Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education, Trenton, NJ, also known as the Hedgepeth–Williams case, was a 1944 New Jersey Supreme Court decision in a legal action brought by two mothers, Gladys Hedgepeth and Berline Williams, who sued the Trenton, New Jersey, Board of Education over racial discrimination against their children, Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth. It was a precursor to the Brown v. Board of Education case that prohibited racial segregation of school systems throughout the United States.
In September 1943, Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth, residents of Trenton’s Wilbur section, attempted to enter into their local neighborhood’s junior high school, Junior High No. 2. However, they were told an abrupt ‘no’. The school was “not built for Negroes” as the principal of the school at that time stated. In the 1940s, Junior High No. 2 was a predominantly white school with virtually no admission of African Americans. Although placement into schools in the Trenton School System is dependent upon the distance a student resides from the school, African American students prior to the outcome of the Hedgepeth–Williams case were forced to attend the all-black New Lincoln School. This school was located 2.5 miles away from the residence of both Leon Williams and Janet Hedgepeth. Outraged at the apparent racial discrimination exercised by Trenton’s school system, Gladys and Berline filed a lawsuit against the Trenton Board of Education.
The lawsuit was decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court on January 31, 1944. The court stated that Junior School No. 2 “unlawfully discriminated” against the students and were in a direct violation of statute N.J.S.A. 18:14-2. This statute states among other things that “it is unlawful for boards of education to exclude children from any public school on ground that they are of negro race”. Robert Queen represented the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.
The Hedgepeth–Williams case was cited in the Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case on May 17, 1954. Ten years later, the Honorable Thurgood Marshall and his team of NAACP attorneys applied the Hedgepeth and Williams decision (the only state anti-segregation legal precedent in the Nation) to the successful litigation strategy used in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka KS decision, which overturned the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” across the land.
The 1944 Hedgepeth and Williams decision also caused or contributed to other momentous changes (listed below) and influenced the creation of Affirmative Action law and policy in New Jersey:
- 1945 - Based on the principles in Hedgepeth and Williams, the Fair Employment Act was enacted the very next year, prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of race.
- 1945 – That same year, the New Jersey Division Against Discrimination was established in the NJ Department of Education to protect the civil rights of persons on the basis or race, color, creed, ancestry and national origin in schools and in employment and housing practices.
- 1947 - The New Jersey Constitution was ratified, conferring upon every citizen two civil rights:
- The RIGHT to a “Thorough and Efficient” system of public instruction (the right to an education of highest quality in the public schools of New Jersey) and
- The RIGHT of every student of color to receive a high-quality education in any public school, on a basis free of segregation, prejudice and other acts of discrimination.
- 1949 – The Freeman Act was passed to provide victims of discrimination with a vehicle for filing for relief via appeals to, and orders for relief from, the NJ Division Against Discrimination, which at that time was still a part of the NJ Department of Education.
- 1950 – The NJ Law Against Discrimination was enacted, accomplishing three significant things:
- Discrimination of every form was prohibited in every arena of public life in New Jersey.
- The Division Against Discrimination was transferred to the NJ Department of Law and Public Safety, thereby giving its decisions the force of law and empowering it with the full authority of the State Attorney General.
- Nevertheless, oversight of school desegregation matters remained with the NJ Dept. of Education, which at that time lacked a proactive enforcement mechanism.
- 1965 – Hedgepeth and Williams served as a legal precedent for the landmark New Jersey Supreme Court case, Booker v. Plainfield (1965). Together, those two court decisions:
- Declared that the very act of segregating or separating students from each other injures those students, whether done intentionally or accidentally. (A person killed by accident is just as dead as one killed deliberately.) Clearly, to the victim, the effect is the same.
- Ended all legal support and rejected all excuses for using or permitting any form of prejudice, segregation, or other discriminatory practice against students or staff within public schools on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, relative wealth or poverty, or gender (added in 1973); and required local boards of education to correct the residual effects of such discrimination upon students, employees and their communities.
In 1973, the Honorable Wynona Lipman, the first African American New Jersey State Senator, introduced a bill that was clearly influenced by the state Supreme Court’s Hedgepeth and Williams decision of 1944 and by its Booker decision of 1965. That bill became the state’s first law (NJSA 18A:36-20) requiring local school districts to remove segregation and all vestiges of discrimination in their educational policies and practices, and to act affirmatively to provide equal opportunity for all students and staff in the district. In 1975, to implement this new law, the state Board of Education issued regulations governing Equality in Educational Programs (NJAC 6:4), to enforce equity compliance in all NJ public schools.
The importance of Hedgepeth and Williams is documented by the following sources, among others:
- By the writings of author Dr. Jack Washington in books documenting the history of Trenton, NJ;
- By a January 31, 1944 front-page article in the (then) Trenton Evening News; and
- By official reports of the NJ State Department of Education, including its Guidelines Governing the Desegregation of Public Schools in New Jersey (1989), and its Annual Review of Progress Report on School Desegregation in New Jersey Public Schools (1992, 1993 & 1995).
In 1991, the Trenton NJ Board of Education renamed the former “white-only” Junior High School #2, from which African American students had been barred. It was renamed the Hedgepeth-Williams School, in honor of the two special women whose courage and hard work has been of so much benefit to so many others over so many years.
- Capital Century
- Hedgepeth v. Board of Education
- "1943: School spirit". Capital Century.
- "Hedgepeth v. Board of Education". FindACase.
- Marcellus D. Smith, Jr. "The Importance of Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education, Trenton, NJ (1944)". Trenton Public Schools.
- "Timeline". Hedgepeth-Williams.org.