Home>Feature>On Juneteenth, the New Jersey Globe remembers Walter Gilbert Alexander, Hutchins Inge and Remay Pearce

The African Heritage Parade in Paterson, New Jersey on June 20, 2009. (Photo: Gov. Jon S. Corzine)

On Juneteenth, the New Jersey Globe remembers Walter Gilbert Alexander, Hutchins Inge and Remay Pearce

By David Wildstein, June 18 2021 7:54 am

New Jerseyans observe Juneteenth today for the first time, with state offices closed and many state workers getting the day off.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery.  It was on June 19, 1865, that soldiers of the Union Army brought word of the Emancipation Proclamation to slaves living in Texas.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in designating the state holiday in September, after the enabling legislation was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and Assembly with 53 sponsors and co-sponsors.

The bill passed the Assembly 62-0, with six legislators abstaining.  In the Senate, the bill was passed 35-3, with Christopher Connors (R-Lacey), James Holzapfel (R-Toms River), and Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest) voting no.

President Biden signed a bill on Thursday that designated Juneteenth as a federal holiday.  All fourteen members of the New Jersey Congressional delegation voted in support of the legislation.

In 2008, the New Jersey Legislature passed Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 270, which expressed the state’s “profound regret for its role in slavery and apologized for wrongs inflicted by slavery and its after effects in the United States.”

Sponsored by Assemblymen William Payne (D-Newark) and Craig Stanley (D-Irvington), the resolution passed the Assembly by a 59-8 vote and was approved by the Senate, 30-1.  Of the legislators who opposed the non-binding measure, three remain in office today: Brian Rumpf (R-Little Egg Harbor), Connors and Holzapfel.

The resolution said: “The Legislature of the State of New Jersey expresses its profound regret for the State’s role in slavery and apologizes for the wrongs inflicted by slavery and its after effects in the United States of America; expresses its deepest sympathies and solemn regrets to those who were enslaved and the descendants of those slaves, who were deprived of life, human dignity, and the constitutional accorded all citizens of the United States; and we encourage all citizens to remember and teach their children about the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and modern day slavery, to ensure that these tragedies will neither be forgotten nor repeated.”

As far back at 1704, the Province of New Jersey prohibited slaves or free Blacks from owning property. Slavery was not abolished in New Jersey until 1804, adopting a sort of “easy into it” strategy that the legislature employs to this day.  Still, there were sixteen New Jerseyans who continued to be enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation mandated their freedom in 1876.

Walter Gilbert Alexander

Walter Gilbert Alexander (R-Orange) was the first African American to serve in the New Jersey State Assembly.

New Jersey’s observance of Juneteenth comes 100 years after the first Black person won election to the New Jersey Legislature.

Walter Gilbert Alexander, the son of former slaves, won an Essex County State Assembly seat as a Republican in 1920.

The 40-year-old Alexander was born in Virginia and moved to Orange after finishing medical school.

He became involved in local politics, winning a seat as a Republican county committeeman in 1911.  He ran for the State Assembly in 1912 on Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) ticket.  Democrats swept all 12 Essex Assembly seats that year, but Alexander outpolled all the Republican candidates.

Alexander lost a bid for Orange City Commissioner in 1914.  In 1919, he became the first African American to win a major party nomination for the State Assembly.  He finished 23rd out of 24 candidates – Democrats took all 12 seats — but just 3,609 votes behind the low Democratic vote-getter, Assemblyman Michael Francis Judge.

Republicans took all 12 Essex Assembly seats in 1920; on the coattails of GOP presidential candidate Warren Harding, Republicans won a 59-1 majority.

Alexander received 101,524 votes, 54,305 more than the top Democratic vote-getter.  Still, he finished last of the 12 Republican candidates – the candidate who finished 11th outpolled Alexander by 4,841 votes.  Just 1,977 votes separated the top vote-getter from the 11th place finisher.

(Noteworthy: the 1920 Essex Republican slate also included the first two women to win election to the State Assembly.  They finished 10th and 9th, behind the nine white male candidates.)

He was re-elected to a second term in 1921, finishing 11th among the Essex Assembly candidates.  Democrat Howard Lambert unseated Assemblywoman Jennie Van Ness, one of the two women in the Legislature, by 888 votes.  Alexander outpolled Van Ness by 3,196 votes.

County chairmen from both parties in Essex had generally imposed term limits of two terms – that custom continued into the 1960s – so Alexander did not seek re-election in 1922.

Alexander later spent many years on the state Health Commission. He died in 1953.

Hutchins Inge

State Sen. Hutchins F. Inge (D-Newark) became the first African American to serve in the New Jersey State Senate in 1965.

A black would not serve in the New Jersey State Senate until 1965 when another physician, Democrat Hutchins Inge, ousted State Sen. Robert Sarcone (R-Newark) by 7,144 votes.

The opportunity for Inge, a first-time candidate, to run for the Senate came after the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decision increased the size of the Essex County Senate delegation from one seat to four.

Essex Republicans believed they had scored a candidate recruitment coup when they got William Tompkins to run for Senate.  Tompkins had been elected to the Assembly in 1948 and was President Dwight Eisenhower’s pick for U.S. Attorney in 1953.  He had founded one of New Jersey’s top law firms, Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld & Barry.  Both parties thought Tompkins would coast into the Senate.

Sarcone and Tompkins were joined on the Senate ticket by Assemblyman Irwin Kimmelman – who would later serve as state Attorney General under Gov. Tom Kean – and Newark funeral director James Churchman, who became the first African American to run as a Republican for State Senate.

Running on Inge’s ticket were former Newark municipal court judge Nicholas Fernicola, former West Orange municipal court judge Maclyn Goldman, and former freeholder John Giblin, a labor leader and the father of Assemblyman Thomas Giblin.

Inge was a last minute addition to the Democratic ticket. Essex County Democratic Chairman Dennis Carey wanted an African American to balance a ticket that included Irish, Italian and Jewish candidates. His first choice was Eulis “Honey” Ward, the Central Ward Democratic Chairman.  Ward appeared in a photograph of the ticket sent to several newspapers — but some last minute vetting by Democrats made them decide to pick another candidate after the filing deadline.

1965 turned out to be a Democratic year and with Gov. Richard Hughes carrying Essex County by nearly 70,000 votes, Democrats won all four Senate seats.  Tompkins finished last, almost 24,000 votes behind Inge.

Inge sought re-election to a second term in 1967 but lost when Republicans swept all six Essex Senate seats.

He moved to Massachusetts a couple of years after leaving the Senate and practiced medicine into his 90s.  He died in 2002 at age 101.

In 2009, legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora to commission a permanent memorial to Inge in the New Jersey statehouse was signed into law.

In 2009, legislation sponsored by then-Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) to commission a permanent memorial to Alexander and Inge in the New Jersey statehouse was signed into law.

Remay Pearce

Former Assemblywoman Remay Pearce (D-Newark). (Photo: New Jersey Office of Legislative Services.)

A former maid and the granddaughter of slaves, Remay Pearce served as an assemblywoman from Essex County for about seven weeks in 1979 and 1980.

In those days, when a seat in the legislature became vacant, it would remain empty until the next general election – even if the seat were about to expire.  That led to a few short-term legislative careers.

Pearce was born in Georgia and moved to New Jersey with her father, a construction worker, at age two following the death of her mother.  All four of her grandparents were slaves.

She briefly attended Weequahic High School and worked as a domestic servant before getting a job in the Newark Health Department.  Pearce became involved in local politics and was an ally of Mayor Gibson and a West Ward Democratic County Committeewoman.

While the 28th was hugely Democratic, Republicans still nominated a candidate to take on Pearce for a 10-week term in the State Assembly: Joseph Soriano, a 63-year-old retired newscaster for two North Jersey radio stations, WNJR and WBNX.

Pearce defeated Soriano by 3,381 votes, a 61%-39% margin.

Pearce was sworn in when the Assembly returned on November 19 and served until the end of Peter Shapiro’s term – he had been elected Essex County Executive in 1978 — on January 8, 1980.  She never ran for office again and died in 2007 at age 87.

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