Documentary Focuses On 'Tuskegee Of The North'

For 70 years, The Bordentown School in Bordentown, N.J., was a cultural utopia for young African Americans. In its prime, it was called the "Tuskegee of the North" and educated its students in a variety of trades. The year 2010 marks 45 years since the Bordentown School closed its doors for good, and this Monday, PBS will air a documentary about the school — A Place Out of Time. Host Allison Keyes speaks with director Dave Davidson and historian Clement Price, who appears in the documentary.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Forty-five years ago next month, an important institution in African-American education shut its doors for the last time. You may not have heard of the Bordentown School in New Jersey, but for seven decades Bordentown was something of an educational utopia for black children.

In its prime, Bordentown was referred to as the Tuskegee of the North. Only Bordentown, unlike Booker T. Washington's Alabama institute wasn't private, it was a coed African-American school publicly financed by the state of New Jersey.

It was only after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that the state of New Jersey moved to shut down the school, citing its inability to attract white students. It closed in June of 1955. But for many years the school held a special place in the hearts of so many of its students, including Barbara Wheeler, class of 1952.

Ms. BARBARA WHEELER: The one thing that holds us together, where we act like we're still 13 and 14 years old is our relationship to that school. And, you know, Bordentown was one of the world's best kept secrets.

KEYES: A new documentary which airs tonight on PBS gives an inside look at some of the lives that were shaped by the Bordentown School. It's called "A Place Out of Time." And I'm joined now by the film's director, Dave Davidson and Clement Price, professor of history at Rutgers University at Newark. Thank you both for joining me.

Mr. DAVE DAVIDSON (Director, "A Place Out of Time"): Thank you, Allison.

Professor CLEMENT PRICE (History, Rutgers University): Thanks, Allison, nice to be here.

KEYES: Dave, obviously this place was special to you. When did it become that?

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, once you lock into the whole arc of the story, which is cleaved to these incredible momentous events over all this time, then you peel away the layers and you do the simple math and find out that there are actually people in their 70s who were graduates of this place. So as far away as it seems in time, actually they're living, breathing, vital folks who live this experience.

And it was the point where we began to talk to and get oral histories from these amazing folks that we were hooked on the story and really felt like it was important for us, in some way not only just to tell the story, but also vindicate them because there's a lot of misunderstanding when people look at this institution. We wanted to square something up because their lives were changed by the Bordentown School.

KEYES: Clement, as a professor of history, talk to us a little bit about the importance you place on Bordentown School in reference to African-American history and the education of African-Americans in this country.

Prof. PRICE: For the first two generations of the last century, Bordentown was the capital of Negro New Jersey. Not only was it a school, but it was a meeting place for black teachers and scholars. It had a thriving sports agenda. Bordentown on one hand seems to be a Jim Crow school because only black students are enrolled in it.

But in the black community it was seen as a symbol of Negro achievement, of pride in the race, uplifted. All of those values that took shape in the generation after the end of slavery.

KEYES: Professor, many of the former students that we see in the film talk about how important the school was in their lives. Here's a clip that I think will help set up my next question. This is Donald Robinson from class of 1952.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Place Out of Time")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DONALD ROBINSON: This school guided us to be achievers. We had teachers who were involved, who were dedicated, who pushed us. And we were at a - coming out of the year 1950 was a time when, for a black person in New Jersey - or anywhere in this country, almost - it was really tough. There were a lot of doors that you had to knock down in order to get in.

KEYES: Professor, you said during the documentary that black people were enjoying their sense of separation. What did it mean to be in an all-black school in the middle of this supportive black community and insulated from the kind of racism and the effects of segregation that people that were not on that campus had to deal with?

Prof. PRICE: Bordentown might be seen as a reservoir of black achievement. And I think as far as the alumni, those that Dave brought into his wonderful film, for many of them, it represents the power of their memories. They were kids when they went to Bordentown, obviously. And the Bordentown experience enriched the young lives of negro kids who were isolated and insulated from some of the perils of racial intimidation and harassment in New Jersey.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are speaking with the director of "A Place Out of Time," with director Dave Davidson and Clement Price, who is professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark.

Dave, from the people you spoke to, what did that isolation mean for them? How did that make them different than black students who were right out there in the middle of it?

Mr. DAVIDSON: In interviewing them, I think it's something that they really didn't recognize until later when they were out in that mainstream society. But in looking back, as they reminisce about those days, they realized that it was actually a color-free environment. That challenge and that stigma from those times was taken away. So they were getting a sense of themselves, finding out about their history, and it was really only after that where they stepped off quite successfully into mainstream society that they realized how strengthened they'd been by the experience at Bordentown for those years.

KEYES: I'm interested that you said strengthened by, because I guess I'm thinking for those who felt that whites being in an all-white environment was bad for them, why would blacks being in an all-black environment not be bad, in some ways?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, whites didn't really have an institutional and cultural conspiracy against them to really destroy the family fabric, the cultural fabric where, you know, when Bordentown was founded in 1886, really, at what they call the nadir, the depths of the Jim Crow movement, only a few years, a couple of generations away from an environment where it was criminal to actually be literate. So that kind of coalescing of the sense of achievement, of the sense of self, of a sense of worth was something that was certainly long overdue. And institutions like Bordentown were critical in being able to create that in these kids.

KEYES: Professor, one of the things that struck me was the level of moral training that kids were given, and then talked about, you know, one man said he had been to a dance, but the woman was so far away, she might as well have been in Florida.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: But they also said that the men and women didn't cross campus to, say, fraternize the way kids do today. Do you think that people that attended a school with such rigorous teachings, kids today don't have it. Are they missing out?

Prof. PRICE: They may be. Of course, we're not an entirely different age, Allison. I've often argued that black Americans may have been the last of the Victorians in the United States, in that they used moral uplift as a cornerstone for their social, political and cultural betterment. We don't see that. That is not as much of an issue now as it was, say, a generation or two ago. But when the film is screened, there's a very interesting wistfulness where people miss this kind of centeredness of a moral purpose in a black life.

KEYES: Professor, what kind of things did educators at the Bordentown school have to do to manipulate the system to keep money coming into the school and to keep it open?

Prof. PRICE: Dr. Valentine, the great and longstanding principal of the Bordentown School, was an extraordinary institution builder - not so much a student of Booker T. Washington, but he did have Washington's adaptation of the system for the purposes of the school, his ability to draw support without appearing to be a beggar.

KEYES: Dave, that actually was very interesting to me in the film, also, the kind of juxtaposition between the Booker T. Washington school of thought - you know, kids need to learn a trade and have an education, you need to learn to sweep and sew - and then the WEB Dubois attitude that you needed to have a classically trained education. How did the school this kind of a microcosm for this debate?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, when Valentine came in - and he was a Harvard man, but as David Levering Lewis says in the piece, he could read the tea leaves clearly. So he knew to bring the shield of the manual trades to the fore, and behind that shield, created this rigorous, academic environment, to be create the talented tenth. So he really harvested the best of Dubois and the best of Booker T. Washington.

These kids, even the ones who were college-bound, absolutely had to master a trade to be able to have something, you know, certification to go out and work, and they did well, even in the depths of The Depression.

But also, if you were majoring in carpentry, you fixed the buildings. If you were in plumbing, it was the pipes. And even more importantly, they had a huge agricultural section. So people were planting the crops and tending the livestock that would be slaughtered and harvested to actually feed the educational community. So the kids were invested in their own educational system and took great pride in being, you know, important moving parts in that system.

KEYES: Professor, some might argue that we're still kind of having the Booker T.-Dubois debate today. I wonder if you think that there are lessons we could learn from the Bordentown School that might give us some clue as to changes we ought to be making in the current educational system.

Prof. PRICE: When we look at modern American life and history of the merging of the so-called Booker T. Washington ideology with that of WEB Dubois, it makes perfect sense. We should be useful, and also have high intellectual aspirations.

KEYES: Clement Price is the board of governors distinguished service professor of history at Rutgers University at Newark. Dave Davidson is the director of "A Place Out of Time: The Bordentown School." They joined us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Thank you, gentlemen so much. I'm so glad that we were able to learn about this.

Prof. PRICE: Thank you, Allison.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thanks, Allison. It's great to be here.

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