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Assemblyman S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton) in 1968. Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

Trailblazer: Speaker S. Howard Woodson

First Black Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly

By David Wildstein, January 18 2021 12:04 am

Rev. S. Howard Woodson (1916-1999) was the first Black to serve as Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly.  He held the post in 1974 and 1975.

He was the first black to serve as a Speaker in any state since Reconstruction.

He was also the state’s first African American legislative leader when he became Assembly Minority Leader in 1968.

Woodson was a minister who moved to Trenton as pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church.  He became president of the Trenton NAACP, and the state NAACP in 1960.

He was elected to the Trenton City Council in 1962.

In 1964, Gov. Richard Hughes appointed Assemblyman Vincent Panaro to serve as the Mercer County Prosecutor.  Woodson ran in a November special election to fill the remaining fourteen months of Panaro’s Assembly seat. He defeated Republican Sydney Souter by 5,368 votes — a strong margin, but far less than Lyndon Johnson’s 31,904-vote margin over Barry Goldwater in Mercer County.

After three years in the Assembly, Democrats picked Woodson as their minority leader.  He held that post for two years.

Woodson’s departure — in those days, legislative leaders were held to just two year terms — led to a fight for the minority leader post between John Horn (D-Camden) and David Friedland (D-Jersey City).  Woodson backed Horn, who lost to Friedland by two votes.

When Democrats captured a razor-thin 40-39 majority in 1971 — independent Anthony Imperiale of Newark also won — Woodson emerged as the Democratic candidate for Speaker.  Horn was to be Majority Leader on Woodson’s ticket.

Woodson’s campaign for speaker ended when Friedland and three other Democrats made a deal to elect Republican Tom Kean the new Speaker.

Horn became the new Minority Leader.

In 1973, Democrats won 66 Assembly seats as part of the Watergate landslide.  Horn moved up to the Senate that year, and Woodson became the new Speaker.

Woodson served as Speaker for two years, succeeded by Bayonne’s Joseph LeFante in 1976.  His tenure coincided with the first two years of Brendan Byrne’s term as governor,

Byrne had called on the Legislature to adopt a $1 billion tax hike package that included the creation of a state income tax.

Woodson was re-elected six times with little difficult; his toughest race was in the 1975 Democratic primary when he defeated former Hamilton Township mayor Albert DeMartin by 2,185 votes.

He resigned from the Assembly in 1976 when when Byrne nominated him to serve in his cabinet as president of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.

Wooson died in 1999.

This story was first published on January 21, 2019.

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