Lillie Ham Hendry is a historic gem of a woman. At 92 years young, she has an astonishing ability to recall minute details from eight decades ago. Don't dare question the veracity of those details, because you will absolutely be wrong. She brims with energy and rapid-fire wit as she tells her stories, resulting in a willingly captive audience. Lillie is an alumna of the Court Street School, Class of 1943, and to truly understand her, you must first have a background on this historic segregated school. My colleague Joe and I were lucky enough to receive a personal tour of the school, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Despite an 1881 New Jersey law prohibiting the exclusion of any child from a school based on race, religion or nationality, separate schools for black children cropped up in the state through to the mid-20th century. The school originated in a one-room, wood frame house in 1915 as the Freehold Colored School, educating the children of black migrant workers from the South. The Great Migration quickly created the need for a larger building. In 1917, sociologist, author and activist W.E.B. DuBois spoke at the eighth grade commencement for three high school-bound students who had been championed by activist and principal, Ferdinand G. Fenderson. Fenderson challenged the belief that black students should not be expected to continue on to high school. The new building was begun in 1919; four years later it went from two classrooms with a couple of grades each to four classrooms with up to three grades combined. Sixth through eighth graders were contained in one room, where one teacher taught all the subjects. Mr. Reed, the school’s longest serving principal, taught the older students, while Mrs. Reed taught the little ones.
In addition to the competitive curriculum, Court Street School taught public speaking to ensure their students had experience projecting their voices clearly and with poise. Good manners, respect, and responsibility to their community was insisted upon. The school served as an air raid shelter during WWII, where drills would be run in and out of the building amidst sirens and flashing lights, which Lillie could see from her house just two doors down. The most responsible students of the school helped to man the ration station, issuing stamps for staples like gas, butter, and soap. Principal Reed wanted his students to reflect the best of Freehold, and primed them with pride and confidence every day.
A mere 87 years later, Lillie has vivid memories of her kindergarten and first grade teacher, Mrs. Reed. She remembers her infinite patience, kindness, and amazing ability to get the students to visualize images in books with no pictures. Their textbooks were usually second-hand from the white schools, and often outdated. The Court Street teachers would use their own money to purchase a copy or two of current textbooks for everyone to share so the students could study updated material.
The school now proudly displays a wall of class photos, beginning around 1940. Twenty-five years of Court Street School classes are missing from the record because the photographer who came yearly to the public schools didn't visit the black schools. The parents of the Court Street kids noticed the class photos in the homes of their white counterparts, and arranged for Mr. Ladd of Freehold to begin documenting their classes as well.
When Lillie attended nearby Freehold High School in 1943, it was jarring. The school was large, and unlike Court Street, the classes changed rooms, teachers, students, and seats in a swirl of controlled chaos. The integrated school was integrated in name only. She was told by students and teachers alike that she did not belong in the college prep classes from the moment she entered the room on her first day. Though she had been assigned to these courses, she was not used to not having her teachers look out for her best interest. Lillie waited in the auditorium for her classes to be changed, listening as her advisor told her, “You have a big family. You’ll probably need a job after high school to help support them.” Lillie’s parents immediately went down to speak with the principal. They explained that nobody had the right to tell their daughter what her future would be. Lillie remained in the college prep courses, and excelled.
Not to allow discrimination to deter her from having her best high school experience, Lillie wanted to participate in the high school play. She loved having fun and interacting with others. She was told the only role available to her was that of Eleven More...the maid, which had been played by a black student the year before as well. There was much discussion among her friends, who discouraged her from taking the role. Lillie’s parents, however, advised her to do it if she wanted to - don’t if she didn’t - but the important thing was that it should be her decision. Lillie decided to take the role and knock it out of the park. The following year, she got the role of Angelica, a Christmas angel, which also caused quite a stir. Lillie remained poised. She said, “I’d rather people be surprised at a black angel than very, very accepting of another black slave.” She handled discrimination with grace and dignity as she neatly turned it on its head. She ended her years at FHS by writing the senior class farewell song.
Lillie was accepted into the rigorous Trenton State College Education program. She was the only black student in a class of 62, from which only 15 graduated. She received both her bachelor's and master’s degrees. Her first job was in a first grade class of almost all white children, with only one black child. Upon seeing her, the parents outside the door asked to speak with the teacher, assuming she was only watching them until the teacher arrived. Some of the children were crying,, and the parents were hesitant to leave their children with her. Lillie was nervous, but proceeded as professionalism would dictate and won their hearts through her love and ability. Rather than allowing discrimination to be a roadblock, she viewed it as a challenge. “When you use the word ‘challenge,’ I am motivated,” she said.
Several years later in 1954, Lillie was sent to England on a Fulbright Scholarship for Education. She was presented to Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, of which there is a photograph hanging in the hallway of Court Street School. She stayed just outside of London with a family that had never had an association with an African American before, though it was not her skin color, but rather that she was American that fascinated them. They had no preconceived notions about race, and therefore no prejudices about her. She wanted to stay, but could not bear to leave her family.
Lillie eventually returned home to teach at Court Street. She taught a variety of grades, later becoming a high school guidance counselor at both Marlboro and Freehold Boro. She continued her passion for education long after retirement. After Court Street School closed in 1974, it was used for various municipal purposes, but Lillie knew this building had history, and it was important. She played an integral role in having the building designated as a community center, a goal that was realized in 1990. She served as its board president, and Court Street School was once again able to give back to the town.
It appears that Lillie Ham Hendry could not stop making a difference if she tried. She continued her contributions to excellence in education, designing and implementing one of the first free after school programs adopted by the state to help newly arrived Hispanic students integrate more easily. She participated in summer school programs and fundraisers for continuing education and community service endeavors. She proudly relays the history of Court Street School and of Freehold, and does so matter-of-factly, managing to quietly underscore the important points with her eyes and the tone of her voice. As for me and Joe, all I can say is we felt grateful to have had the privilege of meeting her. Some people leave a lasting impression, and Lillie Ham Hendry is one of them. As we walked through the school, we asked if she sees empty hallways now or if she still visualizes the school buzzing with happy children. She replied, "Heavens to Betsy. You always feel life in Court Street School. It's just here."
For more on Lillie and the history of the African American experience in Freehold and Monmouth County:
Greason, Walter. Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014.