New Rochellians Wanted: Civil Rights Scholar Compiling Oral History of Lincoln Desegregation Case for Upcoming Book

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paulmurray.jpgProfessor Paul Murray, a sociology professor at Siena College, is working on a biography of Paul Zuber, the lead attorney for the Lincoln families in the New Rochelle case. Murray is looking to interview current and former New Rochelle residents who were involved with or impacted by the case.

Murray, a noted civil rights scholar, is a contributor to The African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Oxford University Press, 2008). He wrote a brief biography of Zuber published (with permission) below:

zuber.jpgZuber, Paul Burgess (20 December 1926 – 6 March 1987), lawyer and professor, was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. His parents were Paul A. Zuber, a postal worker, and Jennie Baer Zuber. He attended school in Williamsport through third grade. In 1934 his family moved to Harlem and he was enrolled in the all-black P.S. 157.

After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Zuber entered Brown University where he played football, basketball, and track. He was drafted into the Army Quartermasters Corps during World War II and was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia. Upon his discharge he returned to Brown, graduating in 1947. He was reactivated for the Korean War and served as chief of psychological testing at Murphy Army Hospital in Massachusetts. In 1953 he married Barbara Johnson, an artist. They had two children, Patricia Zuber Wilson and Paul W. Zuber.

Zuber worked for the New York City Health Department while attending night classes at Brooklyn Law School. He earned his J.D. degree in 1956. The day after being admitted to the bar he filed his first suit against the New York City Board of Education. He represented Mae Mallory who sought to enroll her daughter in a racially mixed junior high school instead of the all-black school to which she had been assigned. In 1958 Zuber defended boycotting African American parents who sought to force the board to transfer their children to better staffed integrated schools. Four defendants were found guilty in Domestic Relations Court for keeping their children out of school. Two weeks later, however, Judge Justine Wise Polier dismissed charges against two other defendants. She ruled that children attending Harlem schools received “inferior educational opportunities in those schools by reason of racial discrimination.” Although Polier lacked authority to order the board to remedy these conditions, her ruling was hailed as a victory over de facto segregation.

In 1960 Zuber sued the New Rochelle Board of Education on behalf of African American parents who wanted to enroll their children in a predominately white elementary school. At their trial he demonstrated that the concentration of black students in Lincoln School was the result of deliberate actions. Judge Irving R. Kaufman concluded that the board operated a segregated school system. He wrote, “It is of no moment whether the segregation is labeled by the defendant as ‘de jure’ or ‘de facto,’ as long as the Board, by its conduct, is responsible for its maintenance.” Kaufman ordered the board to prepare a desegregation plan. His ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals and affirmed by the Supreme Court. Taylor v. New Rochelle Board of Education was the first case to successfully apply Brown v. Board of Education to a northern school district. Zuber maintained that northern racism was more difficult to identify and root out than the southern variety. He observed, “Down home our bigots come in white sheets. Up here they come in Brooks Brothers suits and ties.”

In August 1961 Zuber represented African American parents protesting overcrowding and double sessions in Chicago public schools. Superintendent Benjamin Willis maintained that Chicago schools were not segregated, but when black parents were unable to enroll their children in underutilized white schools, Zuber filed suit in federal court. Webb v. Board of Education initially was dismissed by Judge Julius Hoffman. One year later, however, the case was reinstated. On 29 August 1963 the parties announced a settlement that required an independent panel to develop a desegregation plan. Zuber also was counsel in school desegregation cases in Newark and Englewood, New Jersey, and Malverne, Hempstead, and Mount Vernon, New York.

Zuber’s career reached its nadir in 1969. His problems began when he accused New York City Patrolman Gerald Vassilatos of planting marijuana on one of his clients. The officer sued for defamation of character. When Zuber failed to appear in court, Justice Harold Baer awarded the officer $450. Zuber refused to pay and on December 30, 1968 was arrested and jailed for six days. His troubles increased in September 1969, when he was charged with professional misconduct and suspended from the bar for two years.

Zuber’s legal practice had never flourished, so he seized an opportunity to enter teaching. He became an associate professor of law and urban studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Two years later he was appointed director of the Center for Urban Environmental Studies, a position he held until his death. He became full professor in 1979, the first African American to attain this rank at R.P.I.

Zuber was a lifelong activist, working tirelessly to improve community conditions. He was moderator of a weekly television program, columnist for a community newspaper, and host of a local radio program. Zuber served on numerous boards in his adopted city of Troy including mayor’s task forces on fair housing and community development. He wrote the city’s fair housing law and affirmative action plan.

Zuber also entered politics, running unsuccessfully for the New York State Senate in 1958. In 1962 he challenged Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, but later withdrew. Zuber entered the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary in 1963, using his candidacy to focus attention on civil rights issues.

Associates and opponents alike described Zuber as independent and outspoken. These were his greatest strengths and principal weaknesses. He was never reluctant to speak his mind, exposing bias and incompetence wherever he found it. He frequently described himself as “a bull in a china closet.” Zuber was a solo practitioner who had difficulty forming alliances and this limited his effectiveness. Nevertheless, his pioneering litigation against northern school segregation established precedents that others would follow.

Obituary: New York Times, 10 March 1987
Further Reading: “Integration Vendetta in a Northern Town.” Life 5 May 1966.
Adina Black, “Exposing the ‘Whole Segregation Myth’: The Harlem Nine and New York City’s School Desegregation Battles,” in Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980, eds. Jeanne F. Theoharis and Komozi Woodard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Paul T. Murray

Murray is now in the midst of work on a complete biography of Zuber. He is looking to compile an oral history related to Paul Zuber and, in particular, the New Rochelle desegregation case. On the telephone last week, Prof. Murray demonstrated an excellent working knowledge of the case and has his own fascinating personal background on civil rights history and education.

Murray has been in direct contact with Paul Zuber’s widow, now in her eighties, about Talk of the Sound’s proposed idea of a 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the court decision handed down on January 24, 1961. She expressed her interested to attend along with her children. Prof. Murray will be meeting again with Mrs. Zuber and is brining along a copy of my series on the case at her request.