New Jersey freeholders say the time has come

TRENTON, NJ — New Jersey’s black county elected officials stand united to remove the term “freeholder” from the state’s governmental and political lexicon. The state’s 19 black freeholders together established an alliance that will address key issues and needs of black communities within their counties and the state.

“The origin of the title runs afoul of the ideals for equality and the fulfillment of human potential for all people. We join many who condemn the centuries-old state law that was born out of a period in which exclusivity, misogyny, racism and privilege reigned. As that period of our history has ended, so too must the title ‘freeholder’ come to an end,” the officials said in a joint statement.

New Jersey’s 19 black freeholders who issued this statement are: Kenneth Armwood of Middlesex County; Ashley Bennett of Atlantic County; T.J. Best of Passaic County; Tyshammie Cooper of Essex County; Ernest Coursey of Atlantic County; Samuel Frisby Sr. of Mercer County; Angela Garretson of Union County; Romaine Graham of Essex County; Barbara Holcomb of Camden County; Felicia Hopson of Burlington County; Jim Jefferson of Gloucester County; Rufus Johnson of Essex County; Wayne Richardson of Essex County; Shanel Robinson of Somerset County; Andrea Staten of Union County; Jack Surrency of Cumberland County; Jerry Walker of Hudson County; Rebecca Williams of Union County; and Jonathan Young Sr. of Camden County.

“As the opposition may argue, changing the name is indeed symbolic. The change itself symbolizes who we are and what we believe in as a people. Not only is New Jersey the last, and only state to use this offensive term, but we must not forget that our state was the last of the northern states to abolish slavery,” they said. “Making the change right now is a symbol of our evolution. Resistance to this important change is a symbol that there is a dismissal of the role that symbolic acts have played in making historic, systemic change. This sentiment has no room among our political landscape.”

Gov. Phil Murphy announced July 9 that he supports legislation that would change the name of county elected officials from “freeholder” to “county commissioner.” Murphy called for the change in terminology along with state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

“Every effort made by the governor, lieutenant governor, Senate president — the latter two are both former freeholders, the Assembly speaker and the many other elected officials and supporters of this change is invaluable,” the state’s black freeholders said. “Any attempt to make this issue a ‘political football’ against the governor is an insult and ignores the incredible impact of this moment. Removing the offensive and outdated term of ‘freeholder’ is one big step in the right direction. The time has come to do what is right.”

On July 20, the Assembly Judiciary Committee advanced legislation A-3594 to change “freeholder” to “county Commissioner.” The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Andrew Zwicker and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Assembly Republican BettyLou DeCroce. 

“It is beyond time we change the title of freeholder,” said Zwicker, who represents parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties. “As a term dating back to before the Revolutionary War, whose meaning was historically intended to keep county-level office restricted to white, male, debt-free property owners, it is not only outdated and archaic, but it is offensive to people of color and women.

“Our racist and sexist laws and conditions historically kept people from voting, owning land and much more,” he continued. “Removing from New Jersey’s political titles this exclusionary term, while only a small and symbolic part of the work that lies ahead of us to break down the walls of systemic racism and sexism, is a step in the right direction.”

Under the bill, the title of “chosen freeholder” and “boards of chosen freeholders” would be renamed to “county commissioner” and “boards of county commissioners,” respectively.

“Removing vestiges of racism and sexism found in names or titles that have no place in our society today is an important step among many needed to bring an end to systemic bias,” said Reynolds-Jackson, who represents parts of Hunterdon and Mercer counties.  “‘Freeholder was never an effective title for the county public office holder. For persons of color, it was more of a reminder of the sordid and oppressive ideals of its Colonial-era origins. It’s time to end the confusing and hurtful conversation surrounding the term freeholder and rename the position.”

Counties would also be required to update their letterheads, stationery and other writings, as well as websites, to reflect the title change within a year of the bill becoming effective. The update or replacement of signs or other writings would not be required within the bill’s timeframe if doing so requires the use of county funds. These changes would, however, need to occur during the ordinary course of business.

The bill now goes to the speaker for further consideration.