For a 70-year period from 1866-1955, when America cared little about education for African Americans, and discrimination was both law and custom, the Bordentown School in Bordentown, New Jersey, was an educational utopia. An incubator for Black pride and intellect, it taught values, discipline and life skills to generations of Black children.
“A Place Out of Time-The Bordentown School” is a documentary film, narrated by legendary actress Ruby Dee and airing on PBS May 24 (check local listings), that tells the story of this remarkable institution through its alumni, scholars and historians, and a treasure trove of archival footage and photographs.
Directed by award-winning filmmaker Dave Davidson and co-produced by Amber Edwards, “A Place Out of Time” chronicles the birth, growth, and decline of the last all-Black, publicly funded, co-educational boarding school north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The film is also a chronicle of Black education in America across three centuries, a rarely seen inside portrait of a separate Black space, and a historical preface to the growing national discussion about the role of historically Black institutions in nurturing identity and personal accomplishment.
In its prime, Bordentown was called “The Tuskegee of the North,” after Booker T. Washington’s famous Alabama educational institute. Students at Bordentown trained in a variety of marketable trades, from agriculture to domestic science, and were schooled in both academic and social skills. With a 400-acre Georgian-style campus, Bordentown could easily be mistaken for an elite private school.
Yet it was operated by the State of New Jersey, which closed it in 1955 after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision made segregated education illegal.
“It is astounding how, in a few short years, the image of Bordentown changed in the public consciousness,” filmmaker Davidson says. “In a very turbulent decade, it went from being perceived as an educational utopia to a Jim Crow school.”
“A Place Out of Time” examines the ramifications of the school’s closure (it is used now as a juvenile detention facility, an ironic fact revealed in the documentary’s final frames) and considers the value of an education that includes manual training and physical labor practiced daily in the service of one’s community.
The story is as timely today as ever, with public education in the U.S.-especially for many African-Americans and other minorities-under increasing scrutiny and pressure to change. Bordentown was an educational experiment that succeeded in the face of institutionalized racism, limited resources, and political interference.