In the 1930s, a newly minted lawyer named Thurgood Marshall joined the NAACP, becoming the Chief Legal Counsel in 1936. Marshall and his team of lawyers wanted to end school segregation nationally. To do that, they knew they needed to establish local precedents, and in 1943 they set one at the Hillburn School in Rockland County.
Hillburn Main School, known as the “white school,” was modern; the Brook School, the “colored school,” was unheated, unplumbed, poorly lighted and had lousy recreational facilities. Marshall’s team tried to enroll a black child named Allen Morgan at Hillburn; when he was, as expected, denied, black parents withheld their children from the Brook School to protest the separate and unequal elementary school system. It only took a month for the New York State Commissioner of Education to close the Brook School and order that all 49 children be admitted into Hillburn.
Famed actress Helen Hayes, a Nyack resident, said at the time, “I am sure that the white people in Hillburn will have faith in democracy and…meet the situation with tolerance and understanding. Their audience today is as wide as the world.”
Sadly, that worldwide audience saw every white family but one pull its children from Hillburn and send them to school in nearby Suffern or northern New Jersey. But they were on the wrong side of history. Marshall used the Hillburn case in winning the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education suit declaring school segregation unconstitutional. The renamed Hillburn Elementary School closed in 1967, the same year Marshall was nominated to be the first African American to the U.S. Supreme Court.