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This is Ann McGrath interviewing Marjorie Lightman for the Teaneck Library Oral History Project. We are at her home at 1362 Taft Road. It is October 28. 1984.
(I) Marjorie, when did you move to Teaneck?
(N) We moved to Teaneck in December, 1960.
(I) And where else did you look and why did you pick Teaneck?
(N) I don't think we looked much else. We picked Teaneck because we needed, we wanted a large apartment. I needed a study. And I had grown up in Malverne, Long Island, which is a town not unlike Teaneck, an old suburb. And I sort of felt like I was not going to spend the rest of my life on the Long Island Railroad. And my husband had at one time in his life lived at Camp Shanks in Rockland County so he knew this side of the river. Being a born and bred New Yorker, I thought New Jersey was the end of the world. But he took me out here and it looked very pretty. It looked just like the town I grew up in so it seemed perfectly suitable to me. And we didn't use a realtor. We found the house advertised in the New York Times. This house was built in 1928 by the people we bought it from who were retiring, who had raised three children. Hacker, that was their name. And it was very, it was far more taken care of than I have ever taken care of it and when we moved in, there were tags on every single pipe and every single faucet explaining to us what it was for. I think some of them twenty years still have the tags on them.
(I) Were all the other houses here?
(N) Yes, not all. There were, the house up the block was just being built and then there were a number of odd new houses around but fundamentally it was the same street and in years immediately after we moved in, a number of houses on this street changed hands because a number of them had been built in the late 20s so within two or three years of our moving here, when our first child came along, the street was filled with a whole new generation of young people and children. The house is very comfortable. It is a small house. It was very comfortable for the two of us.
(I) You bought directly from them. So you picked Teaneck really from picking the house at that time.
(N) Well I think we picked Teaneck and then we'd been to several realtors.
(I) You don't remember why you picked it, the actual town, rather than Englewood or Hackensack?
(N) I think I remember the impression of why. It was not for any of the reasons that it had a good school system because we had no children and that was largely irrelevant. It was not particularly the price. In fact, there were many houses that had comparable prices at that time. It certainly wasn't far to transportation but that could have equally been true of Leonia and Englewood. I think it appealed to us because of its physical organization. It looked like a town to me. And I understood in its physical layout how you lived in it.
(I) Where did you live before you came to Teaneck?
(N) In Manhattan. And I grew up in Long Island and I was born in New York City.
(I) What was your maiden name?
(I) What does the name mean, do you know?
(N) No idea.
(I) Where did your parents come from?
(N) New York. They were both born in the city.
(I) How about your grandparents?
(N) One set of grandparents came here as children from somewhere in the whole large scale migration at the turn of the century. Their citizenship papers say Minsk but I know from family tradition that that simply was where they left from. My other set of grandparents I did not know but they were Americans and they had died in an accident when my father was a young man and where they came from, I don't know, but they too came here around the turn of the century, my father having been born here and his older brothers all having been born here.
(I) And after you were born, they moved out to the island?
(N) Yes. I was born in 1940 and in my very early years, World War II, my father worked in the Navy Yard during World War II in defense industry.
(N) In Brooklyn Navy Yard, yes.
(I) So he commuted?
(N) No, we moved to Brooklyn. I really can't give you the address but it must have been within reasonable distance of the Navy Yard. My sister was born several years later. So he was in defense work all through the. war. And I was still in third or fourth grade which means I was only seven or eight when we moved to Long Island. Obviously the beginning of the migration to the suburbs. But when we moved to Malverne, there was still a farm across the street and Levittown had not yet been built because I remember Sunday afternoon excursions to see this amazing Levittown being built so it was very late in the 40s or before the early 50s.
(I) Where did you go to school?
(N) I went to school in Valley Stream, Malverne being split between two school districts and the school district we lived in was the Valley Stream school district.
(I) And high school?
(N) I went to Valley Stream High School. I did not go to my senior year in high school. I went straight into college. Hunter College at that time had a program for admitting juniors out of high school and I went into college for my senior year.
(I) And, commuted?
(N) No, no. My mother had died when I was thirteen.
(I) And you lived in Manhattan?
(N) Yes. No, my sister and I at that time had our own apartment underneath a subway el in Brooklyn and she completed high school and I went to college.
(I) You were only like seventeen. Did you work?
(N) Part time. My father supported us but he didn't live with us.
(I) And did you go or to any graduate studies?
(N) Yes, I have two masters degrees and a Ph.D.
(I) In what?
(N) Ancient history. I have one masters degree in American History from Hunter College and one in Classical History from Rutgers and a Ph.D. from Rutgers.
(I) How did you meet your husband?
(N) I was a freshman at Hunter which was then a girls school and I guess I was seventeen at the time and he still had a part time job left over from when he was in graduate school at Columbia and that part time job was to be in charge of the main library at Hunter in the evenings and I tripped over him in the library.
(I) Did you get these degrees in sequence or did you work in between?
(N) No, I finished college in '61 and I taught for two years until my oldest child was born.
(I) Where did you teach?
(N) The oldest is Andrew; he was born I guess in '63. He is just back from a year in India and he is a senior at Bowden College in Maine. The next one was born in '64 I think. He is 20 now. And he is a junior at N.Y.U. His name is Timothy. And the youngest was born in '66 and her name is Suzanne and she is a freshman at Vassar.
(I) You were telling me about having these children at Englewood Hospital. What do you remember about your..
(N) I remember I was determined to go for natural childbirth with them and in '62 we are talking about, natural childbirth classes were only available in New York. There were some child preparation classes at Holy Name Hospital. There were none that I remember at Englewood Hospital. And I found someone who would teach us the Lamaze method and my gynecologist at that time or obstetrician was Dr. Schneiderson in Englewood and he agreed that if I went through the classes, he would arrange for Ben to stay in the labor rooms with me at Englewood Hospital and indeed that is how they were born. All three of them.
(I) Without any problem?
(N) Without any problems. I lost a baby before. There was a pregnancy that was a six month stillbirth.
(I) Now your children started off in school here?
(N) Yes they did.
(I) What was their experience? Where did they start in kindergarten?
(N) They started at Washington Irving. I think all three of them went to the central kindergarten at Washington Irving.
(I) Did you like that central kindergarten?
(N) I don't remember not liking it.
(I) Was that the beginning actually of the neighborhood school?
(N) I think Andrew was the first or second class in the central kindergarten. It was very new when he went.
(I) How did you get involved in this neighboring school debate in Teaneck?
(N) Well I think we got involved because we had been involved in civil rights very early and this of course became the local manifestation of a far more national problem as civil rights. As an undergraduate, Archie Lacey who lives here in town, Theodora and Archie Lacey, Archie had just come to the New York area and was living in Manhattan and teaching a course at Hunter which I took when I was a senior. And in fact I told him all about Teaneck which is one of the ways he got here and then when their children (generally the same age group as ours, there are four of them and not three but they are generally the same age group) and Theodora and I became close friends and in fact, the masters degree I took part-time at Hunter, Theodora and I commuted in and out of the city together. We tried to coordinate classes and through them became very involved with the black community here in Teaneck and obviously involved in Teaneck local affairs.
(I) Before we discuss Teaneck, were you involved in any activities before Teaneck with civil rights, marches or..
(N) Well before Teaneck, you are talking about the 50s. There were no civil rights marches in the north in the 50s. Not really. I think I was involved. .
(I) It was more of an interest than in educating yourself.
(N) I think that. . I grew up in a town that was solidly republican. My parents were not only one of the first Jews in the town but they certainly were the only democrats. My mother was the organizer of the Board of Trustees of the Malverne Public Library which organized the Malverne Public Library. She was one of the women from the American Jewish Congress who worked on the court cases opening up the hotel. My interest is not to be surprised at. It would have been more surprising had I not behaved in this manner.
(I) But she passed away when you were only thirteen so she made a very big impression on you.
(N) She was a very powerful lady.
(1) Was your sister active, were you and your sister active. .
(N) My sister lives two blocks away from here and when she married, she was one of the young women who married and her husband was A-1 on the Viet Nam War all the way through so her baby was really partly calculated in relation to the draft, her first baby, in relation to draft consideration and when she became pregnant, they moved to Fort Lee so she has always lived close by and has always been involved in parallel sets of activities as I have.
(I) So this busing issue in Teaneck was one of the biggest issues that you took part in.
(N) I think it was the first adult. . I mean I was twenty one or twenty two at the time and it was the first adult participation.
(I) Do you remember the pros and the cons? We've established you were pro, pro neighborhood schools. .
(N) No, not pro neighborhood schools, pro central schools. I think at the time it struck me that the only con was discrimination and I think, looking back, I still think that. Now having brought up three children, I'm dubious that they need hot lunches. I was dubious then, I'm dubious now. I certainly think Teaneck is small enough for them to walk anywhere in town.
(I) Do you remember what the meetings were like and what people's reactions to it were?
(N) I remember fiery meetings. I remember being struck at the time that it seemed to me Teaneck may be the last of the community democracies since everybody had a voice and the meetings went on for hours.
(I) Do you remember any of those voices. Particularly the loud voices. Who they came from?
(N) You know, I don't remember. But I do remember that they just went on for hours. I remember the closeness and the passion that was generated. The excitement. I remember. . .
(I) Where were they held?
(N) I remember them at the Town House. I remember a vivid one at the Town House. And I remember them at the high school in the old auditorium, not the new air conditioned auditorium, but the old auditorium. I remember canvassing up and down the block.
(I) Did you have a whole district that you would cover?
(N) Yes we had this district here.
(I) Were you talking to people or just distributing. .
(N) Well there was a lesson learned in those years, a political lesson, which is a lesson that the women's movement has since learned which is - don't engage in trying to convince anyone who disagrees with you. Only find those who agree with you and be sure they get to the polls.
(I) And you learned a lot doing that canvassing? Do you have any adventures that you remember?
(N) Well certainly. . I remember being yelled at. I remember being told that it was because I was a young woman whose children were not yet school age that I did not understand what it meant to break up neighborhood schools. I remember being told that, actually I remember being yelled at quite often. I also must say, looking back on it, that I am struck by the fact that there was at some point no longer a dialogue.
(I) How well were you organized?
(N) In this district, extremely well.
(I) Do you remember who organized it?
(N) I remember Howard Levenberg who has since become active in the local Democratic party in general. I remember. .
(I) What was he like to work with?
(N) Oh he was fine to work with. His wife, at that time his wife, Laurie was pregnant with her third child the same time I was and we gave birth three weeks apart. Her young daughter is now at Oberlind and Suzy at Vassar and I drove her to the hospital and the hospital wasn't sure which of us they were supposed to admit.
(I) Do you remember anyone else that was busy organizing?
(N) I don't remember anybody who wasn't at that time. It seems to me everybody I knew in Teaneck, the Hilsons, Laurie Hilson lived up the street on Emerson and they were very involved. I remember the Scribners and the Laceys. I remember it seemed to me all life in Teaneck revolved around this political issue and. .
(I) How was it resolved?
(N) Well it was resolved in a referendum vote on a school board election to, in fact, implement this plan which included a central kindergarten. I remember the night of the election, I remember carrying the vote count from Ben Franklin down to the Town House.
(I) Did you work there or just go for the count?
(N) I don't remember. I just remember waiting while they did the count off the machines and then carrying the count down to the Town House where they were posting district by district counts up.
(I) Do you remember how they posted them?
(N) Well at that time, you know, school board elections merge after a while. I have a vivid memory of a big board with lines across it and the district listed on the left and the count coming down on the right but I can't swear that's what they looked like at that time.
(I) And what was the outcome?
(N) The outcome was very much in favor of creating a central.
(I) Do you remember the voting figures?
(N) No I do not. I remember this district carried. But this district carried McGovern also so that that doesn't say a great deal.
(I) But it was a large. .
(N) Yes. I am also struck by once the vote was engendered, how fast it calmed down and became an accepted fact.
(I) As long as we are speaking about civil rights, can you recall any other civil rights causes that you worked on?
(N) Well I was involved in Fair Housing. I still am I guess.
(I) In Bergen County?
(I) Which group do you work with here? Is there an organized group?
(N) Yes in Hackensack they always did have offices for Bergen County Fair Housing.
(I) And what do you do with this group?
(N) Well, early on, we were involved in, if I remember my history correctly, by the time we moved to town, the area adjacent to Englewood had already become predominantly black and there was
(I) Were you aware of the Fair Housing problem when you moved to Teaneck?
(N) I wasn't aware of it when I moved. It must have been very soon after. It would have made no difference to me. And there was clearly a problem, clearly one either had to do something so that the town remained an integrated town or one lost, one had lost a major opportunity.
(I) What type of things did this Fair Housing Group do? Where were they active, in what areas?
(N) I remember one year very vividly visiting back and forth between black families and white families. It seems to me it was either Sunday family lunches or breakfasts or something. And we, for months we were criss-crossing town on visiting back and forth.
(I) Do you think that was positive and good? Do you think good things came out of that?
(N) If I could step back for a moment and speak abstractly, I think that Teaneck is an interesting town. I think it is an interesting town because as a historian, I've done a lot of work on the intersection of race class and gender. Teaneck is an interesting example of the intersection of race and class. Rarely do you have a situation where you can separate out racial problems from class problems and what is so characteristic about Teaneck is you can. And looking back now, I realize that what we were doing is working within the same class group across racial lines which is a far simpler problem. I mean Teaneck never has had to deal with inner ghetto youth.
(I) Did the socializing, the sensitizing, help? Was it a positive thing or could you be spending your time doing other things?
(N) Well I think that even if one could have been spending one's time doing other things, that this is what one ought to have been doing.
(I) How about blockbusting? Were you aware of it?
(N) Yes, we were very aware of blockbusting. This west Englewood area was very much prone to it and so that we were very careful. And in fact have been very successful.
(I) Do you remember what the town's reaction was and what some people did about it?
(N) Yes I remember the anti-blockbusting ordinance in town and I remember supporting it.
(I) And you think they've been successful?
(N) Well west Englewood certainly has, is a highly mixed area now. I think that the measure of success is a house on Taft Road that for many years was owned by a black family and recently was sold to a white family. That seems to me an extraordinary, given the country at large, measure of success of fluidity that doesn't exist as far as I know in too many other communities.
(I) What were the blockbusting techniques?
(N) Well I remember my doorbell being rung by realtors telling me, did I know that this neighborhood was turning black and I had better sell my house now before I lose too much money on it.
(I) How would you deal with those people?
(N) Well I remember being very angry and explaining to them that there was no statistical evidence that in fact in an all black neighborhood, I would significantly lose money and the second is that I don't know that I cared and lastly, of course, I thought their behavior was frankly immoral. And at a sheer ethical and moral level, it was war.
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