Coming to NJ: Black families share their stories

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Four different people from four different places.

Each shared their story about how their family came to New Jersey, and how they came to live in the South Orange Maplewood community.

“Coming to Jersey: Black Families Share Their Stories” was presented on Feb. 11 at The Woodland Parlor. It was presented by the SOMA Community Coalition on Race in   collaboration with Durand-Hedden House, and hosted by Audrey Rowe, program director. A reception at the Durand Hedden House followed the event.

“Story telling is something that connects us,” she said.

The four speakers were Mikki Murphy from South Orange, Leeroy Moyo, from Maplewood, Luis Estrella from Maplewood, and Nettie Thomas, from Maplewood.
Murphy was born in Louisiana and lived for a year in New York City before moving to Teaneck in 1961.

“We were part of the Great Migration,” she said. “Our reasons for leaving the south were part of a larger narrative.”

Her maternal and paternal grandparents came from Africa. In 1972 her father, a World War II veteran, and a scientist, took the family to see Europe and Africa.

“He wanted us to embrace our heritage,” Murphy said.

Living in South Orange for almost 31 years has been “a joy” for Murphy.

“I’m a Jersey girl,” she said. “I can’t imagine leaving South Orange.”

Moyo was from Zimbabwe. He graduated medical school in 2004 but the economic situation in that country made it difficult to survive. In 2005, Zimbabwe was ranked among the world’s worst performing economies by the World Economic Forum.

After living in several other areas, Moyo said he and his wife found Maplewood and South Orange.

“The story for Black struggles is similar all around the world,” he said.

Thomas has lived in New Jersey since she was 3-years-old. “It’s the only place I know,” she said.

Her parents left the south for Washington D.C. Her father had a job with the U.S. Treasury Department, burning money that was no longer in circulation. They later ended up in New Jersey.

She grew up in a Belleville neighborhood with people of mostly Polish and Italian heritage and few black families, though Thomas felt her neighbors were “very embracing.”

“In all my educational life I was always the only Black child,” she said. “I never had a Black teacher.”

When Thomas first began teaching art, she went to Newark to teach “so Black students could see a Black teacher.”

After retiring, Thomas pursued an art career in Maplewood. She’s involved with the 1978 Maplewood Arts Center.

“I try to make it my goal to bring renowned artists,” she said. “We’ve had artists you read about in art books.”

Estrella introduced himself saying, “I’m a poet, first and foremost” and shared a poem in Spanish, then translated to English.

It began, “All of our movements create a new path to cross.” Estrella is Dominican and spoke of his family’s history in the Dominican Republic.

“Our history in that country is complicated,” he said. “We’re taught to hate the skin color we’re born in and embrace the other. ‘White is right.’”

He shared the story of his great-grandfather, born in 1921, who dedicated his life to providing opportunity to the family. His great-grandfather’s motto was “Always think about tomorrow.”

“It made me feel I owe it to him to create opportunities,” he said. “I could stand on my own thanks to my great-grandfather.”

In 2012, living in New York City, he was beaten by police.

“No matter how much education you have, it’s what they see on the outside,” he said.

Inspired by his great-grandfather, he got his real estate license and began looking for a place in New Jersey.

“My wife was the pull to bring me into New Jersey,” he said. “She said, ‘Clearly you can’t be in New York. There are Dominicans in New Jersey.’”

He was finding comfort in Jersey City when his wife became pregnant. “It’s a nice place, but not for raising a family,” he said. They came to Maplewood and created a home here.

Estrella said Maplewood is “an amazing community.”

For additional information on the SOMA Community Coalition on Race, visit: