Like most public school students of color in mid-20th century America, Travis Jackson did not have a white classmate for a significant portion of his education. This demographic detail was not coincidental, but by design and accomplished with the pernicious misuse of public funds to maintain separate schools for black children.
Jackson, and his father before him, attended the Brook School for Colored Children in the Village of Hillburn. Less than a mile away from the Brook School stood the Hillburn School, where only white students were enrolled. The Brook School was an unheated wooden structure with a small rocky playground in the front. The Hillburn School was modern and well equipped.
In 1943, Brook School parents, led by Mrs. Marion Van Dunk, engaged the services from a young attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund. When Thurgood Marshall came to Hillburn to defend the constitutional rights of elementary school students, Travis Jackson was entering the fourth grade.
Parents withheld their children from attending the Brook School in September of 1943 to protest the separate and unequal elementary school system. By October, their tactic and their legal counsel prevailed. The New York State Commissioner of Education closed the Brook School and ordered that all 49 children be admitted into the Hillburn School on Mountain Avenue.
Nyack resident and First Lady of the American Stage Helen Hayes was quoted at the time as having said: “I look forward with hope and prayer to developments in Hillburn…I am sure that the white people in Hillburn will have faith in democracy and…meet the situation with tolerance and understanding. Their audience today is as wide as the world.”
In Hillburn, white families must have gotten a different memo. In the aftermath of the integration order, one parent told a reporter about a new committee that had been formed: “We’ll call it the Association for the Advancement of White People,” the parent said. “The Negroes have their association. We are forced to have ours.”
When a nine- year old Travis Jackson reported to school on the first day of integrated education in Hillburn, only one white student remained, briefly. Even though the desegregation of the school system was instituted during his fourth grade year, it was not until the seventh grade that the racial composition of the student body began to diversify.
To avoid an association with students of a different race, white families sent their children to nearby parochial schools. But that strategy had its limitations. “I guess private schools eventually became too expensive, new families moved in and others saw that the world was not coming to an end,” Jackson said. Integration eventually took hold. When Jackson graduated from Suffern High in 1952, six of the 83 students in his graduating class were black Brook School alumni. Jackson went on to obtain his Doctorate in Education and serve as an educator and administrator for over three decades in schools in Suffern and northern New Jersey.
In 1954, Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund successfully argued Brown, ending segregated public schools in America. The reaction in some communities was similar to the initial response in Hillburn. One of the most dramatic examples of resistance was in Arkansas, where President Dwight Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure the safety of black students during the process of integrating Little Rock High School.
Supreme Court decisions, like Brown, had a profound impact on America by making state-sanctioned discrimination unlawful. Decisions by the current high court, in areas from voting rights to affirmative action, signal the removal of the legal remedies that were enacted to address a legacy of racial discrimination in our country. Many of the same racial antagonisms that were prevalent before Brown endure.
But for those who may feel dispirited by recent racial discord, near and far, Dr. Jackson’s description of Hillburn after public school integration is reassuring. According to Jackson, the resentments of the adults of that period did not trickle down to their children. “Many of my friends, who are white and grew up in Hillburn, never got why they were dragged out of their school in 1943. Today Hillburn is one of the most integrated areas of Rockland – integrated economically, politically, and socially. It is also a nice place to live,” he said.
Here are two scholarship funds that support educational opportunities for students in Hillburn and Rockland County.
Alpha Phi Alpha Eta Chi Lamba Chapter Scholarship Fund
P.O. Box 1153
New City, NY 10956
The Hillburn Community Scholarship Fund
P.O. Box 705
Hillburn, NY 10931
Special thanks to Cathy Quinn of the Historical Society of Rockland County, Gini Stolldorf and Jennifer Rothschild of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Tiffany Card, Rose A. Gabriel-Leandre and Michele McCarthy of Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee’s office. Much of my research was made possible by the scholarship of Dr. Travis Jackson and Dr. Willie Bryant.
Photos: Above, Brook students being turned away from the Hillburn School; middle, Dr. Travis Jackson; and below, Rockland County Courthouse, 1943. Mrs. Van Dunk in the center with a coat draped over her folded arms. Marshall is the tall gentlemen to her left.
This story first appeared at Nyack News & Views.