Beloved Newark Chorus Finds New Home in Historic Schoolhouse

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State Street School Newark
The school’s red-brick facade was paint-stripped and repointed, giving it the appearance it had a century ago. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The oldest-standing public school in Newark is getting a long-awaited restoration and will continue its legacy educating young people of color.


The fate of State Street School, which once served as the School for Colored Children, was uncertain only months ago. But the building’s owner, Hanini Group, is giving these hallowed classrooms a second life, forming a partnership with one of the city’s most beloved institutions: the Newark Boys Chorus.

Last year, the Newark Boys Chorus sold its former Lincoln Park headquarters to Paramount Assets. Since then, the school administrators had visited more than 20 potential sites, before discovering this opportunity on State Street.

“This move to State Street School is right on so many levels,” said Paul Chapin, who was named head of the school last year.

Chapin’s three-decade career working in public schools has prepared him for only part of the position. As for the school’s importance in this particular moment in history, following a summer of civil unrest, Chapin speaks with clarity about what he has inherited and the pride his school has given to a city with deep roots in both the arts and social justice.

“Newark Boys Chorus School has been a beacon of good things for this community and young boys of color for over 50 years,” Chapin told Jersey Digs. “We have always been Black Lives Matter.”

State Street School Newark 2
Richard Grossklaus, a Newark Landmarks commissioner, speaks with an architect from Hanini Group during a recent tour of State Street School. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

His music school is a vital chapter in the city’s storied arts scene. Billie Holiday used to walk these streets when they were filled with smoky jazz bars like the Sugar Hill Club. Newark has long been a destination on the classical-music circuit with world-famous concert halls like Symphony Hall, built in 1925, which is now undergoing a $40 million renovation.

It is from this tradition that the Newark Boys Chorus emerged. In 1966, the New Jersey Symphony needed a children’s choir for a performance of The Nutcracker. James McCarthy, a well-known conductor, assembled a group of local boys. The performance was such a success that the choir began touring.

State Street School Newark 3
Broad Street Station is seen from a second-floor classroom, giving State Street School a visibility from downtown that it never had before. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The next year, however, came riots, which could have spelled the end of the troupe. Instead, rising out of that turmoil, came a number of community leaders and philanthropists who wanted to foster this local talent.

With their support, McCarthy established a school inside a home at 235 Delavan Avenue. The chorus gained international acclaim in 1973 when it performed under legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein for Pope Paul VI. Not long after, the school bought a building next to Symphony Hall and for the next 40 years became what is today: a selective, tuition-free school for local boys of color.

In the beginning, there was a philosophical tug-of-war over what the school should be. McCarthy, known for his stormy disposition, wanted to prioritize strict musical training over academic subjects like math and history. The board felt differently and replaced McCarthy with his colleague John Quinn in 1974.

Despite the prestige of the school, and its ability to produce world-class talent — such as countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and American Idol finalist Anwar Robinson — its primary purpose is to use music as means to develop character and civic responsibility, according to Donald Morris, musical director at the school.

“Our students  — through disenfranchisement or other situations  —don’t always get a chance to see what the rest of the world sees,” said Morris, who has accompanied two generations of students across five continents.

Morris, who is one of the school’s longest-tenured employee, joined the school in the 1980s. Finding a new home at the school on State Street means that history is “coming full circle,” he said. “The mission at State Street School has been the same as our mission — to uplift young children of color.”

For the first time in its history, the Newark Boys Chorus School will have an on-site auditorium. Chapin sees the building becoming more than a school. During a recent tour of the premises, he called it a “hub” for the social justice and equity movement.

“Since the George Floyd killing,” Chapin said, “I’ve been contacted by a number of organizations interested in connecting more with our school than they had in the past.”

That tour included former superintendent Dr. Marion Bolden, the staunchest guardian of this historic building and its artifacts. “I’m very happy it’s going to be used as a school that pays homage to James Baxter,” she said.

James Baxter, at age 19, was the city’s first Black principal, as well as the head administrator of the School for Colored Children. It is clear that while the Newark Boys Chorus will be the new heart of the old schoolhouse, Bolden remains the keeper of Baxter’s flame. She will have a room in the building to honor his legacy with a permanent exhibition.

“Take good care of the building,” Bolden said to the construction crew as she passed them by.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations to the chorus. It is wonderful that they have a new facility. However, I totally disagree that the chorus should prioritize academics over musical excellence. This is where the chorus lost its way. The world doesn’t need another average prep school, but does need a world-class musical institution. Also, ‘back in the day’ there were numerous Asian, Hispanic and White choristers. Not so much anymore, which is a shame. The chorus used to be a TITAN of musicality. Some of us (former members) wish it could return to its former glory. It is a shell of what it used to be and could be.

  2. Former alumni from when it all started.As the nj symphony boys choir. I was eight years old,taking the bus to the oldest church in newark.I looked up Jim Mccarthy was happy to see his face.hear his vioce.he was so demanding, but man was he the real deal.he made us great!!! I saw him talking about the movie he wanted to make.Sure would love to find out if that ever took place.

  3. I’m an NBCS alum, Class of 1980. The academic curriculum I got during my four years @ NBCS prepared me for the tremendously challenging academics that my high school and college presented me. The musical leadership, instruction, and direction we received under the incomparable Terrence Shook was amazing, unmatched. We had the best of both worlds – great education and world-class reputation as a musical choir in par with the Harlem Boys Choir. I would not change one thing about that experience. Newark Boys Chorus attendees can do it all – no need to limit future generations to just musical or educational pursuits.

    PS: I share disappointment at the loss of our non-African American brothers at NBCS. But this could simply be a reflection of the demographic shift in the Newark/Essex County/Northern NJ region. As when I grew up in Newark in the 1970s, the city population looked like me and family, predominantly African-American. I love seeing all the handsome black, brown, and other faces on the NBCS mailers I receive. Our diversity was our strength during my four years. I hope we don’t lose that permanently. But even if we do, we will always remain a great, world-renowned institution.

  4. This email about the NBCS having a home in a “real” school has made my day. The NBCS has gone through so many challenges but thank God, has only grown stronger from them. As a former PTA president, Board member and CEO of the school, I am truly excited about the next chapter.

  5. I hope that they will be happy with the new location. I used to work in that building from 1986 to 1996 when it was the Newark Public School system’s Audio- Visual Center, which was on the 1st floor. I’m glad that I did a video project of my former department before it was closed down. We were downstairs and upstairs was the district’s former Art Department headquarters.
    I also have some memories of the NBCS when they were in the recruitment process back in the late 1960s. How I envied the boys from the original group of students that were picked from my elementary school when I found out that it was only boys wanted for the chorus school. Some of my former schoolmates were even on TV in a Christmas program not long after the school was established.

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