Home>Trailblazer>Trailblazers: 11 Black politicians from New Jersey you should know about

Assemblyman Ronald Owens with his son in Trenton around 1968. (Photo: Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange).

Trailblazers: 11 Black politicians from New Jersey you should know about

By David Wildstein, January 16 2023 12:15 am

Dr. George E. Cannon (1869-1925) was a physician and New Jersey Black Republican leader from Jersey City who seconded the nomination of President Calvin Coolidge at the 1924 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.   He was the first Republican to win a statewide primary election after becoming the top vote-getter for delegate in the GOP primary.  Traditionally, the delegate candidate with the most votes became chair of the delegation, but Cannon relinquished the post to U.S. Senator Walter Edge in recognition of anti-lynching legislation that Edge had sponsored.   Cannon’s role at the Coolidge convention came despite his open criticism of the treatment of Blacks by President Warren Harding.  (At the convention that year, Republican National Committeeman Hamilton F. Kean, the future governor’s grandfather, escorted Black delegates onto the floor after a sergeant-at-arms refused to allow them to enter the convention hall.)

Guy R. Moorhead (1910-1999) became the first Black Democrat to win a seat in the New Jersey State Assembly when he was elected in 1936, at age 26.  Moorhead was a law student, the president of the Young Colored Democrats of New Jersey, and the first Black to play football for Upsala College.  Moorhead served one term in the legislature and served in the U.S. Army during World War II.  Later, he worked for the New Jersey Highway Authority and as the assistant district manager of the Social Security Administration’s Montclair office.

Charles A. Thomas (1934-2013) became the first Black to win one of 26 seats on the Cumberland County Board of Freeholders when he was elected in 1964 and served one term in a district that was comprised of Bridgeton’s second ward.  Boosted by the coattails of President Lyndon B. Johnson – he defeated Republican Barry Goldwater with 79% in the ward — and an independent pulling from Republican Stephen Stewart, Thomas won by a wide margin at age 30.  Cumberland Democrats picked up five freeholder seats in 1964 and reduced the GOP majority from 19-5 to 14-12.  After serving 28 years as the director of the Cumberland County Office of Employment and Training and as chairman of the county college board of trustees, Thomas won a 2011 special election convention to fill an unexpired term on the freeholder board.

James A. Curtis (1909-1970) became the first Black to hold countywide office in New Jersey when he was appointed to the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 1954.  Curtis, an attorney from Newark who won a State Assembly seat in 1947, replaced Freeholder Jacob Glickenhaus, who had been appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to serve as a U.S. District Court Judge.  In a November 1954 special election, Curtis was defeated by Rev. Raphus B. Means (1910-1985), the pastor of the Abyssinian Church in Newark.  By a margin of about 400 votes, Means became the first Black to win a countywide election in New Jersey.  Curtis won a rematch with Means in 1957, but his political career ended in 1960 when Essex GOP leaders declined to support him for re-election.

Edward T. Tolbert
(1930-1994) became the first Black to win public office in Ocean County in 1972 when he was elected to the Berkeley Township Committee.  A Republican, Tolbert became the first Black mayor in Ocean County on January 1, 1974.   He was elected to the Republican County Committee in 1956, Ocean County has never elected a Black candidate to the legislature or to countywide office.

Randy Primas (1949-2012) was elected as the first Black mayor of Camden in 1981.  He served two terms and then spent nearly three years in Gov. Jim Florio’s cabinet as the New Jersey Commissioner of Community Affairs.  He became Camden’s chief operating officer in 2002, just before the state took over the city’s government, and held that post until 2006.

William S. Hart, Sr. (1925-1999) was the first Black mayor of East Orange.  He was elected in 1969 and re-elected in 1973.  With the support of Newark’s first Black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, Hart sought the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 10th district in 1972 after the legislature created the state’s first Black majority House district.  But Hart lost to incumbent Peter W. Rodino, Jr. by a 57%-37% margin.   James W. Kelly, Jr., who served from 1958 to 1970, was the last white mayor of East Orange.  The last Republican mayor was William McConnell, who switched parties in 1977 at age 86 to back Thomas Cooke in his successful primary challenge to Hart.

Willie B. Brown (1940-2009) represented Newark in the New Jersey State Assembly from 1974 to 1998.  In 1985, Brown led the move for New Jersey to divest their state pension fund of all investments in companies doing business in South Africa in a bid to force the end of apartheid.  New Jersey became the first state to do so.  He became the second Black lawmaker to serve as Assembly Minority Leader in 1988, but when Democrats took control of the lower house in 1989, Brown was passed over and Joseph Doria (D-Bayonne) became Speaker.  He faced a tough primary in 1995 after endorsing Republican Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian for U.S. Senate against incumbent Frank Lautenberg one year earlier.  Brown had been nominated by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, but his nomination died after it was reported that he owed the City of Newark over $23,000 in unpaid water bills.  Instead, he made a late bid to keep his Assembly seat, but he won just 537 votes running off the line.  In 2001, Brown challenged State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) in the Democratic primary but lost by 986 votes.

Ronald Owens (1930-2005) served in the New Jersey State Assembly from 1966 to 1978 and was the first Black Speaker Pro-Tempore and the second Black to serve as acting governor.  A U.S. Army veteran, public school teacher and attorney, Owens served on the Newark Board of Education before winning an Assembly seat in 1965, the last year Essex elected assembly members in countywide, at-large elections.

Arnold E. Brown (born 1932) was the first Black assemblyman from Bergen County.  He was elected in 1965, on his second try, at age 33.  Democratic Gov. Richard Hughes carried Bergen County by 13 points when he ran for re-election in 1965, and Demcorats won 6 of 7 State Assembly seats. Brown finished fourth in a field of 20 candidates in a countywide, at-large election. As a young assemblyman, his legislative aide was Freedom Rider Byron Baer, who would later 34 years as a state senator and assemblyman.   After the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision necessitaed the drawing of individual legislative districts in 1967, Brown and incumbent Vito Albanese (D-Fort Lee) lost their seats by over 10,000 votes to Republicans Thomas Costa, a Bergen County freeholder, and Austin Volk, a former Englewood mayor.  Brown and State Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) are the only Black legislators from Bergen County.  Brown, an attorney who later ran a used book store in Englewood,  turns 90 in April.

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