STONY POINT, N.Y. – The story of a bitter fight to end educational inequity in a small Rockland community is not well known, but local filmmaker Joe Allen is hoping to change that.
The Stony Point resident has been working on a film documenting a desegregation fight that brought a young lawyer and future Supreme Court justice to Hillburn, a village in the town of Ramapo, in 1943.
Allen got the idea for “Two Schools in Hillburn” after Wylene Wood, chairwoman of the Rockland African-American Historical Society, suggested he put something together for the May dedication of the Main School as a national historic site.
Allen found the school’s story so fascinating that he decided to “go for it and make the whole thing.”
He already has two documentaries under his belt: “20 Million Minutes,” which was about a community organization taking on the International Olympic Committee for refusing to have a moment of silence for Israeli athletes killed by terrorists at the 1972 Munich games, and “Hudson Valley Honor Flight: Generation Bridge,” which follows World War II veterans as they visit memorials and share experiences with high school kids.
“That’s the goal,” Allen said of his work. “to connect the generation that’s passed, with the generation to come.”
“Two Schools” revisits the era when Hillburn had two elementary schools – the Main School, where the white kids went, and the Brook School, for “children of color,” who included both black, mixed-race and Native American kids.
The former was made of concrete, had eight classrooms, a gymnasium, library and indoor plumbing; the latter was wood, had four rooms, and none of those amenities.
In the 1930s, New York state abolished segregation, and the concept of separate but equal, Allen said.
However, he said, the “powers that be (in Hillburn) didn’t want to integrate and re-drew the (school district’s) lines, that resulted in the same thing (segregation).”
A few years later, when a new junior-senior high school was built, suddenly the Main School had room for all of the village’s children. But when black parents tried to register their kids there, they were rebuffed.
Deciding that they had had enough, they yanked their kids out of the Brook School and sent them to “education centers” in churches instead.
The district’s reaction was swift: Parents found themselves in court fighting $10 fines after their children were declared truants.
That is where Thurgood Marshall came in.
It didn’t take long for Marshall, a lawyer for the national NAACP, to size up the situation.
Allen said Marshall's successful fight for the rights of “children of color” to attend the Main School forged the “intellectual roadmap” for his landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, which declared unconstitutional laws establishing separate schools for blacks and whites.
Marshall would later become the first associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when he was appointed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson.
The Main School now houses the district’s administrative offices.
Allen has interviewed students from that era, including Travis Jackson, who went on to become a teacher and principal.
Allen said he hopes to have the film wrapped up by January. It will be premiered at Rockland Community College and shown at schools in February, national Black History Month.
Allen has raised about half of the film’s $40,000 cost.
Most of the funding so far has come from “Tomorrow’s Hopes,” a Rockland Community Foundation program, and corporate sponsors. His GoFundMe site has garnered several thousand dollars from smaller donors.
It has been Allen’s most multi-layered project so far.
“With everyone you talk to, with every fact you come across, it just gets goes deeper and richer,” Allen said.
Eventually, he added, “the story begins to tell itself.”