Friday, January 1, 1999

William R. Allen School

Constructed in 1900, the William R. Allen School was Burlington City's third school built for the education of black children, and now stands as the City's only artifact of the period of educational segregation.

The Quaker founders of Burlington were acutely aware of the need for education, and established a school in 1792. Leaders within the local black community shared the Quakers' belief that education was an important part of social equality. Public education in the City started in 1805, and the first segregated classes for black children were held in the home of a black woman in 1812. A small wood-frame building was constructed on Wood Street and housed the black school at the end of the Civil War, but was too small to adequately serve the student population.

Although the Quakers had long been known for their egalitarian view of race, a Quaker businessman's act of generosity furthered segregation in 1868. He and another local businessman donated a parcel of land on East Federal Street for the construction of a schoolhouse for black children. The large wood-frame Federal Street School, completed in 1870, was distinct in being the only City school not funded by the trust fund overseen by the Board of Island Managers, instead drawing its support from a special school tax. It was also the subject of an 1884 action by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled that the four children of a local black man, Reverend Jeremiah H. Pierce, must be admitted to the City's white schools under the New Jersey School Law of 1881. Throughout the late 1800's, a few black students did attend white schools in the City, but most were still sent to the Federal Street School, on the grounds that it was located in their neighborhood. By 1894, newspapers reported that there were once again no black students in the City's white schools.

Plans for a new two-classroom brick building were made in 1899, and the new school was finished in 1900. It was named for William R. Allen, a strongly Unionist mayor of the City during the Civil War and well-known local businessman. In 1914, a third classroom was added to accommodate a growing student body. Over the next ten years, the Great Migration brought many black families to Burlington from southern states, and the school could no longer house all the children. In 1923, a room in the basement of the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Pearl Street was rented and used as a fourth classroom, and in 1924, an addition doubled the size of the Allen School.

Enrollment continued to grow, and in 1934, the City was forced to remove white students from the nearby James Fenimore Cooper School and distribute the black students between the two facilities. In 1940, the New Jersey State Constitution forbade segregation in schools, but the City's practice of enrolling children in schools in their own neighborhoods meant that most black children still attended the Cooper and Allen schools, and that white children attended other schools. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education led to an attempt at city-wide integration, but the Allen School remained all-black until it was closed in the 1960's.

In July of 1995, the New Jersey Historic Trust awarded Burlington matching grant funds to restore the Allen School. Combined with more than $650,000 of funding from other sources, the grant will be used for a total rehabilitation and historic restoration of the building. Once restored, the Allen School will be used for special educational and community programs.

Related Reading
Find books about school desegregation at Powell's Books.

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