Witcher recalls Jones’ place in civil rights struggle

Photo by Chris Sykes
Freeholder Lebby Jones smiles during East Orange Mayor Ted Green’s iftar outside East Orange City Hall in City Hall Plaza on Thursday, June 7. Jones died Wednesday, Jan. 9.

IRVINGTON, NJ — Prior to her death on Wednesday, Jan. 9, Essex County Freeholder Lebby Jones remarked that she was one of the last of a dying breed of Irvington elected officials and political and social activists who had worked with D. Bilal Beasley, her friend and political partner, former freeholder and Municipal Council president, to wrest power from the township’s previous white establishment by empowering the local black community.

“I come out of the civil rights movement,” said Jones, who helped co-found with Beasley the Team Irvington social and political organization that dominated the township’s politics and social scene for more than 20 years, on Monday, Sept. 24. “I don’t need the recognition, because I feel good about myself, but it is nice to be recognized for the hard work and dedication that I have put in serving my town and my community over the years. God has been very good to me. I have had a good life.”

Jones was present when Mayor Tony Vauss, the Municipal Council and Beasley’s surviving family members erected a statue in his honor in front of the Municipal Building and renamed Civic Square as D. Bilal Beasley Square on Saturday, Sept. 29. She said, during their time together, she had Beasley’s “back 100 percent” and was committed to keeping their shared legacy alive.

The Municipal Council voted unanimously to accept the statue from his surviving family members, who commissioned and paid for it.

“He was a good man. I loved him just like a brother. We were a team,” Jones said. “I’m the last person from that time that’s still around that knows the real history and the real story of how we took Irvington back. We were just truly committed, as friends and best friends, and I wanted to help him. We gave it to them, now it’s up to them to keep it.”

Kathleen Witcher, a former Team Irvington member, who served as former Irvington NAACP president and vice president, and on the Irvington Board of Education and Irvington Housing Authority Commission, is stepping forward with others to recall their struggles so their stories won’t be forgotten.

“My long history in Irvington started when there were many African-American homeowners moving to town,” said Witcher on Sunday, Jan. 13. “Mr. Ray Burgess and others would meet at the Irvington Manor in the late 1970s. Qadir D. Bilal Beasley was a family friend who knew about my parent’s political work in Newark. He accompanied me to political events and went on to become a South Ward district leader, followed by winning a council seat from Esther Schwarz, who was also a family friend. He insisted that we join the NAACP that was newly forming in Irvington.”

Witcher said the Irvington movement’s modest beginnings snowballed and grew to encompass Jones, Witcher and others, leading to election of former Mayor Mike Steel, the township’s first black mayor, and the political takeover of the Irvington BOE and the Irvington Housing Authority.

“In the late 1980s, Beasley sent Lebby Jones to have me accompany her to political meetings, where she met my mother, Wilnora Holman,” said Witcher. “Lebby would gain several political positions in Irvington and then became a county freeholder. So my work with Beasley and Lebby started before there was a Team Irvington.”

Now that both Jones and Beasley are dead, Witcher said the social, political and economic trail they blazed together will be left in the hands of the next generation, and it remains to be seen whether or not their successors will be able to finish what they started years ago.

“In July, Lebby questioned me about why it was so difficult for local officials to work against evictions due to home foreclosure,” said Witcher. “I was attending a county freeholders meeting. I told her what I thought — that some leaders today do not choose to listen and think that we are too old.”

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