By David Cruz
Kids boarded buses outside the Bryant School on Tryon Avenue this week. Across town others played games on a school field — black, white, Asian, Latino — all likely oblivious that on this day 50 years ago, a group of courageous men and women cast historic votes that would render these interactions unremarkable. That vote — by the Teaneck school board — made Bryant the town’s central middle school, meaning that all kids, regardless of race, had to go there. Charelle Hanley was one of those sixth-graders.
“I remember approaching the school,” she recalled. “My mother had said to me something like the eyes of the nation will be watching.”
The vote ended de facto school segregation brought on by housing practices that forced black families into the northeast section of Teaneck and left the schools there separate and unequal. But, unlike other school desegregation — like in Little Rock, Arkansas — efforts that saw violence and protests, Teaneck’s first day of classes passed with nary a notice.
“There was one camera,” she said. “No pickets, and I didn’t have any anxiety; I don’t remember fear. It was just a normal school day.”
It is a testament to those school board members and to the community as a whole that — once the fierce political battle was complete — life simply went on.
“The sixth grade was the first time I was really going to school with people of different backgrounds than myself,” said Bryant School alumnus Julie Salwen, “but it was the beginning of my exposure to a much broader way of looking at the world.”
Fifty years hence, Teaneckers celebrated their victory at the high school — a rainbow of students, parents and teachers, even the last living member of that school board, Milton Bell.
Theodora Lacey was new to Teaneck from Montgomery, Alabama, when she and her husband joined the integration battle. She warned the audience to not rest on its laurels.
“Some of us have become quite complacent,” she cautioned. “We believe that the battle is won, that the path is open, and it was all done, and that we don’t even need to think about it. Tonight let us commit or recommit, re-energize our fight for what is right, for what is fair and what is just.”
So, 50 years later, what has integration wrought? In Teaneck, you can see the results in young men like high school junior Tristan Anderson, a student essay winner and a young man to watch.
“Whenever I’m in history class and looking at the struggle that it took to get this far, I’m very proud of what has happened and I feel very grateful that I’m here now and I’m able to represent my race and my ethnicity proud,” he said.
It’s possible that the happy greetings among neighbors here, the casual interactions across racial lines and the genuine warmth among people of different cultures was exactly what Board of Education members expected 50 years ago. But its profound ordinariness is, in itself, extraordinary.