An African American Experience in the New Jersey Courts
to Assure Equal Public School Education


Hedgepeth-Williams v. Board of Education, Trenton, NJ (1944), is a benchmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision in the desegregation of Trenton Public Schools. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the New Jersey School Law of 1881 by declaring that local school districts and boards of education could not establish separate public schools based on race, color or creed. Under the New Jersey State Constitution of 1844, the majority of funding for education comes from the state and includes the guarantee of a "thorough and efficient" education; a uniform property tax was collected by the state, and redistributed to local school districts on an equal, per-pupil basis for all children between the ages of five and eighteen years old.

On January 31, 1944, the New Jersey Supreme Court rendered its decision in the Hedgepeth-Williams case. Chief Justice Newton Porter ruled "It is unlawful for boards of education to exclude children from any public school on the grounds that they are of the Negro race". Justice N. Porter’s decision declared that de facto (in effect) racial segregation of educational facilities was a violation of the NJ School Law of 1881 which protected children against being forced to attend schools according to race or nationality, the New Jersey State Constitution, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

This decision paved the way for the erradication of racial and ethnic discrimination in the adoption of New Jersey’s third Constitution of 1947 which outlawed racial segregation in the public schools and in the state militia. As the first state to make such provisions constitutionally, New Jersey altered its image of racial conservatism. More importantly, for the first time since 1884, black pupils and teachers were placed in schools and classes on a nonracial basis. Hedgepeth-Williams v. Board of Education, Trenton, NJ (1944) was cited as precedence in the landmark United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS (1954) which banned school segregation nationwide.

Berline Williams, Attorney Robert Queen, Leon Williams, Gladys Hedgepeth, Janet Hedgepeth
Berline Williams, Attorney Robert Queen, Leon Williams, Gladys Hedgepeth, Janet Hedgepeth

The Brown Decision was one of the US Supreme Court's most important, judicially ground-breaking and precedent-setting ones, with far-reaching impacts on the lower state and federal courts, state legislatures, U.S. Congress, the Presidency, federal agencies, private corporations and businesses, and of course, all levels of public and federally assisted educational institutions. Ten years prior to this landmark decision, it was preceded by an African American Experience in the New Jersey Courts to Assure Equal Public School Education.


Acknowledgement And Tribute

The courage and bravery of Berline Williams and Gladys Hegdgepeth to challenge racial injustice in the Trenton, NJ school system, in the 1940’s, laid the foundation for equal education opportunities for all students in public schools in New Jersey without regard to race or national origin.

To honor, “Trenton’s Two Mothers” for their courage to confront racial discrimination, for their historic impact on equal public school education and for their influence on the course of desegregation and civil rights history in New Jersey, the Trenton, NJ Board of Education voted unanimously on April 25, 1991, to rename Junior High School # 2, the school that once tried to keep out their two12-year-old children because of race, the Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School.

Berline Williams Foundation

A Non-Profit Organization

The Berline Williams Foundation is a non-profit charitable, educational 501C3 organization which is tax exempt according to federal guidelines. The foundation is co-founded by Ernest A. Williams, Thelma Napoleon-Smith and Arnold B. Williams Jr., in honor of their mother Berline Williams (1907 – 1968). It is a living legacy to the two courageous African American women who challenged racial injustice in the public school system and encourage their children to get a good education to support themselves, their families and eliminate discrimination in our society.

Mission And Purpose

The Foundation works to improve public school student achievement by encouraging innovation and providing needed resources; dedicated to building future leaders by developing, implementing and supporting programs that "invest in children." The Foundation is committed to improving the quality of life for individuals by strengthening our overall sense of community, and fostering equal education opportunity and multicultural understanding.

The Berline Williams Foundation objectives are: to promote and further the improvement, interpretation, and preservation of our historical heritage in New Jersey and works to educate the public about the benchmark Hedgepeth-Williams v. Board of Education Trenton, NJ 1944 decision and its influence and impact on civil rights.

A second initiative is with the Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School – the very school that Janet Hedgepeth and Leon Williams integrated in 1944. This project will involve having the school declared a historical site, upgrading the library, and Media Center.