History and Heritage: Mary Allen, lady in the red hat
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history, written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
Montclair is known for its diversity, which is a good thing, but it was a hard-won diversity. There was a time when Montclair was as segregated as any southern town. From time to time we should celebrate the people who crashed through barriers and made Montclair what it is today.
William and Mary Rice Hayes Allen were African Americans who came here from Lynchburg, Va. in 1920 and moved into 72 Valley Road.
From a very large building that backed up against homes on Valley Road, PSE&G operated a trolley barn on Bloomfield Avenue at Bell Street. Part of the facility later became the Bellclair Bowling Lanes, which was knocked down a few years ago to make way for apartment buildings and retail.
William was a lawyer, who practiced in Newark and often handled civil rights cases. He was also fascinated by trolleys and was delighted to have a trolley barn behind his house, even though it meant moving into a (mostly) white neighborhood.
Mary was one of Montclair’s more interesting characters. Born in Harrisonburg, Va., she was the illegitimate daughter of a former Confederate general, John R. Jones, and his servant, Malinda Rice, who had been a slave, and was doing domestic work to get by. In an unusual move for a former slave owner, the general acknowledged Mary and supported her education (he did not, however, acknowledge her darker brother). Even though he had to move out of the house when his wife divorced him, Mary continued to visit her father and accompanied him as his “white” daughter.
She was raised by her uncle and aunt, John and Dolly Rice, after he mother died. Mary was committed to human equality and her daughter, Carrie Allen McCray, wrote a book about her called “Freedom’s Child.” McCray describes her mother’s first act of protest when she was a child of 12: her mother boldly took her African American friend into an ice cream parlor that she and the general frequented. She was rebuffed by customers and by the owner, who condemned her for bringing a black girl into the establishment. She was surprised when her father did not back her up. The episode did not end the way she expected, but it showed the spirit she was going to bring to all her activities in later life.
Mary went to Hartshorn College where she was attracted to a guest lecturer, Gregory Hayes, the president of Virginia Seminary and married him in 1895. Gregory was devoted to improving the lot of African Americans through education. They became friendly with such luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. Mary was involved in setting up a chapter of the NAACP in Lynchburg. She taught at the seminary, and was always involved in her husband’s work. When he died in 1906, she was made the interim president of the seminary. She also found herself a 35-year-old widow with five children.
In 1911, she married William Allen, whom she had three more children with. They came North in the early 20th century, during what came to be known as the “Great Migration.”
LIFE IN MONTCLAIR
The Allens were not immediately accepted in Montclair. Lucille Sigler, their next door neighbor (Mrs. Bengler in the book “Freedom’s Child”), seemed especially unwilling to accept them. Eventually they won over their neighbors, including Mrs. Sigler. In her book, Carrie Allen McCray often wrote about the way her mom loved red hats and had a hat-rack full of them in the Montclair house. Her mother put them on in front of a big mirror in the home library. Red hats became the symbol of her fight for equality.
In Montclair, Mary was preoccupied with raising a family, but she fought for equality whenever and however she could. She refused to sit in the “Colored Only” section at the Clairidge Theater. After years of protest, the theater allowed African Americans to sit wherever they wanted.
Mary argued with school principals. She wanted her children to march in school processions alphabetically (rather than in the back).
In 1933, the Glenfield School District was changed. It seemed to become a dumping ground for African American students. Mary and other African American parents wanted to keep their children with their friends and asked the superintendent of schools to transfer their children back to Nishuane. The superintendent refused, but several white students were allowed to stay at Nishuane. Under Mary’s direction, the black parents kept their children home. The school board charged them with truancy. The black parents countered with a petition, charging racism, to the State Board of Education. In 1934 the state board ruled against them. It wasn’t yet time for equal rights, but their suit laid the groundwork for future suits that did force the Montclair School Board to desegregate.
Mary was also intensely involved with the “colored” YWCA and was president for nine years. She was secretary of the Montclair NAACP; then president; a position she held until her death in 1935.
She will always be remembered as “The Lady in the Red Hat.”