The oldest continuous school site in the United States and the first free school and public school building in New Jersey and Jersey City was on Lot No. 177, at the northeast corner of historic Bergen Square in the village of Bergen. The village began during Dutch rule of New Netherland and under Director-General Peter Stuyvesant, circa 1660-1662.
The concept for a free school was retained after the succession of English rule in 1665. In a charter of land and privileges to the Town and Freeholders of Bergen, Governor Philip Carteret of Colonial New Jersey included an insightful, if not historic, provision for the settlers: “. . . to lay out such a proportion of land for the keeping of a free school for the education of youth as they shall think fit; which land, once being laid out, is not to be alienated, but to remain and continue forever from one incumbent to another free from paying of rent or any other rate or tax whatsoever” (quoted in "The Bergen Columbia Academy," 1908).
There is some dispute on whether the school lot was dedicated in 1660 or 1668. There are claims that school was conducted in a 1664-built log cabin and that it was also used as a drunkards’ prison on the weekends until replaced by a school built in 1668.
According the historian Daniel Van Winkle, "The exact date of the first building on the school lot is not known, but in 1678 it was in much need of repair so it could not have been long declared" (New York Times 6 October 1910). It was most probably a log building that followed the instruction of children in the settlers’ homes for some time. Engelbert Steenhuysen was the first schoolmaster. The second school was built on the same lot in 1708 and probably remained under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church until the Revolutionary War. In 1790, the building was razed and replaced by a new two-story brown stone building with a cupola and named the Columbian Academy where Bergen Avenue and Academy Street now come together.
The Township of Bergen claimed jurisdiction over the Academy to meet the educational needs of the growing community. The Trustees of the Academy transferred the deed for the property to the Township in 1813. The following year, the New Jersey legislature approved the use of the Academy as a public school. In 1841, when the second Dutch Reformed Church was razed, the brass rooster weather cock/vane was placed on the school’s cupola. It operated until 1857 when the Academy was razed and the Town of Bergen built Columbia District School Number One on the "school lot." It became Public School No. 11 with the consolidation of the City of Bergen and Jersey City in 1870. The building was replaced in 1905 with a new and larger school on the same site at 886 Bergen Avenue.
In 1910, at the commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the founding of the village of Bergen, it was proposed that a statue of , Director-General of New Netherland, be placed in front of the school. The unveiling of the bronze statue took place on October 18, 1913. The inscription on the base read: "In the year of our Lord 1660, by permission of PETRUS STUYVESANT, Director-General, and the Council of New Netherland, around this Square, was founded and built the Village of BERGEN, the first permanent settlement in NEW JERSEY."
On October 3, 1966, a fire destroyed Public School No. 11. The new school designed by Comparetto & Kenny is the sixth school on the historic site and is named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader. A bronze bust of Dr. King by the Jersey City sculptor Archimedes Giancomantonio is in the lobby.
At the school's dedication on April 2, 1969, the statue of Peter Stuyvesant was placed near the entrance of the school. The pamphlet from the ceremony gives homage to the two men with whom the school is today associated: ". . . Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . like Peter Stuyvesant knew when to fight and when not to fight. Dr. King chose to wage his war by nonviolent means. Hopefully his followers will, as the Dutch settlers did, choose the peaceful way; and in this manner, assure to all peoples the benefits of the centuries of work and dedication which have continued on this site."
The statue of Stuyvesant was removed from the school site on February 5, 2010, amidst some controversy. It is now in storage at The Beacon, the former Jersey City Medical Center. There are plans for the statue to be restored and eventually be placed on a new base within historic Bergen Square.
"The Bergen Columbia Academy, 1908." Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.
"Bergen's Quaint Relics." New York Times 20 December 1896.
"City Urged to Preserve School's Historic Objects." Jersey Journal 6 October 1966.
"New Jersey: Laying the Corner Stone of a New Academy at Bergen; History of the Old Building." New York Times 29 July 1858.
Van Winkle, Daniel. "History of Bergen Village." Fourth Article. New York Times 6 October 1910.