Lincoln School Desegregation

The story of the Lincoln School District and the Taylor Supreme Court Case

Lincoln School Desegregation Today: Part I - Early Gerrymandering

Lincoln District, New Rochelle, NY


With an African American President and African American governor in New York, and the observation of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. this month, I thought the timing was just right to explore local civil rights history. I also wanted to see how the Lincoln School district court cases affect our elementary schools today.

Many people don't know that New Rochelle was once called the "Little Rock of the North" and garnered nationwide attention in a desegregation case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Everyone remembers Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). The United States Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal schools are inherently unequal and they deny black children equal educational opportunities. The New Rochelle case happened seven years later.

I researched in the New Rochelle Public Library local history room, New York Times archives, books, magazines, and web searches. The adjective "African American" is a modern term. In almost all of my research the words "Black" and "White" are used to describe "African American" and "Caucasian". In my articles here I will be using the words "Black" and "White". I include the word "Negro" when it is included in a quote or newspaper article title. I do not intend to offend anyone, but rather to reflect the language of the times, which is used in the newspaper articles and court cases.

Recently I drove though the Lincoln School District area and took photographs. I was able to determine the streets included in the district by referring to the School Street Directory. I will use the photographs throughout these articles to add visual impact and relate the history to today. My predominant impression of the area is that it is so very densely populated, with numerous housing projects and apartment buildings. There are more than a few dead end streets, apparently from when I-95 was constructed. I drove past three burned out houses and several day care centers. There are quite a few churches within the neighborhood and along its boundaries.

Because this is a long and complicated history, I will be presenting it in at least eight parts.

Lincoln District, New Rochelle, NY
Houses on Lawn Avenue in photo above

Before Brown v. Board of Education Case

In 1930, separate but equal was still allowed. The New Rochelle school district gerrymandered most of the city's black students to Lincoln School. During this period blacks protested and said these practices were unfair. Even early on the NAACP supported the efforts of the local community. White students that lived within the Lincoln district were allowed transfer to alternate schools through the 1940s. Some white students even had to walk past Lincoln school to attend Roosevelt.

In Dr. Gail Guttman's excellent dissertation on the topic, she traced the Lincoln segregation problem back to 1930 when Webster School opened.  The attendance zones put the white families in the new school and the black families in Lincoln.  The local NAACP protested, but no changes were made.  Whites that lived within the Lincoln school district were granted transfers to alternate schools.

As related in a March 9th, 2011, 50th commemoration panel discussion, Dr. Paul Murray interviewed Lincoln alumni Dan Bodde recently. Bodde recalled attending an integrated Lincoln School one year and then arriving back after summer recess to a mostly black school population after Daniel Webster was opened.

"Thus, around 1930, an area of several blocks, occupied by whites, was carved out of the Lincoln District and added to the Daniel Webster District, even though this area was adjacent to the Lincoln School and was a relatively long distance from the Webster School. When Negroes later moved into this area it was restored to the Lincoln District. In addition, children from the predominantly white Rochelle Park within the Lincoln District were removed from that district and assigned to the Mayflower School. It also appears that until 1949 the Board allowed white children within the Lincoln District to transfer to other schools, with the result that Lincoln School in 1949 was 100 per cent Negro … (these are) basic facts, which appear incontrovertible". Circuit Judge Clark, quoted from United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, Taylor v. Bd. of Ed. New Rochelle, 294 F.2d 36, page 37, Argued July 18, 1961, decided August 2, 1961.

As described in Sweet Land of Liberty, by Thomas J. Sugrue, there was a "lengthy, contentious school board meeting in January 1949. New Rochelle school officials faced a barrage of criticism … after hours of criticism the district abolished its transfer policy. New Rochelle's children were required to attend the neighborhood schools to which they were assigned." White parents revolted and filed a lawsuit (1949) against the city for forcing their children to attend inferior schools. They lost and fled the Lincoln district, leaving the school 94% black. The black families were not happy either.

It is also interesting to note that after World War II the returning troops found housing in public housing projects. The armed forces were segregated and some of the black troops moved into the Hartley Houses, built in 1949. This was mentioned by Lincoln school alumni Jacqueline Yizar at the Lincoln School panel discussion on March 9th, 2011.

Lincoln District, New Rochelle, NY
Syracuse Plaza on Lawn Avenue in photo above

Brown v. Board of Education

In 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (347 U.S. 483), a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities. It was an unanimous decision that separate but unequal was unconstitutional.

After Brown v. Board of Education case

Lincoln School was surrounded by scaffolding because bricks were falling off. The families there wanted the schools closed and their children sent to the better and integrated schools throughout New Rochelle. The district decided to rebuild the school and modernize it. The matter was put to a city wide vote (1957). All districts voted yes, except the Lincoln School district. The NAACP and a local activists and groups argued back.

Lincoln District, New Rochelle, NY
North Avenue stores and apartments above

Lincoln School Desegregation Today (Part II): The Dodson Report