John Robert Paul Brock was an early casualty in the movement toward civil rights in (Atlantic City and) America.
The burdens of the psyche may defy, or reinforce, medical analysis. In the case of early 20th century educator John Robert Paul Brock, despair mirrored deterioration. Whichever the culprit, some broken hearts cannot be mended.
That was the fate of JRP Brock. Placed in charge of Atlantic City’s two “colored” schools by 1921, Pennsylvania native Brock succumbed the following year at the age of 42, in the thick of a battle over whether or not to integrate the local schools. After being summoned to the Brock home on Magellan Avenue late in the night of Nov. 24, family physician P.L. Hawkins found his friend and colleague already dead. Brock had died, Hawkins told a newspaper reporter in the wee small hours, “from a broken heart” resulting from the “segregation controversy.”
That controversy had just begun to build. As the only secondary school in the city, Atlantic City High School (then located at Ohio and Pacific avenues) necessarily was integrated, but the rest of the school district was not. Brock was superintendent of the Indiana Avenue and New Jersey Avenue schools. Hawkins, also a black man, was a member of the school board.
Each favored the status quo. An increasingly vociferous segment of the African-American community did not. Brock died before the rift could grow wider.
His life had been one of high achievement and surmounting barriers. Born in 1880 in Harrisburg (his father, a minister, was a Civil War veteran), Brock attended schools in Massachusetts and Philadelphia before graduating from West Chester High School and entering Dickinson College at the age of 17. There, on the venerable, liberal arts campus in Carlisle, Pa., he forged his personality — modest, efficient, gentlemanly — and a record of quiet leadership. A Phi Beta Kappa and Dickinson’s first black graduate (1901), Brock stayed put for a year to earn a master’s degree before embarking on a career in education.
“A lot of times you find that the ‘first’ African-Americans were in name only, but [Brock] made a mark,” says Rachel Jones Williams, who has researched and written about the Brock family. (Three JRP siblings included a Westfield, N.J. doctor.)
Equipped with two academic degrees and a gift for communication, Brock taught school in Carlisle, Baltimore, and Philadelphia before arriving in Atlantic City in 1919 to take command of the Indiana Avenue School. He quickly distinguished himself as a capable administrator and low-key leader, and his impact extended beyond school boundaries; he helped found a bank, steered the Arctic Avenue YMCA toward a greater sense of community service, and fostered an extra-school site known as the Study Center of Atlantic City. His perspective was ahead of its time.
But not, evidently, when it came to the prospect of integration. Some latter-day observers, who cite the strength of the period’s black schools and their inclusive curricula, say that Brock and the majority of black residents likely resisted the notion of integration because they feared it would dilute or misrepresent their cultural values in the classroom. It was an idea, they believed, whose time had not yet come.
Not everyone shared that view. On the morning of Nov. 24, 1922, a delegation of “colored folk,” the Atlantic City Press reported, met with Mayor Edward L. Bader (presumably more dignified than his Boardwalk Empire character) to state their case for integration and take particular issue with school board member Hawkins, whom they asserted was not a true barometer of their community’s feelings.
The mayor’s visitors asked that Hawkins be dismissed from his post, and argued that the school board should heed state law, which did not stipulate segregation in schools. They envisioned not a wholesale mixing of the races, but an opportunity for black children to attend “white” schools that were much closer to their homes than their current schools — the inverse of the national “busing” controversy later in the century.
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