A half-century ago, a controversial court order created The Morris School District, a merger of Morristown and Morris Township schools now widely regarded as a testament to diversity and the good things that flow from it.
George Kelley played an important role in this social experiment, as a founding member of the district board. Shortly before his death in December at age 87, Kelley sat in front of a camera to reflect on those turbulent times.
His story is among dozens scheduled to appear in the Morristown African American History Film Project.
Three Morristown residents are raising funds for this two-part documentary, which aims to chronicle the civic contributions of the Black community here. Kelley’s death has heightened their sense of urgency.
“Some of these people are pretty long in the tooth. I’m pretty long in the tooth myself. I thought, let’s interview them before they pass away,” said Christopher Martin, a former council- and school board member who is 83.
“We want people to know there is and was an active African American community. There was a business community. There were teachers,” said Michelle Dupree Harris, a retired kindergarten teacher and former council president.
She is collaborating with Martin and local social studies teacher Warren Kersey on the project. They’ve been combing archives for historical footage, photos and newspaper clippings, seeding the effort with their own money while trying to raise more.
Working through a New York nonprofit, Fractured Atlas, they have come up with about $20,000 towards their $100,000 goal, Harris said.
Washington DC filmmaker Edward J. Harris II, no relation to Michelle, will handle the directorial duties.
His credits include profiles of personalities ranging from Babe Ruth to Al Sharpton. Moon Over Sudan explored human trafficking. Lessons of Hayti delved into Southern efforts to destroy successful Black communities.
The two Harrises met a few years ago at a barbecue, when Michelle was running for mayor.
Eddie Harris became captivated by a racial saga largely devoid of the violent traumas that have rocked urban America since the 1960s. As he sees it, conflict in Morristown has been about class more than race.
“That’s fascinating,” Eddie Harris said. He envisions a documentary that “will allow viewers to see nuances of what took place during the Civil Rights movement, the push towards equity. Morristown is not a major flash point. It was subtle. It was people understanding political power, sitting at a table and reaching across to find common ground.
“Morristown found it organically,” the filmmaker said.
Interview subjects will include local Civil Rights pioneer Felicia Jamison and former school board member and councilwoman Connie Montgomery, both key figures in the school merger. George Jenkins, a realtor whose mother filed the landmark lawsuit, also is on the roster, along with activist Helen Arnold.
They will spin the narrative threads.
“I let them tell their story,” Eddie Harris said.
Others slated to appear are Dr. Roland Brown, a dentist whose father was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen; attorney Charles Craig, co-founder of Art in the Atrium Inc.; former school board president Leonard Posey, and members of Black Lives Matter Morristown, Michelle Harris said.
Many walks of life comprise the town’s African American tapestry, she added, and they will be celebrated.
Social worker Dorothy Broome has focused on environmental issues affecting Black residents in the Second Ward. James Varner was a longtime radio host. Paul Cooper of the Morris County Urban League and NAACP bequeathed homes to Habitat for Humanity.
Educators Anita Barber and Roberta Mosley also served the community as alumnae of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. School custodian Abdul Hackett founded a fishing club at Manahan Village, and coordinated Morristown’s participation in the Million Man March, Michelle Harris said.
The film will examine this web of relationships, documenting history that is being overtaken by the relentless march of gentrification, Michelle Harris said.
“Who influenced who? Why did you do what you did? What do you want to leave as a legacy to the community? What words of wisdom would you give them?” she said.
“It’s a history project,” agreed Martin, an immigrant from Guyana who settled in Morristown with his young family in in 1961 after he graduated from Howard University.
“A lot of people are moving into Morristown, mostly fairly affluent people coming from other places. The town’s becoming quite cosmopolitan…. the middle class is shrinking. Housing has become extremely expensive. It’s not just African Americans. Lots of white folks, their kids can’t afford to live here,” Martin said.
The Morristown African American History Film Project is his story, too.
When the civil engineer was moving to Morris County after accepting a job with the Allied Chemical Corp., “I felt the full brunt of segregated housing, restricted neighborhoods, and slum housing.
“It was the 1960’s and the country was convulsed in the throes of racism in all its ugly, and sometimes subtle forms,” said Martin, who is writing a memoir.
In Morristown, he found support from people of many races and backgrounds. As one of the council’s first Black members, he claims credit for helping redistrict the town — “they call it gerrymandering” — to give a political voice to African Americans in what’s now the Second Ward.
He and Michelle Harris see the documentary as their legacy.
“I firmly believe that Morristown, with all its faults, can be a positive model for many other communities’ development. With this positive film showing our integrated community, with all its past and current struggles, we can live up to my hope and prayer for ‘Morristown Mon Amour,’” Martin said.
Michelle Harris, who plans to return soon to the North Carolina she left as a toddler, hopes the film inspires the Morris School District to beef up Black history in the elementary grades.
And she hopes future generations discover the documentary, and remember those who preceded them.
“Everybody wants to be remembered,” she said.
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