Documentary remembers ideal school

Millstone resident is featured in film, recalls alma mater


MILLSTONE — “A Place Out of Time: The Bordentown School,” a film by Dave Davidson, had its premiere in July at the Newark Museum as part of the New Jersey Black Film Festival.

Township resident Dempsey Dixon, 89, is an alumnus of the school and is featured in the documentary, which was produced by Davidson, Amber Edwards and Hudson West Productions.

Academy Award-nominated actress Ruby Dee narrates the film, which tells the history of the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth (MTIS), the only state-supported, elite co-ed, all-black boarding school north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which operated from 1886 to 1955. Over its 70- year history, the school was a “unique educ ational utopia” and an incubator for black intellect that taught values and life skills for black children, according to the film.

In 1871, New Jersey became the last of the then 37 states to mandate compulsory public education for children, but would not include black children in that mandate for another decade. In 1886, the Rev. Walter Alan Simpson opened the school in Bordentown. He was born a slave in South Carolina but had earned a college degree by the age of 41.

The film states that safety and security were not taken lightly in the era of Jim Crow, and black people moved north in record numbers. The school that Simpson opened was originally called the Ironsides Normal School, and in 1894 the state took it over, renaming it the MTIS.

The principal in the early 20th century was James M. Gregory, the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He raised academic standards at the school, but in 1913 the state Board of Education invited Booker T. Washington to visit the school, which was already being referred to as “the Tuskegee of the North,” after Washington’s own school in Alabama. Washington advised teaching vocational skills over academics, and Gregory resigned. He was replaced by William A. Valentine, a Harvard graduate who had taught at Tuskegee.

Dixon was named after boxer Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion when he was born in 1920. His father, Edward, was a minister, and a strict man who didn’t allow activities such as dancing, Dixon recalled. Dixon laughed and said he didn’t have much choice about attending MTIS.

“He said if I didn’t go to Bordentown, I could go to Jamesburg,” Dixon said, referring to the boys’ reform school.

Ironically, he would spend much of his career at the Training School for Boys as a corrections officer.

Life at MTIS was strict. Students were not allowed to go to the movies if their rooms weren’t clean, he remembered. Boys and girls lived on opposite sides of the campus, located on a former estate. Everyone wore uniforms, and teachers lived on campus. Dixon said that in 1927, a parallel college prep track was added, but all students had to learn a trade and help maintain the school.

“We’d go to school half a day and go to trade half a day,” he said.

Dixon worked in the school’s cow barn for four years, and remembers killing hogs to be served in the dining room. He graduated in 1940 from MTIS, where he earned a degree in agriculture and specialized in dairying.

When Dixon entered the segregated armed forces in World War II, Navy recruits were asked if they had any military training. He was one of the few black men who did, thanks to his days at MTIS. Dixon became a chief petty officer, but when he would go home on leave, white soldiers would pull him off the train until they saw his stripes. This happened on three occasions, he said.

“Harry Truman was the best president,” said Dixon, noting he desegregated the armed forces.

The school’s choir was well known and performed all over the state, as well as on the radio and at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, N.Y. Sports were also an important part of life at the MTIS, and the athletic facilities rivaled those of the white private schools. It boasted two tennis courts and was referred to as “the black Forest Hills” with African-American tennis championships held there. Among the visitors over the years were Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson.

In 1947, New Jersey rewrote its schools constitution, and MTIS was opened to all students. In 1950 and 1951, it had one white student.

The Supreme Court decided the case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. At the same time, mental health was becoming an important public issue, and Gov. Robert Meyner wanted to open a high-profile mental health center on the MTIS site.

The June 1955 graduating class was the last for MTIS, and the Johnstone State Mental Health Facility opened on the grounds in 1957.

Dixon’s longtime companion, Helene Dunn, worked at the mental health facility as a social worker.

Every July, alumni head back to the site of the school for their annual reunion. The Johnstone hospital closed in 1993, and many of the buildings have since been torn down or are in need of repair. The school’s youngest graduates are now in their 70s, but their schooling years remain among the most important times of their lives.