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  • “Schools for the Colored”Places, Words, Pictures
  • Wendel A. White (bio)

In the fall of 1986, I accepted a position on the faculty at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (Stockton State College at the time). Just before moving to New Jersey, a conversation with Deborah Willis (at the time a curator for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York) made me aware of an African American community known as Whitesboro, New Jersey (Figure 1). During the summer of 1989, I drove to Whitesboro, photographed the town, and returned several times over the next few months. Those photographs, which would become the Small Towns, Black Lives project, began as a modest attempt to depict daily events and activities in a small, historically African American community near the southernmost tip of New Jersey.

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Figure 1.

Wendel White, Whitesboro Head Start, Whitesboro, New Jersey, 1990.

Courtesy of the artist.

In Whitesboro I photographed and held extended conversations with many of the residents (mostly senior members of the community). Mrs. Gladys Spaulding was one of the first to invite me into her home, where she spent several hours answering my questions about the history of the settlement (Figure 2). Her home was located just a few hundred feet from the Whitesboro Head Start program center. Mrs. Spaulding described the history of the building and its origins as a one-room school (expanded from the original [End Page 63] structure into a multiroom building) for the African American students of Whitesboro. Her description of the school included high praise for the school’s black teachers as well as concern for the difficulties students faced as they moved from this segregated primary school to the predominately white high school. She defined the shifting relationship between black students and white high school teachers who perceived them as interlopers or simply not worth the effort given the social constraints on African American achievement.1 Mrs. Spaulding died about one month after our conversation. Years later, this encounter would become the foundation of my interest in the role of the schoolhouse as one of the most enduring spaces for the definition of racial and class identity in the American landscape.

The Small Towns project began during the summer of 1989 and ended in 2002 with the fabrication of a traveling exhibition that included seventy-four photographic prints, a website (, and the publication of a catalog by the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, New Jersey.2

Shortly after beginning the Small Towns project, I became aware of a small cemetery—known locally as the Boling Cemetery and named after the earliest African American settlers at the site, Henry and Grace Boling—near Stockton College in the town of Port Republic, New Jersey. Four of the five remaining headstones indicated that the interred were veterans of the Civil War and the U.S. Colored Troops. Information about the origins of the cemetery was difficult to find because there was no longer a black community at the location or in the town. My encounter with this neglected cemetery led to more formal research and genealogy as I attempted to reconstruct the story of the African American settlement that was once located at the far edge of Port Republic. The information I accumulated on Port Republic’s black community prompted experiments with various formats for my work.

The earliest exhibitions of these pictures were presentations of the photographic image and a text panel side by side, printed on separate pieces of photographic paper. In 1990 several images from the Port Republic site were included in the traveling exhibition Convergence: 8 Photographers. Organized by the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, and curated by Deborah Willis, the exhibition traveled to twelve sites throughout the United States during the next five years (Figure 3).

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Figure 2.

Wendel White, Gladys Spaulding, Whitesboro, New Jersey, 1989.

Courtesy of the artist.

All of the photographic works in the Small [End Page 64] Towns project were created with medium- or large-format cameras and black-and-white film. As the project continued, however, I began...


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