A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

History: Racial Conflict at Matawan Regional HS - Late Sept 1970

The front page of The Matawan Journal's 1 October 1970 edition contains reporting of racial tensions at the high school that eventually flared into riots and marauding youths. Some interesting materials for the African-Americans in The Matawan Journal series.

The reporting suggests at one point that the violence could have been caused by outsiders, possibly students or adults from rival schools stirring the pot before some important football games. At other times there are mentions that the violence was actually planned ahead of time or an unfortunate result of overcrowding at the high school. However it started, once there was violence, fear took over and rumors started to fly, turning things in the community even uglier.  The Journal reported many of the rumors without comment, which might not have been the best approach. Police and school officials seemed to take a reasonable approach once they caught up with events, but the news coverage suggests that neither had their ears to the ground on this.

There is a stark difference between that school district and its current iteration. We should be thankful that our kids get along and strive to do so ourselves.

On a technical note, the online scanned images for this paper are abysmal, so I retrieved the original newspaper from the library archives, photocopied the articles, and transcribed them below for the record.

Five Days Student Turmoil

Racial conflicts flared anew at Matawan Regional High School during the past week following an outbreak at a dance on Friday night. Monday and Tuesday were tense days and nights for police, school, municipal authorities and parents, but rain last night cooled things somewhat and all are hopeful that tensions will ease when school resumes Monday after being closed today and tomorrow for the Jewish holiday.

Non-students as well as students suffered in the resulting violence. Harold F Dolan, a former president of the Matawan Regional Board of Education, who sought to disperse a group of youths who entered his property on Atlantic Avenue at the height of the disturbances Friday night received a cut on the arm before he drove the youths off.

This same group of 30 young Negroes were reported by another Atlantic Avenue householder to have smashed a $350 picture window of his home and a woman reported her car was stoned and a window broken as she sought to turn into the driveway of her home. The offenders were reported as fleeing into the woods to avoid detection, but it was the opinion of school authorities they were some of the out-of-towners who had invaded the pep rally and dance the night before the first football game.

The ostensible cause of the disturbance was a quarrel between a white and Negro girl over a pair of shoes. But there were those who spurned this simple explanation of the incitement to the trouble. Stanley Pianko, deputy mayor of Matawan Township, confirmed last night he had spoken with township police about rumors that there would be trouble Friday. Mayor Hans Froehlich, after the outburst, was critical of the judgment of the school authorities to permit the dance to go on in view of advance indications that all was not well among the student body.

Last night Mr Pianko took strong exception to a daily newspaper report quoting John J Bradley, president of the Board of Education, purporting to censure Mr Pianko for not warning school authorities if he knew there was going to be trouble. "I don't buy that," was Mr Pianko's comment.

Township Police Chief Ralph E Wallace indicated his department was taken by surprise by the fact the affair was not restricted to Matawan students in that only two police officers, Sgt Theodore Lefkowich and Patrolman Rocco Polizzato, were assigned to be on hand.

"Anybody who had a buck could get in," the chief commented with respect to the reported attendance of outsiders from Red Bank and Freehold.

Sgt Ralph Medolla, on patrol with Patrolman William Andrews that night, reported receiving a walkie-talkie radio report from Sgt Lefkowich at 10 pm that rumors of trouble brewing had reached the officers on the scene. A call to go to the school cafeteria at 10:15 pm resulted in Sgt Medolla and Patrolman Andrews finding the doors to it chained, and they had to squeeze in through a window.

Two Girls in A Fight

Sgt Medolla did find the white and Negro girl embroiled, the white girl charging her shoes had been stolen. When the Negro girl denied knowledge of to whom the shoes belonged, the shoes were yielded to the white girl. This seemed to be all the provocation the adherents of the girls battling over the shoes needed as right away hostilities broke out and swept to every area of the dance floor.  Sgt Medolla reported seeing Patrolman Andrews surrounded by about 100 youths, mostly Negroes, then 15 black students "jumping him" with the officer trying to subdue the one leading the attack. The officer floored another who interfered, letting the main offender get away. The second one to attack the officer was taken into custody for resisting arrest.

Sight of a white youth cornered on a table top by 50 blacks led to a call by Sgt Lefkowich to borough police for aid. It came quickly so that an announcement by Sgt Medolla at 10:40 pm that the dance was over could reach a quelled group of combatants.

Then came the problem of five police trying to disperse a crowd of nearly 500 out on the school lawn cursing and threatening. More borough police re-enforcements dissuaded at Atlantic Avenue and Little Street those who sought to turn towards the borough. Those who continued down Atlantic Avenue were the ones to become involved in the incidents there.

First aid ambulances joined police at the high school grounds. One white youth was taken to Riverview Hospital from a blow with a timber. A girl beaten at Third Street needed medical attention. Riverview Hospital reported treating a third Matawan student for hurts that night.

John Bolger, Spring Lake, a teacher at Lloyd Road School, visiting friends in Matawan Friday night, told police that as he came out to get in his car he was set upon by six Negro youths near the high school for no discernible reason other than that he must have been confused in the darkness for a white high school student.

One Negro youth told of being threatened by whites with a gun. The whites in a car got away, but the license was picked up by observers. But when the car was stopped in the borough, no weapons were found. However, the Negroes were insistent in their report of being threatened.

Police reported two Negro boys assisting a badly beaten white boy into the shelter of the school building to await first aid attention.

Three nights later, Monday, guns were reality.

But, in the interim, the Matawan-Middletown football game was played and blacks and whites on the Matawan squad gave no evidence on the playing field that there had ever been any disruption in the Matawan camp the night before. But there was a notable lack of black rooters in the Matawan stands.

Many Fear The Worst

Then came that Monday. On Sunday, the day before a moving van or two in Strathmore, then, at 10:30 pm, a call from a mother in tones of agonized fear that she would not be sending her daughter to high school the next day because she was believing a rumor that there would be new trouble.

Monday morning, more concerned reports came in. Councilwoman Patricia Wills cautioned of white boys armed heavily gathering at a popular hamburger spot. A store manager called in that there could be confrontations of whites and blacks in the parking lots of Acme, A&P, and Shop Rite that night.

A call came in the late morning about gunfire reported from the area of the high school. A call was received from a woman about a threat that the Cliffwood Beach area would be fire-bombed that night. Then there was a rumor Negro youth would throw Molotov cocktails into Strathmore homes that night in revenge for damage supposedly done to Negroes' homes in Cliffwood.

At 11 am there was a warning that a bomb was to be planted. A report was received that a bomb had been planted in the school. The school was emptied. In lunch hour, there was more trouble, whites and Negroes in separate knots, calling names and some fisticuffs.

White Caravan Of "War"

Later in the day, the area of the school at time to go home was swarming with police, patrol cars, ambulances. Three Negroes were taken in custody for loitering on the school grounds.

Then, the nightfall - the recollection of fears of the store managers that there would be mass fighting in the large parking areas of the chain stores. Tempers were heightened by word a 16-year white student, a junior at the high school was severely beaten about the face by Negroes. Verification of the rumors about the chain stores being sites of battle that night as police rounded up Negroes advancing at Cliffwood Avenue and Route 35 on the A&P lot with sticks and tire chains. Then a caravan of whites, 10 cars, 53 youths in all - a hammer thrown into the windshield of one car, a girl cut about the face.

Borough police with carbines and tin "war" hats intercepted the caravan, hustling them back to the council room at borough hall - the 53 held behind closed doors while the "riot" act was read them, some booked but not held.

Tuesday - dawned a chilly cooling-off day. Police were in the school, in the school area.

Tuesday night, a poorly kept secret, the rumble center to be at the Cat N' Fiddle. But Matawan Township and Madison Township police were there first, the roads of access blocked off in Cliffwood Beach, no rumble, the combatants could not make it. Three adults and a juvenile were taken into custody by Matawan Borough police for defiance of an officer's orders and having the makings of weapons.

Yesterday ... a new report in fear that homes in Cliffwood Beach were to be firebombed last night.. but last night it rained and nobody was out.

Mayor Irked At Cost of Unrest

Mayor Victor Armellino, Matawan Borough, expressed annoyance last night at the handling of the student disorders situation by the Regional Board of Education. He said he was aware all the added costs of it came out of the same taxpayers' pocket, be it school or municipal, but he felt that the extra expenses should come out of the school board's and not the municipal budgets.

Yesterday attempts were made to cool down the situation. A "rap" session between a panel of five from each the whites and Negroes was held. Dr John F McKenna, superintendent, said this morning he was somewhat disappointed in the resulst, that the session started off well enough but, as it ended, and in the student attitudes afterward, he felt "the progress we had hoped for" had not been made. Dialogue did continue, he observed.

The superintendent was inclined to blame much of the trouble on the over-crowded condition of the high school. He said that the pushing against one another in crowded hallways during passing to classes resulted, as he saw it, in irritations and provocative incidents, pupils accusing one another of offenses never deliberate or intended.

Upperclassmen Talks

The dialogue yesterday was between junion and senior students. Dr McKenna felt that with a lapse of four days of school being closed (today and tomorrow for the Jewish holy days) there would be a cooling off period that would provide a better atmosphere for approaches between ninth and tenth grade pupils on Monday. Dr McKenna blamed the spreading of rumors and the building up of minor things into inflammatory major reports as they were exaggerated from mouth to mouth for a lot of the trouble.

Last night the Rev Paul L Jackson, First Baptist Church, acting for the Matawan ministerium, addressed a large gathering of whites on the situation while Det Sgt Stanley Parrish, Matawan Township Police, was doing the same with a group of black students. A hopeful note came out of these gatherings.

Lt Det John McGinty said this morning there are only four juvenile complaints on file in the township and no charges against those 18 or over as a result of the week's disturbances.

While a junior varsity football game was called off Monday and a cross-country meet was moved out of town, school officials saw no occasion to do anything about the varsity football game to be held at Long Branch Saturday.


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