Before Sheila Oliver takes the oath of office as the first black Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey tomorrow, she will attend an inaugural prayer service at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton. That’s a fitting tribute to the late Rev. S. Howard Woodson, the pastor of that church and the first Black Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly.
Another tribute to Woodson is that the incoming Governor, Phil Murphy, has assembled what is easily the most diverse administration in state history.
Essex County, Oliver’s home, was the trailblazing county for black candidates for public office in New Jersey.
The first black to win a seat in the New Jersey Legislature was Walter Gilbert Alexander, an Essex County Republican who was elected in 1920. The son of former slaves, he was born in Virginia in 1880, built a medical practice in Orange, and ran unsuccessful bid for State Assembly on Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912. He served two terms in the Assembly – in those days, the tradition was two terms and out – and went on to serve on the state Health Commission for many years.
It took 45 more years for a black to serve in the New Jersey Senate. That was Hutchins Inge, a 64-year-old Newark physician who was elected in 1965, after the Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decision gave Essex County four Senate seats. Essex County Democratic Chairman Dennis Carey wanted a black candidate on the ticket and had initially picked Newark Central Ward Chairman Eulis “Honey” Ward, but some part leaders balked at Ward and the squeaky-clean Inge was a last-minute replacement.
Gov. Richard Hughes won Essex by 70,000 votes that year, and the entire Democratic ticket won. One of Inge’s running mates was labor leader John Giblin, a former Freeholder whose son, Tom, now serves in the Assembly. Inge lost re-election in 1967 and died at age 101 in 2002.
Wynona Lipman became the first black woman to serve in the Senate when she defeated incumbent Milton Waldor by 908 votes in 1971. She served in the Senate until her death in 1999.
William Stubbs was the first black candidate to win a major party nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives. The longtime Newark Central Ward Republican Chairman, he lost to Rep. Joseph Minish (D-Essex) in the general election.
In 1988, Donald Payne, Sr. became the first black to win a congressional seat in New Jersey. He had twice challenged incumbent Peter Rodino in Democratic primaries (1980 and 1986) in a district that had a Black majority, but lost. He won when Rodino retired.
Oliver was also the first black Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly.
Essex is also the home of Kenneth Gibson, who became the first black Mayor of Newark when he ousted Hugh Addonizio in 1970. Gibson was also the first substantial Black candidate for Governor when he ran in 1981 and 1985, and the only Black Democrat to win a Democratic primary for Essex County Executive (against Jim Treffinger in 1998).
In 2013, one of Gibson’s successors, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, became the first black to win a United States Senate seat from New Jersey. He and Oliver are the only black candidates to run statewide on a major party ticket in a general election.
Hughes appointed the state’s first black cabinet member: Horace Bryant, Jr. was Commissioner of Banking and Insurance from 1969 to 1970. His daughter became an Atlantic County Freeholder and his cousin represented Camden County in the New Jersey Senate. His father was active in Atlantic City politics and served as the first Black Assembly Calendar Clerk in the 1970’s.
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman appointed the first black Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, James Coleman, in 1994. Peter Harvey became the first black Attorney General of New Jersey when he was nominated by Gov. James McGreevey in 2003.
Bonnie Watson Coleman is the first black woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was also the first black Democratic State Chair.