I attended High School in the mid 1970s, where we learned about Brown vs the Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case argued by Thurgood Marshall, which declared separate but equal schools to be inherently unequal, and called for school integration with all deliberate speed.
We did not learn that Nyack was one of the few places in the mid 1960s in the Northern or Western United States which voluntarily desegregated in the wake of the Brown decision. June Shagaloff Alexander, who lives in West Nyack, recently shared the story.
“I was hired by Thurgood Marshall to conduct social research and lead community organizing. I helped develop the social research which we used in the Brown case, and was appointed first Education Director of the national NAACP.
“In 1961, the NAACP National Convention called on the national office to attack segregation in the North and West, and I worked on that. For years, people assumed that housing patterns were the cause of segregated schools in the North and West. Often, that was not really the case. After Brown, the NAACP was flooded with requests from its local chapters for assistance in their work to integrate schools. Nyack NAACP President Leonard Cook made one of these requests. He reported that the Liberty School on Depew Avenue was old and run down. It was the elementary school which all black children in Nyack attended—regardless of where they lived.
“The Nyack board of education was one of the few in the Northern and Western United States to agree to close segregated schools and reassign the black children. The school board closed Liberty, and moved the black children to the remaining three elementary schools—integrating each voluntarily. Why in Nyack and not elsewhere?
“I think it was because the people on the Nyack school board were not defensive. They saw the issue clearly and made a commitment to what was right.”
Reflecting on the importance of the Brown decision, argued by Marshall, Alexander said, “Education was a small piece of the story. This decision was the basis for all which came after to change the United States from a segregated system to an un-segregated system.
“May 17th was declared Thurgood Marshall Day by the New York State legislature in 2010. On that day, please join me in remembering his work—and that of millions of others (including some who lived in Nyack)—who pulled together to demand— and win—needed change in our country.”
Leslie Haber lives in Seattle and is a community organizer with Working Washington, a coalition of individuals, neighborhood associations, immigrant groups, civil rights organizations, people of faith, and labor united for good jobs and a fair economy.