All 19 of New Jersey’s black freeholders announced their support for a plan to phase out the title in favor of one that does not carry as troubled a history.
“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,” the 19 county officials said. “As that period of our history has ended, so too must the title ‘Freeholder’ come to an end.”
The term freeholder comes from old English and was used to refer to debt-free landowners in a time when only white men were allowed to own land.
Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin announced a plan that would see county legislators titled as “county commissioners.”
A Senate panel will take up the resolution on Thursday, though no Assembly hearing has been scheduled yet. The proposal has gained some bipartisan support and is expected to pass without much issue.
“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. Making the change right now is a symbol of our evolution,” the freeholders said. “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.”
The letter was signed by Atlantic Freeholders Ashley Bennett and Earnest Coursey, Middlesex Freeholder Kenneth Armwood, Camden Freeholders Barbara Holcomb and Jonathan Young, Passaic Freeholder T.J. Best, Somerset Freeholder Shanel Robinson, Mercer Freeholder Sam Frisby, Burlington Freeholder Felicia Hopson, Cumberland Freeholder Jack Surrency, Gloucester Freeholder Jim Jefferson and Hudson Freeholder Jerry Walker.
Four Essex County lawmakers—Romaine Graham, Rufus Johnson, Tyshammie Cooper and Wayne Richardson, also signed onto the measure, as did Union County Freeholders Rebecca Williams, Andrea Staten and Angela Garretson.
“Every effort made by the Governor, Lt. 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 19 officials 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.”