In many ways, the story of Juanita Collier is the story of Highland Park.
As she grew up, so did the town. She has lived for the past 55 years in a house barely 100 feet from the one in which she was born and grew up. In fact, except for a brief period in Newark after she married, and for a few years during college, she has lived her entire life in Highland Park. She has seen the fickle financial fortunes of main street, watched national storms of race relations, war, economics, and politics play themselves out locally, and witnessed the growth and changes of the borough as a whole.
A few weeks ago, she was honored by the Highland Park Borough Council and by the NAACP for her contributions to the community – or, as she modestly puts it, “for being a good girl.”
Juanita Malia Augustono was born 85 years ago, the youngest of four children in a house on South Seventh Avenue. At the time, the south side of the borough was the underdeveloped part of town, the place where laborers lived. The northside was the “Manor,” where the wealthy lived in larger homes.
A hard-working immigrant who came to the United States from Jamaica, Charles Moody-Augustono was a mason who worked on the State Theatre on Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. Like other black men in that age, he had to work doubly hard to support his family. Even the local trade unions turned him away because of his ethnicity.
“He was just a hard-working man,” she recalled. “He would travel anywhere for a job.”
He may have been a hard worker, but Charles MoodyAugustono also was a man with an eye on the future. As a girl, Mrs. Collier recalls the neighborhood she grew up in as “nothing but trees” and bushes, plus the garden her father tended. Their house was surrounded by vacant lots.
“One day he came home and told my mother, ‘I bought all that property,’” Mrs. Collier said.
The lots, which he bought from the borough for dollars numbered in the single digits, eventually grew into homes where his adult children could live. When the time came, Mrs. Collier’s sister lived across the street from her parents, her brother lived next door, and she lived behind.
Along with pragmatic skills such as knowing how to change tires – something he insisted each of his children learn before they got their licenses to drive – Mrs. Collier’s father also shared other skills with her, such as knitting.
“We didn’t have knitting needles, so he would take old ice picks and dull them down,” she said, “I’ve been knitting ever since.”
As a child, Mrs. Collier began her education at Irving Primary School before transferring to the former Lafayette School on South Second Avenue and Benner Street. After that it was Hamilton School for seventh and eighth grades.
If you don’t recognize the names of those schools, it’s because they’re not there anymore. The Lafayette School was converted to condominiums years ago. The Hamilton School, located on North Third Avenue, eventually became the site of The Center School.
If change is the one constant in life, and Mrs. Collier has seen a lot of constancy in the community she loves. The most visible change is the amount of development she has witnessed overtake the area. She remembers a Borough Hall on Raritan Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, upstairs from a drugstore; and the Fire Department sat on Second and Raritan avenues.
After she graduated from high school in 1946, Mrs. Collier’s dream was to become a research chemist. She worked for a year as a laboratory aide at the former E.R. Squibb, before she entered Virginia Union University in Richmond, where by 1951 she had earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics.
She returned to New Jersey, eager to get a job in her chosen field; but that soon proved easier to conceive than to achieve. In the 1950s, woman were presumed employable only until they married and had children. And even in the supposedly enlightened North, career advancement and professional jobs were tilted toward whites.
“I could not get a job. That was not the time for black women to be go looking for work as a chemist,” she said. “I had gone to at least 40 places looking for work. ‘We’ll keep your name on file.’ And you hear them, tearing it up as you leave, practically.”
Eventually Mrs. Collier did find work, as a file clerk, She strarted taking evening courses at Rutgers University in its graduate chemistry program. She eventually got a job as a chemist trainee in the U.S. Army Ordnance Laboratory at Raritan Arsenal. After six months she was promoted to “chemist analytical.’
She returned to E.R. Squibb as a “literature chemist,” then moved to Colgate Palmolive and finally to RCA Semiconductor Division. Each change brought with increased stature and higher pay.
To allow more time for her two children, Mrs. Collier resigned from her last position in industry and pursued a full-time graduate degree in Educational Media Technology, which she also earned from Rutgers University in 1973.
Like many parents, she’s proud of her children, if slightly amused at how her passion for science seems to have skipped a generation.
“Neither one of them was interested,” she said. She summed up their reactions to science this way: “’Oh mom, that’s nice,’ and zoom! Upstairs to watch TV.”
Mrs. Collier has remained active in her community as a lifelong member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in New Brunswick, where she served as junior choir director for 13 years, and now serves as church historian, among other responsibilities.
Highland Park has honored her with numerous awards and plaques. She serves on its Juvenile Conference Committee and has served on its Voter Registration, Planning and Preservation Committee, and Cultural Arts Commission.
“She has given so much to the community,” said Bruce Morgan, president of the New Brunswick Area Branch of the NAACP. “We look at the stars, and forget about the flowers at our feet,” said Mr. Morgan. I think that’s what it is with Mrs. Collier,” who in the opinion of her friends and family qualifies as both the star and flower in their lives and the quality of life of the Highland Park community.