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Remembering Chessie Dentley Roberts

Chessie Dentley Roberts, a proud daughter of Chester and Mitchelrena Dentley, was a lifelong resident of Elizabeth and a product of the Elizabeth Public Schools. Experience convinced her mother that education was the most important asset anyone could have, which she instilled in Chessie.

Chessie graduated from Battin High School and, while a member of student council, was invited to attend a luncheon at the White House hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. She received her Bachelors of Science degree from Central State College, her Master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and her Certification in Supervision and Administration from Kean College, now known as Kean University.

Among those who supported and influenced she and her family were Dr. William H. Brown, Mr. Bravell Nesbitt, Attorney Leroy Jordan, and Dr. L. Greeley Brown who hired her to work for them after school and on weekends, as well as Rev. S. B. Nelson, pastor of Mt. Teman AME Church, who heard her in a debate at his church and suggested that she go to his college, Wilberforce University, which became Central State College and, ultimately, Central State University.

Chessie’s mother reminded her, almost daily, that she had to come back to Elizabeth and serve the community that had given her so much. Her first job after college was with the Urban League of Union County, under William M. Ashby, for which she acquired data to dispel the myth that African Americans could not pass the tests designed for office workers in corporate America and set up classes on how to prepare for and pass the tests being given at the corporations. She would later chair a program called “Celebrity Day” for the Urban League of Union County for which they saluted seniors who had consistently served others. Chessie also shared in the development of the desegregation plans for agencies of the United Way and cooperated with the Honorable Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to collect the necessary data to bring a suit against the City of Elizabeth to desegregate public housing.

At the time Chessie applied for a teaching position in Elizabeth, they only allowed African Americans to teach special education. She was told by an administrator that she would never get a job teaching general education in the district. Through her determination, she was eventually hired as a general education teacher and taught at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Bayway for 33 years, which included being the first African American business education teacher assigned to her school. She developed a working relationship between her classroom and the business community and worked with the job study program during the summer. Through her teaching career, she taught on the middle school and high school levels and was an adjunct professor at Union County College for three years.

Outside of her professional career, Chessie was appointed to the New Jersey State Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Commemorative Commission, where she shared in developing statewide observances, and co-chaired the Elizabeth Martin L. King, Jr. Commemorative Committee, assuming a leadership role for organizing the black community to raise funds to build a monument in honor of Dr. King. The monument for Dr. King was the first African-American monument placed on Freedom Trail in Scott Park in Elizabeth. Through her church, Mt. Teman AME, she worked with the 4-H program of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County and coordinated the placement and activities of Japanese Middle School students with African American families for six weeks during the summer.

While attending Columbia University, she was invited joined a program “Building Bridges of Understanding” sponsored by Metro International, a foundation that provided students from other countries with broad experiences that would enhance their understanding of new people they would meet. As part of the program, she volunteered to participate in field trips to Elizabeth, during which members of her church hosted, housed, and entertained ten to fifteen college students from other countries for the weekend. She continued to support those beyond our borders and barriers, volunteering at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA, and at the New York International Games in 1998.

Through years of service, Chessie was honored with various distinguished service awards. On February 26, 2020, Elizabeth Public Schools further cemented her legacy within the Elizabeth community by renaming its school building on 730 Pennsylvania Avenue Chessie Dentley Roberts Academy School No. 30. Generations of children to come will attend Chessie Dentley Roberts Academy School No. 30 and learn of her landmark contributions to the Elizabeth community and beyond.

She hoped her acts of service would continue to inspire her family friends, and community for a lifetime.