Most Bordentown residents know that the town has a whole lot of history.
You know who didn’t know that, though? Tim Rollender, the co-president of the Bordentown Historical Society.
“I’d never even heard of Bordentown before I got here,” he said.
That was a few years ago, and, let’s be fair, Rollender has clearly turned that ship around. But his former lack of even knowing what a Bordentown was is a teaching moment in its own right. Here is this town with a trove of historical treasures built over three centuries or so, and yet a self-proclaimed “history nerd” who lived just across the river in Pennsylvania had never even heard of the place until his real estate agent suggested it.
Today, three years after joining the Bordentown Historical Society with his wife, Kristi Kantorski, Rollender is trying to oversee a push to bring Bordentown’s historical treasures to the public’s attention. The BHS is kicking off an eight-part series of events, called Untold Stories, focused on School No. 2 and the Bordentown Manual Training and Industrial School, with a screening of the 2010 PBS documentary A Place Out of Time on Feb. 2.
Lea Shaw, a member of Building Bridges (administered by Aneka Miller, Jan Nielson and Terry Johnson), reached out to the historical society about the schools last year. Historian Dr. Connie Goddard also separately reached out to the society about MTIS.
“Seeing such attention from different sources created a compelling reason to tell the story,” Rollender said.
Rollender and Doug Kiovsky are the historical society’s co-presidents. They took over for former president Chuck Pesce in the fall, and Rollender said it will take both men to fill Pesce’s shoes.
“Chuck and our Board of Trustees have steadily managed the organization for years before us,” Rollender said. “We are grateful, as we expand our membership, we can rely on the support and guidance of such long-time, integral members of the organization, like Kathy Finch, Michael Skelly Sr., Suzanne Wheelock and Doris Gorman.”
It didn’t take Rollender long to get drawn into the history. And the fact that it’s so rich, yet largely obscure outside of town was the kind of thing that made him want to get more of the word out about a town that has played major roles in periods like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the segregationist culture of the early 1900s.
A Place Out of Time looks at Bordentown’s most important—yet possibly least-recorded—contribution to African-American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bordentown School.
If you’ve heard of it by another name, that would hardly be a surprise. The Bordentown School had a lot of monikers. Some were official, like the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, the State of New Jersey Manual Training School, and the Manual Training and Industrial School for Youth.
Other names were a little more casual: Old Ironsides, for example, as a nod to Captain Charles Stewart, commander of the lovingly nicknamed USS Constitution, who once owned the land the school was built on. Old Ironsides, by the way, was also the name of the Bordentown School’s newspaper.
The school was also called the “Tuskeegee of the North,” a none-too-subtle acknowledgment that the school was a haven for black youth in an age when discrimination based on skin color was still accepted policy. These days, you might just hear it referred to by its more formal initials, MTIS.
Call it what you will, the Bordentown School, which operated from 1886 to 1955, was almost unique in the country. What started as a place for the underprivileged grew to become an elite school with a parade of celebrity visitors ranging from Albert Einstein to Eleanor Roosevelt. That dynamic—an elite school for black youth to learn academics and trades in the middle of the segregated era—was a fitting thing to look at for a program aimed at bringing Bordentown’s history into the greater conversation, Rollender said.
It’s also a fitting subject because unlike the volumes of Revolutionary and Colonial and Civil War-era history Bordentonians have in their collections, there’s actually very little in the way of artifacts from the school, he said. The really short version of how that came to be is, the school operated at a time when separate-but-equal was a real thing, then closed a few years after that policy was struck down. And once segregation was gone, a state-sponsored school like MTIS was no longer legal. So “the school closed in a hurry” and all the things that were part of daily life—the desks, the machinery to learn trades on, the chalkboards, they all “basically hit the Dumpster,” Rollender said.
In this way, he said, MTIS is a lot like World War II—people who were in it tend to not think of it as a culturally or historically significant period of time, it was just how life was. But also like World War II, people who didn’t live through it have been looking back and realizing there was something worth preserving there—and that there are still people who took direct part in it all.
“The school closed in 1955,” Rollender said. “There are still some graduates left around. They’re in their 80s and 90s now, but they’re still around.”
And in another parallel to World War II, there is a concerted effort happening right now to get those graduates on the record. The thing about the Bordentown School is, it was a middle-and-high school. But there also was School No. 2, Bordentown’s segregated elementary school. In March, the Historical Society is hosting “A Conversation with School No. 2 Alumni,” to bring the public closer to some actual living history.
“We wanted people to interact with these grads,” Rollender said. “For the first time, we’re starting gathering digital recordings to collect interviews.”
Getting Bordentown School grads to voice what it was like has been a large, but generally fruitful endeavor so far, Rollender said. He’s found the grads to be rather talkative about their time at the schools. A typical sentiment sounds a lot like the one graduate Arthur Symes told during an interview with the program African-American Legends: “Back during my time there, we didn’t think of ourselves as being elite.”
Symes was there at the end, from 1948 to 1955. And he’s one of the more visible grads. He’s even in “A Place Out of Time” discussing what it was like to be a student.
“They nurtured us,” he told PBS. “They cuddled us. And they kicked us in the butt when it was necessary.”
That’s another sentiment Rollender said he’s heard from pretty much every graduate he’s met, that the school was a place to bring out the best in its students, but not necessarily a bed of flowers.
Rollender’s glee to be able to help salvage some of the history of the Bordentown School is rather palpable, and fueled by a lack of information or artifacts from the place. But that dearth of stories and mementos isn’t surprising, considering the Bordentown Historical Society was, when he arrived in 2015, not a particularly vibrant organization.
“When my wife and I joined,” he said, “there were eight people in the room.”
It was an inauspicious meeting to say the least. But there’s been a resurgence in interest in Bordentown’s history, likely due to an influx of younger residents who want to know more about who and what the town really was, Rollender said. Meetings these days have about 30 people on average in the room. The overall number of members is around 150, but that’s actually always been the case, he said. The all-volunteer society has a lot of legacy members who aren’t very active. But the active members are growing. The organization hosts open hours the first and third Saturdays each month from noon to 4 p.m. Members like Kiovsky and Debra Cramer are on-hand to offer their insights.
Many current trustees, said Rollender, assumed their roles when current officers like secretary J. Steinhauer, vice president Dr. Steven Lederman and treasurer Larry Denney were voted in by members.
While Rollender likes to call himself a history nerd, he blanches at the term “history buff.” That, he said, would imply that he really studied and contemplated a lot of historical eras. He’s more of a museum visitor than an archaeologist, but that gives him a lot of interesting factoids to talk about. Like:
“Did you know the guy who invented the golf tee went here?”
The guy was George F. Grant, a Bordentown School alum who became a dentist and was the first African-American professor at Harvard. And Rollender just finds that kind of thing incredibly cool.
Rollender got to Bordentown himself by trying to find a nice place near his work. By trade, he’s a financial pro. He grew up in the Metuchen/Bridgewater area and went to Drew University. He then worked in public and private equity before getting his master’s in business administrations from Temple in 2012.
By 2015, he “wanted something different” from managing billions of dollars for “the most polished of the most polished” individuals and decided to go into the public sector. He wanted to live near Trenton for work, and his real estate agent suggested the little town he’d never heard of. He’s grateful he listened and said he’s enjoyed living in the township.
When he got more involved with the Historical Society, Rollender said he found an awful lot of historical treasures either collecting dust in the attic, or scattered around town in private collections. So the push to bring a more unified sense of history takes some effort. But, then, that’s the reason for the upcoming spate of events into May, which include meet-and-greets, films, talks, and tours. All the events have some connection to the Bordentown School, because, Rollender said, residents just don’t know enough about it.
“There was segregation in New Jersey as much as any other place,” he said. “And in that overall climate people could thrive.”
His assessment about all that?
“This was a big deal,” he said. “It was.”
* * * * *
The Bordentown Historical Society and Building Bridges present “Untold Stories: Achieving Furthered Expectations,” an series featuring School No. 2 and the Bordentown Manual Training and Industrial School, running through the spring.
The series kicks off on Feb. 2 at 1 p.m. with a screening of the documentary A Place Out of Time at the Carslake Community Center. Also in February are screenings of Compromised By Conflict Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House.
March 2 will feature a visit to the Underground Railroad Museum, which includes an MTIS exhibit, at 10 a.m. Guests can participate in a conversation with School No. 2 alumni on March 16 at 1 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House. Rounding out the March events is a conversation with MTIS alumni at the Bordentown Township Senior Center March 30 at 1 p.m.
On April 13, there will be a visit to the former MTIS campus at noon. Then, on April 27, Dr. Mildred Rice Jordan, granddaughter of Revered Rice, the founder of MTIS, presents “The MTIS Legacy” at the Friends Meeting House at 1 p.m. Finally, a banner celebration and reception will be held May 4 starting at 1 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House. For more information, call Tim at (908) 963-1977, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bordentownhistoricalsociety.com.