Imagine a school—a boarding school—that is a self-contained, self-sufficient village. The students and teachers all live on campus, and everything they need is at hand. The school encourages growth and goals. It prepares its students for life and guides them to be achievers, emphasizing pride, self-esteem, morals, character-building, and discipline. Its teachers are mentors, role models, and surrogate parents. Best of all, its graduates look back on their days at school with fondness.
This was Bordentown, a New Jersey school located “high on a majestic bluff overlooking the Delaware River…the Bordentown Manual Training School for Colored Youth has provided the finest academic and industrial education for Negro children.” Yes, you read that correctly, “Negro” and “Colored.” For Bordentown, also known as MTIS, Old Ironsides, and The Manual Training Industrial School for Colored Youth, was established in 1886 as the Ironsides Normal School by Reverend Walter A.S. Rice.
New Jersey was a segregated state, and Rice opened a school for Black children, who were not at first included in mandatory education laws. Eleven years later, the State of New Jersey co-opted Bordentown. It was “the only state-supported, elite, co-ed, all-Black boarding school north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
Bordentown’s last graduating class was in 1955; the school, once known as “The Tuskegee of the North” was unable to attract white students “after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.” (It was also known as the “Black Forest Hills” because of its tennis facilities, which attracted black athletes who were barred from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association.)
In addition to its chronicle of the history of the school, A Place Out of Time – The Bordentown School follows a group of graduates from the Class of ’55 as they plan and enjoy a reunion. Viewers may be surprised by the “political correctness” that was observed throughout the school’s lifetime, and the political winds that fashioned its curriculum. (A Place Out of Time – The Bordentown School can be viewed at PBS.org.)
When the state closed the school, it was replaced with a mental institution at a time when such facilities began to flourish thanks to increased media attention to mental illness. The mental institution closed in 1993.
When I was a teenager living in South Jersey, I was totally unaware of Bordentown’s history, and knew it only as a threat. By that time, Bordentown had become a facility for the incarceration of juvenile delinquents, and its habitable buildings are still used for this purpose.
One of the beauties of A Place Out of Time – The Bordentown School is its many photographs and film clips illustrating the school’s history. Boys in military uniform and girls in beautiful, flowing, white gowns fill the screen, as well as numerous shots detailing the industrial training that was offered.
Men and women who graduated 55 years ago, share their memories of the school and its importance in their lives. Historians discuss the politics and race relations throughout the years the school was in operation. There is a wealth of information on the school’s founder and principals, as well as on similar schools such as the Tuskegee Institute.
A Place Out of Time – The Bordentown School is a warm remembrance of a school that demanded much of its students, and provided opportunities they would not have had. It is narrated by Ruby Dee, and includes no extra features.