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Jan 28, 2021 12:00:00 AM 4 min read

Honoring rich legacy of Newark schools

The Newark Public School District is getting a history museum to honor and preserve its long history

Newark, as one of the oldest cities in the country, has a rich educational landscape, from its many universities and colleges within its borders to the public school district that has served countless students during its long history.

Until recently, however, there was not a home to showcase and preserve the history of Newark public schools, whose roots date back to 1676. But with the help of local stakeholders and members of the Newark Public Schools Historical Preservation Committee, there will be a Newark School Museum to be located in the Central Ward. The new home will be housed at the former State Street School at 15 State Street, a brick building that was constructed in 1845. The building will also double as the home for the Newark Boys Chorus, which is headed by Paul Chapin. Hanini Group is renovating the building.

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Marion Bolden, the chairperson of the preservation committee, is helping spearhead the effort to establish the museum, which will showcase the district’s significant archive of photos, artifacts and documents. Presently, the committee is soliciting donations of funds and historical artifacts for the new museum. More information on this campaign can be found here.

We interviewed Marion Bolden about the project and the importance of historical preservation:

Please introduce yourself to people who may not know who you are.

I am the former superintendent of Newark Public Schools. I served from 1999 to 2008 in that capacity. I am also a former student of the school district and worked my entire professional career as a teacher and administrator in Newark.

Presently, I am the chairperson of the Newark Public Schools Historical Preservation Committee, which was started in 2009. Part of the mission of that committee is to preserve the history of the school district, a very rich history. We discovered items being tossed into dumpsters without regard to their historic significance.  Other cities across the nation have done a much better job of preservation. Our work is to preserve school buildings, artifacts and documents that have historic significance. -- State Street School happens to be one of those school buildings. 

Tell me about State Street School.

State Street School is the oldest-standing public school building in the city of Newark. It doesn't serve as a school right now. State Street School went through lots of iterations. It was a school for the disabled at one time. It was a regular elementary school.  In 1864 it became a school for colored children. 

 The principal of that school was James M. Baxter; the Baxter Terrace apartment complex is named after him. James M. Baxter was a 19 year old who became the principal of the colored school; he served in that capacity for 40 years. He was the first African-American principal in the school district. 

The number of students in the colored school ranged from 84 to maybe 140 students. The school had four classrooms and served colored students for five to six years and then they moved again.  A chronology of where the colored school existed shows that they went from place to place. 

But State Street School is the only existing school that housed the school for the colored children. That is why it is significant to the city and to all of us. In fact, it is the only school in the city of Newark that's on the national and state historic register.

I understand that the building then served as school offices, exchanged owners, and was vacant for a while. You had tried to save the building as well before this most recent renovation. What do you think of the outcome for the building?

It is not very easy today to open up a museum. It would have been a very heavy lift. This is the best outcome for the building – it remains in use, serves as a school, and also houses the new public school museum.

 It is a wonderful outcome. I have seen the renderings of the school interior, and it will have old school house lighting and maintain some feel of the original building. The best outcome is that it will be a functioning school again.

I am also happy that the Newark Boys Chorus will call it home. Did you know that they have performed for the Queen of England? They have a wonderful history and legacy of educating children in the city.

Why is it important to preserve this history and showcase it?

Kids need to know the history of the city. Newark is the third oldest city in America. People do not feel a sense of history when you drive into Newark, not like the feel you get when you drive into the Connecticut cities. 

We haven't preserved many of our historically significant buildings. There are a few, but the buildings that are currently standing that can still tell the history of the city are the churches and the schools. When I was superintendent, I recognized that Newark's history was not being regarded the way it should.  We even have artifacts that were being tossed away, such as board minutes that were written in German. 

So, when people come to Newark, a lot of people who are interested in our history ask where is your museum? We don't have one. We have an art museum. It does not chronicle the history of Newark. You have to go to the library to get the history, but even then, it’s not prominently displayed all the time and you have to dig for information and artifacts.

If you want your city to be a destination place, you need to have a few destination sites – like museums.