Essex County commissioners celebrate African American Heritage Month

Essex County Commissioner President Wayne Richardson speaks at the commissioners’ 2021 African American Heritage Month celebration.

NEWARK, NJ — On Feb. 17, the Essex County Board of County Commissioners virtually held its 2021 African American Heritage Month celebration via Zoom. The ceremony commemorated the heritage, culture, resilience and spirit of the African American community, and acknowledged the contributions of Essex County’s African American residents. 

Commissioner President Wayne Richardson began the program with opening remarks speaking to the challenges of the past year — most notably the coronavirus pandemic and the rekindled call for all Americans to embrace the struggle for equality. He highlighted the board’s effort to provide relief for underserved communities of color through the provision of readily available COVID-19 testing and weekly food distribution events, as well as the board’s continued support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday.

This year, the board recognized four outstanding Essex County residents for their leadership: Ryan P. Haygood, of Newark; David Cummings, of Montclair; Harry Paden, of Irvington; and Deborah Davis Ford, of South Orange. 

Paden is the owner and CEO of HP Inc., a multifaceted consultation company. He is also on the Board of Directors for Westbridge Academy in Bloomfield and a member of the Irvington National Action Network. From a young age, he always knew the value of education. He ranked third in his graduating class from Central High School, and obtained his education pedigree from American University in Washington, D.C., and Princeton University. He is the author of “‘A Living Testimony’ How to Raise America’s Nightmare: Educated Children of Color” and “‘NOW YOU TELL ME!’ History/Facts Not Taught in ‘most’ Schools!” He is also the host and producer of a cable program called “The Irvington Now Show.” In addition to authoring books and hosting television shows that speak to the concerns of the black community, he is a former newspaper columnist and author of several columns, including “Knowledge is Power” in the Irvington Herald. He is the father of six children, grandfather of 22 and great-grandfather of eight. His most important achievement is raising two daughters as a single parent. He lives by the belief: “What the mind can conceive the body can achieve!”

Davis Ford currently serves as clerk for the Board of County Commissioners since being appointed on May 6, 2009. Prior to her time as clerk of the board, she was elected to serve on the South Orange Board of Trustees for 12 years. She has a rich history in civic service, including serving as the first black and female president of the Newark Rotary Club; serving on the executive board of North Jersey Jack & Jill; president of the Greater Newark Chamber Small Business Council; and chairperson of Partners in Education and Quality. She currently serves on the board of trustees of the Black Parents Workshop and Cinema Ed; and has previously served on the New Jersey Transit Advisory Board and the Cancer Care Advisory Board. She brings an impressive record of more than 20 years of corporate experience and success to her role as clerk, and is a respected professional in the field of personnel training and client management. In addition to her roles as a mother, wife and the family caregiver, she believes one of her greatest accomplishments is her dedication to community service.

Haygood is the president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and a nationally respected civil rights lawyer. He leads a team of racial justice advocates, the majority of whom are women of color, which seeks to build systems that create wealth, justice and power for blacks, Latinos and other people of color in New Jersey. Under his leadership, the NJISJ’s advocacy has led to the historic restoration of the vote to 83,000 people on parole and probation; automatic and online voter registration; ending prison-based gerrymandering for state legislative redistricting; $15 minimum wage; and the development of Newark 2020, a Newark initiative to connect 2,020 Newark residents to employment by 2020. Prior to leading the Institute, Haygood served as deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he worked for more than a decade. 

Cummings currently serves as the 4th Ward councilor on the Montclair Township Council. Prior to his time on the Township Council, he served as a member of the Montclair Board of Education; the Montclair Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee; the Montclair Civil Rights Commission; and as vice chairperson of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation. He is also the principal of DEK Strategies, a boutique consulting agency specializing in digital media and communications strategy. He attributes his success to the strong foundation of his childhood in Montclair and the Montclair Public School system. After graduating from high school, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. During his time there, he participated in a voting drive led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, which inspired him to cast his first vote for the late Sen. John Lewis. He also worked part-time with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the nonviolent civil rights group started by fellow Morehouse alumnus Martin Luther King Jr.