UNION, NJ — The Rev. Russell Charles Block, a 90-year-old resident of Union County, was recognized on Thursday, Nov. 12, with a township of Union proclamation recognizing his contributions to the community’s social progress during the civil rights era. That social progress earned the township the National Civic League’s All-America City award in 1977.
“I was the associate pastor of the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church in Union for eight years, from 1965 to 1973, which was the height of the civil rights era,” Block said on Friday, Nov. 13. “That was a very turbulent time in our country, following the marches in Washington and Selma. The Union Council of Congregations was formed between myself, the Rev. Nancy Forsberg, who was at United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Elmer Williams, who was the then pastor of the First Baptist Church of Vauxhall.”
Forsberg later became the pastor of the United Church of Christ in Union in 1967, where she served until her retirement in 2000; she died on April 8, 2008. Williams, who died in 1990, became the pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Pittsburgh in June 1968.
“In 1967, there were riots in Newark, Plainfield and other areas. There was a lot of trouble in the area,” Block continued. “Many other towns around the country expressed black outrage at racial injustice, mirrored in our time by the Black Lives Matter movement. But Union remained peaceful during that time, because the congregations were all helping each other keep the peace and increase understanding between them. Some things have changed, but underlying racism remains in many forms and degrees, unfortunately.”
Nancy Block, the reverend’s wife, agreed that it was a very turbulent period.
“Supporting integration in those days was very unpopular with many white people, bringing racism and tension,” said Nancy Block. “But Union Township remained peaceful, thanks in great measure to the coming together of the houses of worship represented in the Union Council of Congregations, which my husband spearheaded along with the Rev. Nancy Forsberg of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Elmer Williams of the First Baptist Church of Vauxhall and other people of goodwill.
“Progress was made in interracial and interfaith community relations and services over the eight years we lived in Union, and this was recognized in 1977, when the National Civic League awarded Union Township the designation of All-America City. The league may have had a different title then but is still very active in presenting these awards.”
The reverend had other items on his ministry’s agenda in those days, as well.
“Another prime focus of my ministry was my long-term service on the board of the Elizabethport Presbyterian Center, of which I was president for nearly 40 years,” said the Rev. Block. “That institution, founded in 1965 and originally led by the Rev. Joseph Garlic, kept the peace there in 1967 and was the source of change which transformed the ‘Port’ from a dismal and dangerous place to an attractive, healthy neighborhood.”
The Rev. Block never wavered in his support for integration.
“We were also involved in the implementation of the anti-poverty program called Head Start preschool programs,” he said.
According to the proclamation, in addition to Head Start, the signing of the anti-poverty legislation by President Lyndon B. Johnson and collaboration with townspeople fostered a senior center and brought an Overlook Hospital extension health clinic to Vauxhall. When the U.S. Department of Justice cited Union Township for de jure segregation of its school system, the Rev. Block supported the formation of Central Sixth Jefferson School, where his eldest son, Ken, was a member of the first class to ride the bus to school. The school is today known as Central Five Jefferson School, as it now goes to fifth grade, not sixth grade.
“I also supported the integration of schools,” the Rev. Block said. “The schools were segregated back then. Jefferson School in Vauxhall had all black children attending the school. Most of the other schools were mostly white. So, during that time, the government told us we had to integrate our schools. That was done, and I supported that effort.”
“Some of the white parents were resisting the integration, but they eventually formed Central Sixth Jefferson School,” said Nancy Block. “Our older son was one of the first kids to ride the bus to Central Sixth Jefferson School. Of course, what they had to do in Vauxhall was bus their little kids out. The kindergartners had to be bused out of Vauxhall in order to integrate, but they didn’t complain. It was some of the white parents that were complaining of busing their kids to Central Sixth. That was done, and the government was satisfied.”
The Rev. Block also established the Ecumenical Theater of Union and managed it for five years, producing dramas for religious gatherings of all kinds, spreading the spirit of interracial and interfaith reconciliation.
“I think he enjoyed the theater work especially,” said Nancy Block. “He established this theater group, which included people of faiths or no faith, whoever wanted to join, and they put on these dramas for further interracial and interfaith understanding. They were able to put on their plays in New York City, Pennsylvania and all over northern New Jersey, which furthered their mission.
“I’m very pleased and I’m happy he’s had this recognition as he turns 90.”
The reverend agreed that times were sometimes difficult but that, in the end, it was all worthwhile.
“Sometimes, it was very difficult, but generally, it was satisfying,” the Rev. Block said. “I feel satisfied with how far I’ve come, and it’s been an interesting career. I’ve gotten to know various individuals and families throughout those years. I also had to learn how to manage or help individuals, or families, with problems, and I was well-educated through those experiences, which I am very happy about. There was a lot of counseling involved.
“Those years were rather exciting, you might say, because of all the unrest and the accomplishment of goodwill that was part of the mission, to bring people together in the community, to overcome some of the tensions of that time.”
Being recognized, he said, is “very gratifying. It makes me very happy, because we went through a lot during those years. Being a peacemaker wasn’t always appreciated by people, so we had to deal with quite a lot of unpleasantness at times by supporting integration.”
The township’s proclamation, the reverend said, “feels wonderful. I’m thankful to the township for their help, support and encouragement.”
Photo Courtesy of Nancy Block