The Racial Transformation of Trenton Central High School

Trenton High Pic from 1932

It cost about $3.3 million to build Trenton Central High School in Trenton, NJ in 1932.

I am currently working on a paper on how Trenton Central High School in Trenton, NJ became racially segregated after Brown. It is clear that between the years 1954-2015 the school underwent a dramatic racial transformation. The school was all white in the 50’s, however, today the school is essentially all black. The question is how did this happen?

By viewing the Trenton Central high school yearbooks, the Bobashela, I found that in 1954 the students and teachers at the school were all white. Well actually there were a few black kids on the pages; they probably made their way into the school just after Brown.  Ten years later, by 1964, we find that a racial transition was well underway. While the principal and most of the teachers were white, more blacks can be found on the pages. This suggests that black population was increasing or that African Americans were “moving in” to local neighborhoods. Information provided by the Census Bureau indicates that between 1960 and 1970 Trenton’s White population declined by 27.2%. By contrast the city’s Black population grew 56% during this same time period. It is possible that a significant number of Blacks migrated north in an attempt to escape the racial antagonisms of the south and find employment in northern cities, including Trenton, NJ. This migration and the passage of Brown, surely affected the racial composition of the Trenton Central High School between the years 1960 and 1970.

Historians have pointed to the 1968 riots at the turning point in the Trenton. Reportedly 200 windows were destroyed and scores of buildings were burned to the ground. Instead of rebuilding, some business owners decided to move their establishments elsewhere. Some moved to the a new strip mall called Independence Plaza while others set up shop along a strip of highway called Rt. 1. Once the businesses left conditions in the city deteriorated quickly. Suddenly more abandoned buildings and houses began to litter the social terrain and White folks (and affluent Blacks for that matter) took off top speed. The end result was that poorer blacks were left behind. The minority population at Trenton High began to skyrocket.

White THS Students Continue Boycotts.jpg

A cover story from the 9/26/1968 edition of the Trentonian newspaper.  The influx of Black students lead to racial tension and fights at the school.  When the battles got too hot White residents relocated.

White flight continued to take place between 1980-2000. We certainly do not know why so many whites left the city. However, mathematical sociologist, Thomas Schelling, offers one possible explanation in that he argues that communities can reach a racial “tipping point”. Using statistical analyses he found that once a community becomes 20% Black White people who can afford it will often head for the hills or the sunny suburbs. Hence, it is possible that some White Trentonians moved to nearby Hamilton, Ewing or Lawrence, NJ when they realized that blacks were moving in. Some of them probably moved so they wouldn’t have to send their kids to Trenton Central High School with Black students

In sum, the out-migration of whites, the immigration of blacks, and the 1968 riots had an effect on the racial composition of Trenton, NJ.  The population of the city changed, which lead to a racial transformation at Trenton Central High School. This leads me to the main thrust of my paper: I argue that once Trenton High became black the students and the building for that matter were largely forgotten. There is a myriad of data and studies that suggest that minority students get the shaft when it comes to education. There is also an ever-growing body of literature, which highlights the reasons why black students who attend racially segregated schools academically lag behind.



5 responses to “The Racial Transformation of Trenton Central High School

  1. I graduated from THS in 62. I noticed that some white families started sending their children of high school age to Catholic high schools and also to private schools. I enjoyed and benefited from my time there (Trenton HS). I find your analyst very informative especially since I was naive at the time and thought nothing of integration since that had been my experience since first grade

  2. Migration from the cities, so called “white flight,” was by and large a function of upward economic mobility, and was not exclusive to white. Was there underlying prejudice behind these decisions? No doubt there was. The 60’s were a turbulent times, creating great uncertainty. The black population was also relatively poor, and there was no doubt also concern that “middle class values” would no longer be preeminent. Did you research at all the number of black families that switched to private or parochial schools, and what the economic status of those families were? The issue of why blacks also took flight must also be assessed if your research is to be thorough. Research into the high levels of prejudice in northern cities has been widely disseminated. How “enlightened” were you expecting average citizens to be in the middle of the 20th century? Human beings are tribal, and competition for resources- of which education is one- will often exist, and often with less than ideal outcomes.

    • Thank you for comments, they are greatly appreciated. You raise a good question about black families switching to private or parochial schools. I don’t have the data on that but I am led to believe that instead of enrolling their children in private schools some upwardly mobile blacks, moved to first run suburbs such as Ewing, Lawrence and Hamilton. Admittedly, as I am in the middle of my PhD program, I simply do not have time to delve into this like I want to. Still, again I thank you for your comments because its lets me know that folks are reading my blog.

  3. And by the way, former New York mayor David Dinkins graduated Trenton Central in 1945 and he’s black so it wasn’t until 1954 when the first blacks attended the school

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