County recognizes ‘Essex Five’ for Black History Month

Photo Courtesy of Essex County
At the county’s Feb. 15 celebration of Black History Month are, from left, Montclair NAACP Branch President Albert Pelham, Newark NAACP Branch President Deborah Smith-Gregory, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Urban League of Essex County Executive Director Vivian Cox Fraser, Oranges-Maplewood NAACP Branch President Tom Puryear and Irvington NAACP Branch President Thurman Dancy.

NEWARK, NJ — On Friday, Feb. 15, at the county’s 16th annual Black History Month celebration, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. presented Essex County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards to the NAACP Chapters in Essex County — Oranges-Maplewood, Newark, Montclair and Irvington — and the Urban League of Essex County. Known as the “Essex Five,” these organizations have a legacy of supporting civil rights, equality and justice, advocacy on behalf of residents, and working cooperatively to promote education, housing and opportunity for all people.

“African American History Month is a special time of the year when we highlight the many contributions and achievements African Americans have made to our culture, economy and daily lives throughout our history,” DiVincenzo said. “The four NAACP branches in Essex County and the Urban League have been representing the people of Essex County for a century. They have protested discrimination, advocated for better educational opportunities and fought for fairness in the workforce. With the coalition they have created, the ‘Essex Five’ continue to make a positive impact in the development of our communities.”

The Oranges-Maplewood branch of the NAACP was formed in 1913, three years after the national organization was formed, making it the first local branch formed in New Jersey. It currently represents Orange, East Orange, West Orange, South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn, Livingston, Bloomfield, Belleville, Nutley and Verona. In the early years after its founding, the Oranges-Maplewood Branch overcame intimidation to continue its mission. It was involved in the 1930s closing of the East Orange High School swimming pool, which was not integrated; in a 1947 ruling in the East Orange Veterans Housing case that concluded segregation was discriminatory; and in a 1963 case declaring segregation in the Orange Public School District was illegal. In recent years, the branch launched Cafe 5000, a monthly meal program to benefit local residents, and initiated the Afro Academic Cultural Technological Scientific Olympics.

“We are very pleased to have our coalition recognized. It allows us to continue to meet the needs of our municipalities,” said Tom Puryear, president of the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP branch.

The Newark Branch of the NAACP was formed in 1914 and is the largest branch in the state. It hosts a variety of forums to educate the community about the political process on the local, county, state and national levels and encourage greater voter participation at the polls.

“I want to thank the county executive for acknowledging our work. It shows that we are working and people are taking notice. We all have to work together and go outside of our personal silos. Creating the coalition has re-energized us to deal with issues affecting Essex County,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP branch.

The Montclair Branch of the NAACP was formed in 1916 when local residents came together to protest discrimination in their community. In the 1960s, the branch helped lead a three-day boycott of the public schools; this began the process to desegregate the district and took legal action to correct racial balance in the schools. It has organized SAT prep classes, a Youth Speak-Out Forum for young people to share their concerns about social issues and hosts an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. The branch has been a staunch advocate for youth and has created a Youth Council at Montclair High School and college division at Montclair State University.

“If you pick up the paper, it is easy to see that our country is divided. Because of our coalition, our branches can have an impact on what happens right here in our towns and county. The bottom line is that we are committed to making Essex the best it can be,” said Albert Pelham, president of the Montclair NAACP branch.

The Irvington Branch of the NAACP was formed in 1981. Its efforts have included raising awareness about the importance of voting, encouraging participation in the political process, and advocating to improve the community and conditions for all people. Its dedication and hard work was recognized in 2010 when it received the Outstanding Branch Award during the NJ State NAACP Conference Convention and continues today with its ongoing commitment to the community.

“I was born during Jim Crow in North Carolina. I know what the NAACP stands for and its mission. We have come a long way, but there still is a long road ahead of us,” said Thurman Dancy, president of the Irvington NAACP branch.

The Urban League is celebrating its 100th anniversary. It was formed to provide equal opportunities for employment in factories that were located along the Morris Canal. As the community and local industry changed, so did the league, working to place the first blacks and women in jobs at Western Union, Westinghouse and RCA, and then training individuals for employment in the service industry and white-collar roles at Prudential Financial and NJ Bell Telephone. The Urban League has continued to keep up with the needs of the community and now has transformed itself from a social services agency to a full-fledged community development corporation.

“It is an honor to partner with the NAACP and a pleasure to be part of our coalition. We have each made a great deal of progress individually, but together can continue our mission so there is economic equality,” said Vivian Cox Frasier, executive director of the Urban League of Essex County.