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This is Orra Davage interviewing A. Spencer Denham, assistant superintendent of schools for the Teaneck Public Library Oral History Project.
(I) Could you tell me how it is you first came to live in Teaneck?
(N) I guess it all began in 1954 when my parents and I were living in New York City. I began attending P.S. 186 in New York and my parents began to feel that they wanted me to have a more challenging educational experience and more worldly, cosmopolitan I guess, and we began looking for homes in various parts of the metropolitan area - Long Island, Rockland County and one day my father came across a couple of his old Army buddies and they had been living in Teaneck for a couple of years and we had not even thought about moving to New Jersey but he came out to visit some friends in Teaneck and fell in love with the community and what it was all about and we were fortunate to find a home and they purchased the home in June of 1956. That's when we moved to Teaneck.
(I) What part of Teaneck?
(N) On Hubert Terrace, in the West Englewood area, right off of Englewood Avenue. Right near Argonne Park.
(I) What does your father do?
(N) My father worked for 21 Brands. Originally he was a truck driver, then became a salesperson and when 21 Brands disbanded he worked for Standard Foods and became a salesman for Standard Foods. He is now retired for about five years now and he is enjoying his retirement with my mother who recently retired from being a salesperson in Alexander's department store.
(I) I see. Then he became a commuter. Was he based in New York so when you moved out here, he was one of those who commuted across the bridge?
(N) Correct. His home area was in Manhattan and he commuted each day to the city, either by car or by the bus, the 86 or 167, whatever area of Manhattan he had to get to.
(I) So you were in what grade now when you came to Teaneck?
(N) I began fourth grade in Teaneck in September of 1956 at Bryant Elementary School.
(I) Tell me about your experiences there in the elementary school.
(N) It was very different. I guess growing up in the city gives you one point of view. I guess I was so fascinated by Bryant School because it was all on one level. Coming from New York, there was eight floors. Each grade had its own floor. And to have an entire school on one floor, that just boggled my mind for some reason. I don't know why but it was just unbelievable to me. And the other thing I remember very vividly when I first moved out here to Teaneck was that a robin had built a nest right on our property and being from the city where you don't have the opportunity of seeing nature first-hand, you know you read about it in books and you see it on TV but not to have it right in your own backyard, and I just was so fascinated seeing the whole process of the laying of the egg, the birth and finally the birds going their own separate ways that I wanted to take the nest into school the first day thinking that that was a prize and my parents said, Listen, you know, you could get nests by the dozen. To me it was just a treasure to have this nest because you read about things but to experience them first-hand was fantastic. But I enjoyed my experience at Bryant School. Mrs. Record was my principal and Mr. Massa was my assistant principal and I had some very, very good experiences there. It was interesting because I began to meet a cross-section of people. The area that I lived in, the upper part of Harlem, was basically a black community but moving into Teaneck, it was a more diverse population and of course we began to meet and become friends with many different types of people and find out what their ethnic roots were and it was very interesting to meet people of different nationalities. It was a new experience.
(I) You are an only child?
(N) An only child, yes.
(I) So, what did you do for companionship and recreational activities while you were in elementary school. Did you belong to Little League or whatever?
(N) Well Little League, I guess, being a half block away from Argonne Park was very convenient and there were many, many kids in the neighborhood and just basically we developed little clubs and we had a baseball club and a basketball club and a football club and we used to have little leagues among ourselves and also the Recreation Department during the summer had the summer programs so of course we went around to other parks and played a variety of games and from time to time some of our friends from Englewood would come up and we would go down to Englewood and have little recreational contests. So there was a lot to do. We were not sitting around twiddling our thumbs. We stayed very, very active by playing sports and we also had our little club activities, went to the movies and everything. It was a very pleasant, enjoyable youth I had. No complaints.
(I) You went on to Benjamin Franklin I guess.
(N) That is correct. I guess it was in 1959 I began school in Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. It is very peculiar because many, some of the teachers who I've had at Benjamin Franklin, I've managed to
(I) Yes, I think that must be an interesting experience. Who was the principal?
(N) Mrs. Simmons was the principal at that particular time and I had Mr. Manno who is currently the assistant principal. He was my math teacher. And Mr. Cadel was my social studies teacher who is now the assistant principal at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. That was an interesting experience too because it grew up together. Students from other parts of the town that you really didn't get to know that well, you know you met them during the summer in the Recreation Department program but being in the same class and working with them and playing with them and arguing with them, it was a new experience. You think the worst, the sixth grade experience, was over. Now you have to go and meet these new kids and you lose your friends and how can you make new friends but you do and those ties that you created at Bryant, they stay there also so it just added to the wealth of friendship and camaraderie. I spent good times at Benjamin Franklin too. I guess this is going to sound very repetitious because I had a very good youth.
(I) That's good. And went on to the high school.
(N) Right. Miss Hill and Mr. Gunner was the assistant principal and he had about 2,100 students up at the high school in three grades.
(I) That's small.
(N) We were the largest high school at that particular time. When I tell them now I guess there was about 712 kids in my graduating class, I guess right now that the four grades that we have currently up there, we have about 1,800 so the 2,100 we had in three grades was quite large.
(I) Yeah, I see.
(N) But once again, I guess we mentioned Miss Hill. We had a class reunion, ten year class reunion, and she attended. She came up from Florida to attend and she made the same statement I made a few moments ago about my position and how I would be her boss at this particular time. But she was just a fantastic woman and a very grandmotherly type of person that you hated to do anything wrong because you would upset her and that was the last thing in the world you wanted to do was upset Miss Hill because just her whole demeanor was just one that made you want to do everything you could for her. And we had Mr. Gunner who was very tough and
(I) A disciplinarian.
(N) That's correct. You really didn't want to go to his office either for the other reason because he would give it to you and of course when you got home, your parents took care of you there also. Everything went very, very well and we had our problems from time to time but you know it was things that could be worked out and once again, you had that rivalry between Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and of course when you got to the high school, all the kids who came from the other side, you know, you began to develop new friendships and everything. But the Benjamin Franklin students and the Thomas Jefferson students kind of tried to keep their little mystique of one was better than the other but it began to break down as they got into classes and became part of the high school. It was interesting in the beginning trying to build bridges because everyone wanted to, I came from this school or that school. I guess we still have it now. The kids all feel that little
(I) Look of superiority from the other part of town. Tell me, did you run across any what you might call, racial experiences when you were in school?
(N) I guess the only one that really, I guess in the high school, the big thing was in 1964 when the whole integration question came up and busing. Even though it really didn't effect the high school, it did because many of the students had younger brothers and sisters who would be effected by Teaneck's integration ruling. There really wasn't any problems up there. A lot of discussion in the classes, especially in social studies classes, and of course people have different views but once again it was interesting to speak out and see where other people's thoughts were and how they felt a certain way. Once again, I felt it really helped me also because of the fact that it kind of prepared you for life. That you will be meeting people and dealing with people with all different types of views and coming at you in all different directions and you have to deal with that and cope with that. I just felt that because of the experience I did get at the high school working with them and playing with a diverse population really helped me later on in life because you have to deal with many different types of people and with a plethora of viewpoints that are mind-boggling and you just have to cut though it all and establish how you feel and support a foundation for that and go from that point. I guess the only racial thing that stands out in my mind that happened early on when I was in fourth grade, there were very few minorities at the school. 1 think there might have been a dozen black students who attended.
(1) All in Bryant?
(N) All in Bryant. And at lunch time, a young girl who used to go home for lunch was bitten by a dog and it wasn't bad, it was just a little scratch but they wanted to find the dog and find out if it had rabies or anything and the only thing the girl could tell them was that there was a black student who had this dog so they made an announcement over the PA - will all the colored kids please come down to the auditorium. And the teachers had to say, well, that means you. That was something that I guess
(I) So right away, you're standing right out.
(N) So we went down to the auditorium and they lined us up. At that time, it didn't phase us one bit. We thought it was kind of funny because many of us didn't even know black, white, colored, you know, this, that. It really didn't mean that much to us. We were all just kids and light or dark didn't really mean anything. But when I look back on it, it was really. . because they just lined us up in a line and the girl walked back and forth to see if she could pick out the student that had the dog.
(I) Did she?
(N) No. She couldn't.
(I) You all looked alike.
(N) That was probably the funniest of the things. There really wasn't, I guess I would say the thing that probably, one reason why I really didn't have that many encounters was the, well I guess athletics had a lot to do with it. Most of the friends I did have whether black or white or Oriental, whatever they might have been, were basically athletes and I guess being on a team and building a little family, the color line or the religious line kind of like breaks down. Some of my other friends had experiences that you know, fights, gangs on Cedar Lane and in Hackensack and all this business but it just wasn't part of my group. I guess we were more involved in getting ourselves together for the next game or event of the season and that was what was important and we didn't go in for beer or sneaking around or hanging out on Cedar Lane. It just was not part of our repertoire and that was it. When we had time for ourselves, it was just basically staying in the park and going over to someone's house and having a party or something like that. So I guess in that instance, I lived a very sheltered life when you talk about racial encounters. I didn't really come across that many.
(I) You were lucky.
(I) What about your parents. Did they have any problems at all?
(N) When they came out in 55, in the early part of 56, looking for a home, they were steered in a particular area of Teaneck. Predominantly the northeast section of Teaneck is where the realtors showed them the homes. At that particular time, it didn't phase them. They just thought that maybe that was where the homes were available but after they had purchased the home, they were very satisfied because it was right around where my father's friends were, but once they sat back and they realized that there was much more to Teaneck than the northeast section and I guess over the years, it has happened and we've read many articles and many things have been said about the realtors' practice of steering people to particular neighborhoods and out of particular areas and the whole blockbusting situation but they were definitely shown homes here in the northeast section.
(I) Did they feel that they wanted to get involved in doing something about this?
(N) Initially yes but then I guess they got involved in other things and that kind of went on the back burner so they really never became that active in the community. I know when they first came out, they were very active in a couple of organizations that were established in the northeast area but I guess the jobs, responsibilities and home responsibilities kind of steered them away. I think, probably if I could talk with them right now, I think they probably would have wanted to look back and in hindsight they probably would, if they had it to do over again, they probably would have gotten involved.
(I) Been more active. Did they belong to the church or anything?
(N) Yes. Across the street. The Presbyterian Church. I can remember one of the Sundays when we first attended the church and several were becoming members of the church and some of the members were very resentful of that, that minorities were becoming members of the Presbyterian Church and I was attending Sunday School there and my parents came and we went to church after Sunday School and one Sunday, Rev. Willenberg, his sermon was focused upon that and he came out and told people that everyone was welcome as long as he was minister of the church and if they didn't like the new members, then they could go and find themselves another church because he felt that everyone was entitled to become a member of the church whether they were, whatever color they were, they could come in the church. And some of the people left the church. But it was, I think it really made my parents feel good that he made a point in his sermon to say if you don't like it, the door is back there and we really don't need you because everyone is welcome. That's what it is all about. So that was the other thing that really made my parents feel very at home in Teaneck in addition to the friends and also that the church was very willing to welcome them with open arms. My mother became fairly active in the church. My father
(I) went with her. .
(N) That was it. I used to sing in the choir and things like that for a while. I used to mouth the words because you don't want to hear my voice.
(I) Do they still live in town?
(N) Yes. They still live in the same house. I don't think we will ever be able to drag them out of here. They are very happy.
(I) You graduated from high school in . .
(N) June of 65.
(I) That was a memorable year, wasn't it?
(N) Yes. That was the beginning.
(I) And then you went to . .
(N) I went to college in Iowa. The University of Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa.
(I) How did you manage to pick that?
(N) A couple of reasons. I had an opportunity to go to about four colleges - Wagner College in Staten Island, Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona and this small Presbyterian college in Dubuque and how I got involved in Dubuque was the assistant pastor at the church had graduated from Dubuque. They had a seminary there also. And he used to tell me about it and, you know, we went out there and saw it. It was a very small Liberal Arts College, about 1,000 students, and I guess my parents sat down and looked over the choices that we had and of course my mother wanted me to go to Wagner College in Staten Island so I could come home on the weekends and get some of that good home cooking. But my father said, listen, the best thing for you to do is get away from home and start making decisions on your own and growing up. I liked Arizona State because of the athletics program and they had offered a scholarship for basketball but it was a very, it was quite a bit larger, it was about 12/13,000 students attending there and of course many of the big names out there - Reggie Jackson was attending school at that particular time and they had a fantastic base- ball team. But I guess I settled on Dubuque because of its size and I guess everyone said it is better to be a big fish in a little pond instead of a little fish in a big pond and my father said, why don't you try the little school and get a good background and then if you want to transfer to a larger school, at least you have one or two years under your belt and get into the whole swing of things of going to college and discipline and studying and hanging out with the boys and.
(N) Yes it was a co-ed school. Very strict, I shouldn't say very strict but it was.
(I) It was a religious type of school.
(N) But it was, I guess if the affirmative action committee took a look at it . . because the girls had hours they had to be in. The freshman girls had to be in at 10:00 and the upper class girls had to be in 11:00 on weekdays. The boys had no hours at all. So out to Dubuque I went and it was an experience out there because it was a whole different way of life, a whole different mentality really. Things, all it is is cornfields and telephone poles. If that was what you like, Iowa was the place for you to go. The people are very, very nice. I guess they were very interested in me because there are very few blacks out there.
(I) You were an oddity.
(N) Yes I was. Even to the point where I guess the third day that I was out there, one of the people who roomed next door to me wanted me to come home with him for the coming weekend, next weekend, because he just wanted to show me off. Here's a real live black person. But it was a whole different way of life. It was a much slower way of life. Their philosophy is if it doesn't get done today, it'll get done tomorrow. So they really take things very, very slow, step by step. Arriving there was interesting too because it was almost like going back to the wild west even though Dubuque is one of the largest towns. There are some sections that are very rural. The farm animals are still out on the front porches. It is really very rural. But it was a very good experience because of the fact that it was the time during the riots and everything and of course the only thing that they knew about black people was what they saw on TV so of course they, whenever we went to restaurants, they kind of like watched to see how I ate, to see if I ate the same way that they ate, which really was amazing to me because I was not used to being on display. But they were very, very cordial. I really came across no blatant discrimination. The people at the college were, there were about fifty black students out of the 1,100 students that were at the college, and it really was a good experience because it showed me another side, being in Teaneck which as I said before is very cosmopolitan then moving to a whole different setting was a little culture shock for a while but once you get into it, and hopefully I changed some minds out there. I remember student teaching in my last year
(I) What was your major - education?
(N) Social studies. One of the students came up to me and talked to me about what was going on in several parts of the country with the uprisings that were going on in the major cities and how his parents were very disturbed by it and he asked me if I ever participated in a riot so I told him no and he was very surprised because he thought that if I was black, I had to participate in one of the riots, either in Newark of Watts or someplace, wherever it might have been and at the end of my term there, he and his parents had been passing a portrait shop that had some senior class pictures and for some reason, they had my picture in the window for some reason and he told his parents that that's my student teacher, that's Mr. Denham. He said I'm going to go in there and get that picture because he really is a great guy. And his parents went in there and the photographer gave them the picture but he came back and said my parents got this picture for me of you and it is really great and it really made me feel good because here was a kid whose parents were really, to me from what he said, were very prejudiced and he was going to do this if it ever came to Dubuque and all this and working with the kid and talking with them, with the parents coming in, I felt they realized that, hey, people are people and there was a reason why things were going on in other parts of the country but you have to take each person as it is and the color of a person's skin does not say how the person is going to act.
(END OF SIDE 1 - BEGIN SIDE 2)
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