She was a close friend of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated contraltos, Marian Anderson, and renowned educator, Mary McCloud Bethune; an admirer of Booker T. Washington; and once wrote about going to hear Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and how disappointed she was when her children didn’t know where Ethiopia was on a world map. Sadly, not much has changed 75 years later. Civil rights activist and gifted seamstress, Gladys Hedgpeth’s story is one of courage, faith, and simply being aware things just weren’t fair when it came to equality in the quality of life . . . academic opportunities; career visions realized; and cultural exposure. Against all odds, the self-educated, ‘very pretty’, brave and defiant mother of 9 helped bring a school board to its knees.
In 1943, Trenton, New Jersey wasn’t much different for ‘people of color’ than small towns in the South. Daily racial oppression was just not as blatant, but most ‘Negroes’ were still confined to segregated facilities; venues; and prospects. Although having to endure the sole responsibility of being a divorced single mother, a small portion of Gladys Hedgpeth’s days were still spent lugging a big, black pocketbook loaded down with NAACP membership envelopes. It wasn’t easy convincing folks to join the so needed historic organization (founded in 1909) when that same dollar could buy two loaves of bread. The crusader knew she had no choice but to try.
When Junior High School No. 2 was built, Gladys and other parents on the block thought their children wouldn’t have to travel to far away Lincoln. That was definitely not the case. Ten years before the decision of Brown vs. the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education (the Supreme Court’s decision on public school desegregation), the protestor and her neighbor, Berline Williams filed a lawsuit against the Trenton Board of Education. They were represented by an NAACP attorney, Robert Queen.
Soon more than 200 black school children had transferred from Lincoln to other city junior high schools. In 1946, Lincoln began enrolling white children making its principal Patton J. Hill, one of the first black men in the U.S. to head an integrated secondary school. The case was cited by Thurgood Marshall in his arguments in the 1954 Supreme Court case.
(February, 1944) New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Newton Porter announced the Court’s decision . . . “It’s unlawful for Boards of Education to exclude children from any public school on the ground that they are of the Negro race, and a school board has no legal right to refuse Negro children admission in the school nearest their residence and compel them to attend another school where colored children are segregated from other children.
Celebration and honor! In 1993, Junior High School No. 2 was renamed the Hedgpeth/Williams Middle School.
Resource: Spring, 2005 – American Legacy Magazine
Kansas City native, Jetta Dya Jones is a retired educator, motivational speaker, and freelance writer. Her debut inspirational book, Ba’al Perazim: The Breakthrough, will be released early summer (Life Chronicles Publishing)