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Former Trenton Police Director calls on citizens to assert their African American pride

Published: Saturday, August 06, 2011,  7:07 AM
Matt Fair/The Times By Matt Fair/The TimesThe Times, Trenton
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Andrew Miller/For The TimesFormer Trenton Police Chief Ernie Williams, 77, a lifelong Trenton resident, speaks with a reporter in his Trenton home on Thursday, July 21, 2011. Williams is one of the organizers of Trenton’s first African American Heritage Festival.

TRENTON — Ernie Williams, the city’s former police chief, saw the barriers of racial segregation begin to shake, then crumble, in his own living room as a boy growing up on Parker Avenue in the city’s hardscrabble Wilbur section.

Despite living in an integrated neighborhood, when a new middle school opened near him in the early 1940s, black students like Williams’ brother Leon were told they would have no place there and would be forced to trek across town to the all-black Lincoln school.

To Berline Williams, the boys’ mother, this was unacceptable.

She and another city mother, Gladys Hedgepeth, filed a lawsuit against the district in a case that went all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1944 before being cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that banned segregated schools nationwide.

It’s a heritage of which Williams is immensely proud and one that, after living nearly 80 years in Trenton, he believes is slowly being lost to a rising tide of violence, poverty and ignorance.

“We had a lot of pride,” he said. “This was a great town, and I’d like to see the younger kids come up now and have something to be proud of. These kids are walking up and down the street and all they’re doing is shooting each other. You need some pride in your race.”

So when Williams heard that civic leaders and organizations were collaborating to organize the city’s first African-American Pride Festival, he was quick to sign up.

The event, which is scheduled to run from noon to 6 p.m. Aug. 20 in Cadwalader Park, will feature performances by Trenton natives including Kim Covington and Narubi Selah. Gospel singer Christawn, from Cherry Hill, will also take the stage. A second stage will provide entertainment for kids with performances from Trenton’s Children’s Chorus.

The festival will be spread throughout the park, with African drumming, spoken word acts, sports and games, and health screenings.

For his part, Williams, with nearly 40 years of law-enforcement experience under his belt, has been working to put together a security plan for the festival.

“We’re looking to empower the community, to give them something to be happy about,” said Yolanda Robinson, the event’s spokeswoman and the head of Living A Powerful Life, a Trenton-based community service organization.

The festival has brought together a sprawling network of individuals and organizations all working to instill and inspire a new sense of pride in the city’s black community.

Other organizations involved include the Trenton Downtown Association, the city of Trenton, Fork In The Road LLC, the Trenton Marriott, Destination Trenton, and Minding Our Business.

Both Mayor Tony Mack and at-large Councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward have thrown their support behind the event.

“The festival is to bring pride back into the community and to focus on the importance of family, culture, and just to bring back the zest in our community and for people to really honor themselves,” Robinson said.

Organizers hope to make the festival an annual event and expand it to encompass an entire week next year.

The focus on community is an especially important one for Williams. Growing up on Parker Avenue, family was an integral part of the neighborhood, he said.

“Everybody was poor, but they didn’t know they were poor. I mean dirt poor,” he said. “If my mother needed something she’d go next door and ask and she’d get it, or when Mrs. Snyder needed something or Ms. Johnson needed something, they’d come ask. It was like a community affair.”

“We didn’t have policemen in our neighborhood,” he added. “The neighbors were policed by what we called block mothers, your mother, my mother, this lady’s mother. They were tougher than cops. They took care of everything.”

For Williams, the Aug. 20 event will be more than just a day’s diversion. It’s a first step toward a renaissance in Trenton’s black community. As he put it, without knowing your history and without pride in your history, there’s nowhere to go but down.

“What else do we have? I pick up the papers and there’s two dead,” he said, referring to two homicides in the city earlier this summer. “The kids are running wild and they’re dropping out of school. There’s no education and no recreation. They have nowhere to turn.”

“Violence is a learned behavior. Kids do not jump out of the womb shooting guns,” he added.

“There’s a lot of influential people in town and they have to turn their heads and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe there’s something we can do.’ And if there is something we can do, I want to be involved in it.”

Contact Matt Fair at mfair@njtimes.com or at (609) 989-5717.