Walter Gilbert Alexander (1880-1953), the son of former slaves, was the first African American to serve in the New Jersey State Assembly.
A Republican, he was elected in 1920.
Alexander was born in Virginia in 1880. He went to college at age 16, then to medical school, and moved to Orange to start his practice.
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.
In 2009, legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora to commission a permanent memorial to Alexander in the New Jersey statehouse was signed into law.
This story was first published on January 21, 2019.