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Audio recording of the interview with June Mendelkern
DATE OF INTERVIEW:
June 12, 1985
Jackie Kinney (12/1985)
This is Meryl Sachs interviewing for the Teaneck Oral History Project. This is Tape #1, Side #1. I am speaking with June Mandelkern, a long time resident of Teaneck, NJ. The date is June 12th, the time is 8:35 PM and the place of this interview is the den of the Mandelkern home on Hanover Street.
(I) In my introduction, June, I mentioned that you are a long time resident of Teaneck. How long exactly have you lived in town?
(N) We moved to Teaneck in 1961, about this time of the year, with two little babies, two little boys aged 3-1/2 and 1.
(I) Why did you move to Teaneck specifically?
(N) Well we moved out of New York city. We had to move to a larger apartment and we had the illusion that it is better to move to the suburbs with children and our first house was on Briarcliff Road and it was a very darling house, a Dutch Colonial. I still love it. The first couple of months were pretty hard for me because in New York City, when you have young children, you go to the park and you meet other mothers and of course in the suburbs, that doesn't happen so at first I was kind of unhappy.
(I) Let me just interrupt one moment to ask you why you chose Teaneck.
(N) We had the illusion that commuting from New Jersey was easier than commuting from Long Island or Westchester based on no experience whatsoever and I guess like everyone we had heard about Teaneck, the model community. We looked around in Bergen County and we had, the truth is we had a friend in New York who knew the McNatts, Isaac and Gladys McNatt who had just moved to town a little bit before. You know who they are.
(I) No, I've only heard their names but I'm not
(N) Isaac and Gladys are one of the early black families to move into the northeast. Isaac has been the deputy mayor of Teaneck, on the council for many years, he is now a judge and they are wonderful people and we had an introduction to them before we moved here from mutual friends but that wasn't the reason. It was just sort of based on some myths about commuting and the fact that we had heard a little bit about it and I have a cousin who lives in town, we had a friend in Bergenfield, you know, sort of, that's about it. It was really not based on any great perception or anything like that. However, eight years later, when we moved from a smaller house to a bigger house, we were really hooked on Teaneck at that point and we didn't consider going any place else. That was just what we wanted.
(I) So then let's go back and eight years afterwards you found yourselves as you put it "hooked" on Teaneck but when you initially moved into town, did you feel that you and your family, your growing family, were pleased with the move?
(N) Well, as I told you, at the beginning, it was very hard for me because I had two little babies and it was very difficult to make friends and to meet people until a year or so later when they got into nursery school and then you begin to make contact. But one of the first things that I did when I moved to town was to become involved with the Teaneck Fair Housing Committee which at that time was an independent organization.
(I) Why did you decide that would be your first move?
(N) That was one of the interests that I had. It was an interest that I had in New York and an interest that I had in general. The question of fair housing, the question of civil rights and it was something that Bob and I had been involved in all along. Wherever we lived. These were concerns of ours. At that time, the Fair Housing Committee was a newly formed independent organization. It subsequently merged with the Fair Housing Council of Bergen County a couple of years later.
(I) So you felt sort of a special commitment perhaps to this group?
(N) Yes, it was just something ongoing concern of ours that we had had in our marriage and even before our marriage, both of us had been committed to civil rights and questions of that nature and it was something that seemed needed as far as I was concerned here and one of the things that I am most proud of and even though it was one of the first things that I did is I helped at that time to, I helped a family buy a house on Sussex Road a couple of doors down from West Englewood Avenue, a wonderful family by the name of Cook, Inez and Cliff, Cook and I think, to the best of my knowledge, this was the first house in the West Englewood section of Teaneck that was sold to a black family. They subsequently have moved and unfortunately both of them have died in the last few years but they were a wonderful addition to the neighborhood for a number of years that they lived there and I helped them to get that house. I worked with them and it is, I would say, one of the things that I feel the proudest of all the things that I've done in town.
(I) What difficulties did they encounter that you helped them with?
(N) There were the usual problems. The neighborhood had not been open and people were giving them the runaround and not showing houses and with the backing of some volunteers from Fair Housing, you know, we were able to help them to overcome this and to get the house. And as you know, subsequently this neighborhood has been developed and it doesn't have that problem.
(I) You know it is so interesting to say this because today and by today I mean the 1980s and probably the 1970s, we have heard and read in the papers and I've heard on various local programs that Teaneck is the town that real estate brokers steer black families to. What are your feelings on that?
(N) Well I am talking, at that time the northeast was open to blacks, a spillover from Englewood, like a middle class area. But I am talking about outside of the northeast. I am talking about the West Englewood section of Teaneck, the northwest corner of town which is where I live and where I did live then. You know, Teaneck is really in quadrants and each quadrant has its own particular logic or whatever. About time also, my husband became involved in the struggle for desegregation of the schools even though our children were small and were still not in school and I am talking now a year or two after we moved in, say 1963, when the push was on for voluntary desegregation of the schools. The word integration is constantly used and it is not a correct word. The word, the proper thing that happened was desegregation. Because of the fact that the northeast area of Teaneck was open to black families, the school in that neighborhood was becoming this figure but I think it was something like approaching 50% and other communities in the country and
(I) 50% black?
(N) Right. Other communities were getting court ordered, court orders to desegregate and one of the glories of Teaneck is that the desegregation was taken without a court order. It was done voluntarily by the people of Teaneck and by the school board but at that time the board was hesitant. It was a difficult issue and some members of the community including my husband were putting pressure which, trying to get a mandatory desegregation plan. However, in 1963, the board instituted a voluntary desegregation plan which lasted for one year and that was the year that my oldest child entered kindergarten at Whittier School. Harvey Scribner I think was already the superintendent of schools but Mrs. Hope at that time was still the principal of Whittier School and some of the changes that Scribner made a year or so later had not been made yet. At that point, though, the board instituted a voluntary desegregation plan where black families could take their children out of the northeast and I believe they had to transport them themselves, I am not sure about that but I think so, to any school of their choice in the rest of the town. It was not supposed to cover kindergarten and Bob reminded me that the Laceys and the Boyds I believe went to a great deal of trouble to get the board to agree to let them put their kindergarten children also into Whittier School and that's where we all met and became friendly and involved. The plan was not successful in terms of numbers. There were about I was going over this again with my husband trying to remember you know you forget, it is twenty two years ago, Bob thought that there were about 50 families that took advantage of it. I am not sure. That figure may be too low. But at any rate, it wasn't by any means any kind of a mass solution to the problem. So the push then became to get the board to issue a mandatory school plan, not a voluntary school desegregation plan.
(I) What form did the push take?
(N) Well Bob went to, there were some parents who were, some families, some people, who were concerned about the issue and would go to board meetings and would speak up at board meetings, who would talk to board members, who would say, we need a mandatory school desegregation plan.
(1) Was this a mixed group racially?
(N) Yes. And it is all very, this is all very clear to me in 1964, in February of 1964, there was a school board and I was very pregnant with my third child and I remember, we were circulating a petition to the board asking school desegregation plan. We didn't give them a plan. We didn't say you should do this, that, you should do this with this school or that school, on the contrary, we said, we don't care what you do, you work it out, but it has got to be a mandatory desegregation plan. I went to the hospital on February 12th and Bob came to visit me after I gave birth and then I remembered that he left the hospital at 8 o'clock or 8:30 to go to the school board which was regrouping that night after the school board election. Now I started to say something before that's also interesting. My oldest child had started kindergarten the first year of the voluntary desegregation so his class, which was the Teaneck High School graduating class of 1976, was the first class to go through a totally integrated, see I am using the word now, totally integrated school system and that was something that we were very proud of at the time when they graduated in 1976. At any rate, that spring the board instituted the mandatory school plan which started the fo1lowing fall and that was then became the school board election of the following year which was 1965 was the big neighborhood school fight that everybody talks about when the neighborhood schools became the issue and the hot lunches for the kids to go home to and all that stuff.
(I) This is not necessarily common knowledge.
(N) Oh really? It seems so. ..
(I) Because it did happen a few years ago. Maybe you'd like to perhaps add some more insight.
(N) Well the board had instituted the mandatory school plan the previous spring for the school year of 1964/65. The school board elections at that time took place in February and there was a strong conservative challenge from a group of people who used the neighborhood school as their rallying cry. We moved to Teaneck for the neighborhood school and we don't want our neighborhood schools to be taken away. The plan that was instituted by the board was the central sixth grade, the Bryant School in the northeast became the central sixth grade school, a one year school, which apparently was its biggest problem but it was a one year school for the sixth grade and the children from the Bryant School were bused to the elementary schools around town.
(I) How long did that one year sixth grade plan last?
(N) Well again we were trying to remember that. The problem then became that there was a second school, Washington Irving, which began to approach the so-called tipping point and at that time that the first plan was instituted for the Bryant School, the Washington Irving School was left alone but there was some change of districts. They brought in the children from the apartment houses on Teaneck Road around the Plaza in order to try to keep that school on a more even level but in another few years, it again was clear that something would have to be done about that school and so the central sixth grade was, the plan was changed. The central sixth grade was eliminated and the central kindergarten and first grade were instituted in both of those schools.
(I) That seemed to be a relatively good period though.
(N) And those have seemed to be since then since the central kindergarten and K-I were much more successful schools than the central sixth although two of our sons went to the central sixth and we liked it very much and found it very good schooling.
(I) Through two of your sons, it had to be a period of several years then.
(N) Yes, yes, because as I said Nick was in kindergarten in 63 and the plan was instituted in 64 so it would have been five or six years later and then Michael was two years after that. Yes, I would think so that plan went for quite a few years. In remembering the central kindergarten was instituted, my third child was in the second year of the central kindergarten. So it was quite a few years I would say.
(I) Was there any predominant group or neighborhood area where the residents of Teaneck, of that particular area, fought against the central sixth and so-called integration?
(N) Well, as I said, the original, as I started to say before, the school board election after the plan was instituted, the mandatory school plan was instituted, the following February there was a strong challenge from a group of people who used the neighborhood schools as their rallying cry - we moved to Teaneck for our local school and you are taking it away from us.
(I) Were they from a particular area?
(N) No, they were from all over town and several of them ran for the board, and it was clear that they would have rescinded the plan if they had gained control of the board and at that point, all of the fence sitters and all of the liberal people who had been holding back and saying, don't rock the boat and don't be so forward and whatever, at that point, everyone had to take a side on one side or the other. You had to come down on one side or the other. So there was a rallying real strong rallying point lead by Matty Feldman and a whole bunch of people and it was a strong victory for the desegregation plan and we have the distinction of having been, I believe, the first school system in the country that voluntarily desegregated its schools without being ordered to do so by the courts. And that's something we can be very proud of. And I will say while I am on the subject of the schools, that all three of my children went through the Teaneck system from beginning to end and have done very well. Two of them are out of college. They went to very good, they've all gone to very good schools. My oldest son who graduated from Yale said and still says that he was as well prepared as any public school graduate at Yale and better than many of the private schools.
(I) So that's kudos for our school.
(N) And the whole system all the way through. And to the best of my knowledge, it is continuing. I don't know of any change to that. I became active after that in the P.T.A. and worked, I was president of Whittier School P.T.A., I was
(I) What year was that?
(N) Well the reason I remember that is that that year my husband ran for the school board and lost and that was a big, sad occasion for us so that was 68/69 when I was president of Whittier school P.T.A. and then subsequently, I was president of the P.T.A. Council and of the high schoo1 P.T.A. much later on.
(I) So you maintained this commitment while your kids were, while they were in school.
(N) Yes, while they were in school, I was very involved. I was very active.
(I) Do you think that any of the legislation so to speak that came about during that period when you were very active has led to anything special following or was it a precedent for an event which occurred later on?
(N) I am not sure I am following you. Are you talking about, educational stuff?
(I) Yes, in terms of what you and the groups, the P.T.A.s and the P.T.A. Council did during the period that you were very active?
(N) Well I don't know that we so much worked outside of our own system although there probably were issues that I've forgotten. There was a great deal, and there still is a great deal, of activity in Teaneck on the part of the parents in relation to the things that are going on around Teaneck. There was a whole change from the old math to the new math and back and all the reading materials, the open school concept. The open school concept was a little bit, the open school classroom was a little bit, just the year after my youngest child so I never was involved in that controversy. The question of the central sixth, the question of the central kindergarten, all the issues were very strong and very important issues.
(I) What were the racial relationships like during that period?
(N) It was a very exciting time. We developed many friendships with people that we still have today.
(I) Are you speaking of inter-racial
(N) I am speaking of inter-racial groupings. There was a really you know it was the time of the March on Washington. That was 1963. That was right after we moved to town. No, that was two years after we moved to town. Again, I was pregnant. It was the summer before I had my third child. And I couldn't go because I was pregnant but my husband went with people from town and it was one of the really high spots of everyone's memory was that summer of 1963. There was a lot of excitement in the air. The Advisory Board was formed on Community Relations.
(I) Was that a townwide board?
(N) Yes. It still is. And Isaac McNatt ran for council and was elected and then subsequently became deputy mayor. The school board members, there were black members running for the board. There was real coalition on issues and it was a very exciting time. I don't know what of that is still going on. I think it is still going on in relation to the schools, people are working together as far as I know. And we personally have maintained ties with a number of the people that we became very close with at that time.
(I) You mentioned Isaac McNatt and Matty Feldman. Were there any other particular members of our community that you can think of offhand who were very supportive of not just you but of the groups?
(N) Oh sure. I don't know if out of context, there were many, many people who were involved and it is not to say that everyone agreed with everyone else. When you have issued like that, people's passions run very high and for a long time I couldn't forgive all the people who didn't support us, who didn't support Bob when he ran for the board but now, as I say, it was 1969 and by this time we've had many other issues and groupings and regroupings so that some of those same people have now become our friends so it is not of any great importance. I think the fact that there is such broad black representation on the council, of course Mayor Brooks is a shining example, but there are many, many others, Tom Boyd, this is a development from those times and it is the glory of living in Teaneck. It is one of the glorious things about living in Teaneck. In the last, well, to get back to the schools, each time my last child went through the school, I really cried. I remember the first year that they did not have to walk a child to Whittier School, for the first day of school, was so traumatic. And then when he got out of the high school and I realized that that was it, you know, it was just really awful. And it is amazing how fast you lose touch with the issues once you are not involved. Of course I will always go and vote for the school budget even if I don't know what is going on. I will go and vote for the budget. I did work for the Democrats also. I was committeewoman for a number of years in my district and I enjoyed that and I am a Democrat and I, we get involved in political, a specific political campaign and issues as they come along and then after the P.T.A. closed out for me, I did something that I hadn't had time to do before and I am still doing that. I am working with some of the Jewish organizations, the United Jewish Community, I am active in Temple Emeth, I am on the board and the Israel Bond Campaign.
(I) Hold on where you are because I'd like to come back to that. It is kind of exactly the kind of transition question of where did you go from but I'm interested in knowing from you since you had three children successfully go through our school system, who you feel are successful, were there attitudes toward the schools similar? Did they have divergences perhaps because of their ages being different or ...
(N) That is a very hard question to answer because there are different people and they are different levels of ability and scholarship that they have. My oldest is a scholar and it is true that he probably would have done well wherever he would have been. On the other hand, he claims that one of the high school English teachers, I am trying to remember whether it was Mrs. Cohen, I should have asked him for this. It was one of the things I meant to do was to ask, I think it was Mrs. Cohen, Laurie Cohen, he claims that she taught him how to write and now he is a writer and he didn't know he was going to be a writer. He only became a writer and he claims that she taught him how to write and then he had some, he was in the SNICKS Program in math which I think is not in existence anymore.
(I) It is in existence.
(N) It is still in existence. And again, he took calculus at Yale and he claims that the course at Teaneck High was better than the one that he had in freshman calculus. The other two were never the scholars, the one you met downstairs, Michael, is the second son and they were never the true scholars of the first and they both were in the alternative school in high school which served them both very well and that was one thing I felt very bad about this year when the alternative school went down the drain. The fact that we weren't able to try to help it. But I understand that alternative, that times have changed and alternative education does not have quite the clout it did at one time. People are much more concerned now with the bottom line careers and whatever. But they both went to the A School and both did very, it was important for both of them and they have both done well in their own way. It is not the same. You can't really compare it. But I felt, and I feel, that the system has held up for the kids and as far as I know, they're still coming out and still getting into the best colleges and still doing what they have to do. I don't know of anything different happening in town. It is interesting, you know, the demographic changes that occur in the community. Of course living where we are now, in the last ten years we've had the influx of Orthodoxy.