At a recent Bordentown Township Committee meeting, Mayor Steve Benowitz honored Helen Elizabeth “Bettye” Roberts Campbell with “the longest proclamation I ever did” for her many contributions to the Bordentown community, including her involvement in planning the town’s Black History Month celebrations. “Bettye was a leading force, instrumental in helping us to get this event started and she has stayed with it all six years,” Benowitz says. “Without Bettye Campbell the events would have taken place but would not have been the same thing.”
In 2014, Benowitz realized that Bordentown Township had never officially observed Black History Month, and he reached out to Campbell, who had been a faculty child and later a faculty wife on the campus of the Bordentown Manual Training School, a coeducational academic and vocational boarding school, operated by the State of New Jersey, that served African American children, seventh grade and up. Benowitz had learned about this “black-only school, the Tuskegee of the North” through a Bordentown Historical Society presentation.
Campbell and Benowitz worked together on a Black History Month program that focused on local history via the Manual Training School, which was founded by former slave Rev. Walter A. Rice in 1886 and moved to 400 acres in Bordentown in 1896. It closed in 1955, not long after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision made segregated schools illegal.
The first two years they held the program at the Bordentown Township Senior Center, focusing on BMTS graduates Nathaniel Hampton and John Medley. Medley, who graduated in BMTS’s last class in 1954 and is also the school historian, shared his memorabilia. They also screened the PBS film, “A Place Out of Time: The Bordentown School.”
After two years, Campbell says, “we realized that the children were in school during the day and we weren’t reaching the students.”
Because, Benowitz says, “we want this event to continue forever and the best way to do it is to reach out to the younger generation,” they reached out to Robert Walder, principal of Bordentown Regional High School, who agreed to work with the them to develop programs to reach young people. In 2016 they moved the event to the high school.
Usually the program includes a speaker—one year Campbell’s daughter spoke about her reactions to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.—as well as comments from community members. Several high school students share short essays on little-known black history facts.
This year’s program focused on BTMS, where Campbell’s parents met.
A Tuskegee Institute graduate during Booker T. Washington’s tenure, Campbell’s father studied printing, then worked for the “Norfolk Journal and Guide,” an African American paper. At about the same time, the principal of BMTS consulted colleagues at Tuskegee to let them know he was looking for a printing teacher, and her dad got the job.
Her mother, a West Virginia native, studied sewing and dressmaking at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn while she lived at the Y. Back then, Campbell says, “there were only certain places where blacks could live.” After her friend from Y got a teaching job at BMTS, her mother visited the campus and met her father. They got married on campus in 1925 and lived in faculty housing, where Campbell and her brother and sister grew up.
“It was the only place I lived ‘til I moved here [the home where she has lived since then],” Campbell says, except for 10 days after her birth spent in a Philadelphia hospital because of pregnancy complications.
Pointing to the house where she grew up in a painting of BMTS on her wall, Campbell says: “Growing up there was a marvelous experience because they had so many cultural things happening, and as a child there were other children in the neighborhood.”
Students at the school split the day between their academic and trade work. The girls studied homemaking, cooking, sewing, and beauty school skills; the boys learned cabinetmaking, plumbing, electrical, automobile mechanics, woodshop, printing, painting, and landscaping. “The school wanted the children to get a high-school education as well as a vocation,” Campbell says. After graduating, the girls were able to get work in the many Trenton factories, restaurants, and beauty shops. The boys of course would pursue their trades.
Campbell, who did not go to BMTS, walked to her integrated elementary school, Fieldsboro Public School, which she describes as a little brick schoolhouse with three classes together in each room. By the time she finished eighth grade in 1941, she says, “the people in Fieldsboro decided they didn’t want any more blacks to come to school in Fieldsboro.”
She graduated from William MacFarland High School in Bordentown from 1941 to 1945, where she “had a wonderful time.” As she walked to school, she would walk up and down the streets to pick up friends along the way. “We had a very close-knit class,” she says of the approximately 40 or 50 students in a high school class that included 8 or 9 African Americans.
Campbell shares some recollections from her childhood.
Students all wore uniforms. There were four dorms: two for boys on one side of the campus and two for girls on the other. The school had a big band and a choir.
On Sunday mornings she would watch from her porch as the male BMTS students marched around the campus, in their required uniforms.
Her mother, who like most other women on campus didn’t work outside the home, was in a club called the Better Wives Club, which “would do nice things for the kids or the community.” Her mother also loved to window shop, and she used to leave first thing in the morning with a car-owning friend to go to Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. “That’s the reason I’m not a shopper,” Campbell says.
Her mother also sewed and made wedding dresses for both of her daughters. At Christmas her aunt would buy Campbell and her sister “little patent leather shoes,” a size larger so they would last through Easter. She remembers the relief she felt, after having to wear long, brown stockings on Christmas, when “on Easter we could put on anklets.”
While growing up on the BMTS campus, Campbell says she wasn’t affected by racial separation. “We could go to basketball games, football games, to the socials on campus, and movies on the weekend,” she says. “It just made for a nice social environment.” She also remembers the famous people who spoke at graduations, including Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Summers, when the BMTS students went home, the school would open the campus to black groups like the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Baptist convention, the YMCA, and to black tennis tournaments. “Hotels were not asking black people to come stay in them,” she says.
Her first job, which continued for several years, was in the dining room during these summer conferences and games. “It was a nice experience to see all these people and find out what other people were doing,” she says.
Campbell learned about Spelman College in Atlanta from a BMTS friend whose father had gotten a job in the Atlanta University system. An English major, Campbell appreciated “the opportunity to meet so many girls from so many different places.” Although students could live outside the campus their first three years, during their senior year they had to live in campus dorms “so they would have the chance of meeting other people.”
At Spelman Campbell did backstage work and sometimes helped direct at the Little Theatre, which, she says, had the advantage of mixing with Morehouse men. Sunday school was voluntary, but attendance at Sunday afternoon Vespers was required. “I didn’t mind that either because we had great speakers from all over the country,” Campbell says.
Because freshmen were not allowed to go downtown alone, she was a chaperon for them when, donning hat and gloves and carrying a pocketbook, they rode the segregated streetcar to go downtown and shop at the Rich’s department store. Campbell also liked to go to the movies, so she would go down to the Fox Theatre where, as an African American she had to climb three flights of steps on the outside of the building to reach the top balcony.
When she returned home after college, Campbell says, “I had grand ideas of working on a newspaper but that didn’t work out.” Instead she got a job at Fort Dix, with the processing unit of the Air Force.
She also met her husband, Charles W. Campbell, Sr., on campus. Like her father, he had studied at the Tuskegee Institute, where he became a maintenance engineer. In 1946 he became a plumbing and heating teacher at BMTS. Three of his Tuskegee friends joined him when the school needed a painter, an electrician, and a landscaper on their faculty.
In 1951 the Campbells got married on campus in 1951, and lived in the small campus neighborhood with all their friends from Tuskegee. “I had a wonderful time on that campus,” Campbell says. “They had beautiful lawns, and we used to play croquet in the evenings.” Or the young couples would sit on the front steps of her house, listen to music or boxing matches on the radio.
In 1955 BMTS closed, and Campbell explains why. “According to the Supreme Court decision in 1954, schools could no longer be segregated. They tried to get some of the other races to come, but since it was a boarding school, I think the main problem was they didn’t want to mix and stay overnight and stay for the semester. I think only one or two white children may have come.”
The campus then became the Edward R. Johnstone Training and Research Center, for people with developmental disabilities, but Campbell’s husband was asked to stay on because of his familiarity with the campus’s systems.
In 1963, they bought land to build a house. Its frame was put up by Hillco Company in Pennsylvania, then her husband, with the help of his friends in the building trades, finished the house.
When the youngest of her four children—Linda Marie, Deborah Lynn, Charles Whitfield Campbell Jr., and Elizabeth Ann—turned three, Campbell decided to enrolled at Trenton State to take education courses and become a teacher.
Not wanting to work where her children were in school, she taught for 30 years in Pemberton, starting at Fort Dix, “a great, diverse place to work—you had soldiers coming from all parts of the world.” Often American soldiers had married people from the countries where they were stationed, and Campbell appreciated meeting parents and children “with various backgrounds”
Then she moved to the Pemberton Township Schools, retiring in 1989,. She mostly taught third grade, but sometimes first. “Third grade was nice because K to 2 were just babies coming along, and in third grade they begin to become a little more independent.” But she also enjoyed teaching reading and penmanship to first graders “because they were just starting out,” she says. She is quite distressed that her grandchildren don’t learn to write in cursive, because, she says, “all history is in penmanship.”
Even though, Campbell says, “I didn’t have black history and neither did my children,” she made sure that in Pemberton Black History Month was a time for teaching black history. In February she had her students share “some little-known black history fact or person” every day on the PA system, just before school closed. Observed since 1976, Black History Month grew out of Negro History Week, launched by Carter G. Woodson in 1926.
Since her retirement, Campbell has volunteered in schools closer to home, first in Trenton schools, then at Clara Barton and Peter Muschal. Mostly providing individual help to students in math or reading, Campbell says, “I could give one-to-one attention. The teachers seemed to be appreciative and the children looked forward to have someone come in to work with them especially.” She also helped teachers on special projects or “I could do a reading group like I was working at my own school.”
For two or three years Campbell also taught basic skills of living to residents of Johnstone, but when it closed in the fall of 1992 and became a medium-security juvenile detention facility, Campbell says, “I was disgusted because the state turned it into a jail. The real purpose of MTS was no longer there, and I didn’t feel comfortable going to work in a situation that used to be so meaningful and helpful to the students.”
Campbell remains active in Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, where she goes to exercise class, attends Bible study, and belongs to the scholarship ministry, which encourages youngsters from the church to go to college, provides scholarships, and plans a June baccalaureate service to honor accepted students.
She also volunteers in the main office on Sundays to answer all manner of questions. “It gives me a chance to meet a lot of people and meet congregants of the church,” she says.