Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement

By Kevin M. Kruse; Stephen Tuck | Go to book overview

5
Hillburn, Hattiesburg, and Hitler
WARTIME ACTIVISTS THINK GLOBALLY
AND ACT LOCALLY

Thomas Sugrue

September 8, 1943, was the first day of school in the small village of Hillburn, nestled at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains in Rockland County, New York. The Brook School, a ramshackle wood-frame building that served as Hillburn’s Negro school, was silent. All three cramped rooms where a hundred black children were supposed to gather to get their elementary school education were empty. The school’s outdoor privies, boarded up since they had been replaced by indoor plumbing earlier that year, stood watch over the untrammeled grass in the schoolyard. Across a busy highway from the Brook School, the small American Legion hall that the schoolchildren used as a surrogate gymnasium stood dark and still. Only six children attempted to attend classes that morning. The other ninety-four had joined a “general strike.”1

A half mile away, in the center of town, the school day was also off to an unusual start at the proud Main School, a sturdy brick and limestone building built in the 1920s with state-of-the-art classrooms, a library, a clinic, a music room, a gymnasium, and a large playground, all for the village’s white children. The very physical plant of the two schools embodied ideas of racial difference. Main was a stately masonry building; Brook was a sagging wood frame structure. Local black parents derisively called Brook “the dump.” As white children shuffled into their new classrooms, attorney Thurgood Marshall escorted five-year-old Allen Morgan, Jr., a black student from the Brook School, and his parents into the principal’s office and demanded that the young man be enrolled. The outcome was a surprise to no one: Marshall and his young client were rebuffed. Marshall drafted an official letter of complaint to the school board, the first step in a possible lawsuit. Later that morning, a delegation of parents marched up the hill overlooking the town to the palatial home of school board president J. Edgar Davidson and demanded that the district allow black students to attend classes in the allwhite Main School.2

-87-

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