Bringing a legacy to light — Trenton’s New Lincoln School

Biking around Trenton one day, I noticed an impressive-looking school building on north Montgomery Street and became curious about its history. Soon I learned that it’s now home to Rivera, an alternative public school for the district. But not until hearing about a new exhibit at the Ellarslie museum in Cadwalader Park did I learn of the building’s distinctive role in Trenton history. An earlier exhibit at the Shiloh Baptist Church — called Bringing Our Legacy to Light — told part of the story. This new one, curated by collector (and proud grad) Elizabeth Carter Lacy, relays the school’s significance with elegance and enthusiasm.

Constructed in 1924, for a quarter of a century the New Lincoln School served Trenton’s growing black population, and as the exhibition asserts, it did it abundantly well. With migration from the South increasing during World War I, the deteriorating buildings in which classes for black children were held had become cramped. Though school segregation had been prohibited in New Jersey since 1882, it was alas widely practiced. But the New Lincoln community made the most of what the school had to offer.

Built in 18 months, start to finish, to house 1,100 students, kindergarten through ninth grade, New Lincoln was the centerpiece of its neighborhood. Though its $500,000 initial cost would hardly pay for a school roof today, it was well equipped. The school had not only an auditorium, spacious classrooms, and a gym, it had the only swimming pool in the city system. And all the school’s furnishings and equipment were new, too.

A working fireplace graced a wall of the school’s kindergarten, and one of the exhibit’s most charming displays is a tribute to its teacher, Miss Arnetta Lee. For a quarter century, she enchanted five-year olds with the possibilities that school had to offer. Miss Lee taught her young charges to have fun, to love learning and to follow rules. Among them: “be compassionate . . . share . . . be focused . . . do the best you can do.” Demonstrating her dictum to “live a balanced life,” she had students paint some, sing some, work and play some each day.

With one class in the morning and another in the afternoon, Miss Lee must have been a remarkable lady. Her lessons about grace and decorum were obviously effective: another of my favorite displays was the group portraits of graduating ninth graders: the girls dressed primly in white and the boys in jackets and ties. (Yes, my kindergarten teacher was of Miss Lee’s generation.)

Miss Lee’s standards — high, though delivered with affection — characterized other aspects of the New Lincoln experience, according to a history of Trenton’s black community. Segregated though the school was, the city’s board of education had its own standards to uphold. For one (though this was a controversial move), it replaced a popular principal who did not have a college degree with one who had two. Mr. Arthur Long, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago — at the time, one of the nation’s leading education schools — was hired as principal. Like the rest of the staff, Long was “colored,” a term commonly used then, according to a sign at the exhibit’s entrance.

But apparently, Long never moved into Trenton, which distressed much of the New Lincoln community. So in 1933 he was replaced by Mr. Patton J. Hill. An army veteran and veteran educator, Hill served the Trenton schools until 1958 — and lives on today in the name of P.J. Hill School.

And that raises a question not answered in the display — Trenton’s schools were finally desegregated in the mid-1940s, as a result of a famous court decision also memorialized in a school name: the Hedgepeth-Williams case, which predated Brown v. Board of Education by a decade. As many historians of education have noted, school desegregation had some unfortunate consequences, one of which was that the dedicated black teachers who had served generations of students in segregated schools lost their jobs in the wake of Brown. Hill may have been a fortunate exception as he remained with the system for 10 years after New Lincoln was converted to a middle school.

This charming exhibition has numerous other lessons to offer, as well as a list of some of the school’s noted graduates: the distinguished judge and legal scholar Leon Higginbotham and former New York City mayor David Dinkins among them. A proud legacy indeed! The exhibition will be on display until May 25; on Sunday, March 10, Elizabeth Lacy will give a talk about the school between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  (Note: some of the information in this blog came from The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community, 1890-1965, written by Jack Washington, a teacher at Trenton Central High School.)

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