers a scholarship program and events through the year.
“The community is as strong as it ever was,” said Cheryl Spaulding, the program administrator for Concerned Citizens.
Mayor Tim Donohue is sympathetic to those who worry about the sense of history in Whitesboro. As the township works on economic development, he said, officials try to keep in mind the character, identity and history of each of the communities that make up the township, he said.
But he sees some loss of the sense of distinct, separate communities spread throughout the township as inevitable.
“Whitesboro today is an integrated neighborhood of Middle Township. I think some people would look at that as progress. It’s an active, vibrant area with a lot of pride in the community,” he said.
Blanks said he’s seen a lot of streets fill in with new homes and sees a different town than the one he remembers, where he knew the name of every business owner and most of the residents.
“We still try to preserve the history of how Whitesboro got started and the purpose of it,” Blanks said. “You always want to preserve that history.”