SOMERVILLE, NJ - Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson is one of 19 Black New Jersey Freeholders who say: "The Time Has Come." 

The group has signed a letter in support of an effort to have the archaic term, "freeholder." which has its origin in colonial America, to be replaced with the title "Commissioner."

The text of their letter follows:

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"New Jersey Black county elected officials who are currently known as ‘Freeholders’ stand united to remove this term from the state’s governmental and political lexicon.  We established an alliance that will address key issues and needs of black communities within our counties and state.

"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.  As that period of our history has ended, so too must the title ‘Freeholder’ come to an end.”

"As the opposition may argue, changing the name is indeed symbolic.  The change itself symbolizes who we are and what we believe in as a people.  Not only is New Jersey the last, and only state to use this offensive term, but we must not forget that our state was also the last of the northern states to abolish slavery. Making the change right now is a symbol of our evolution. 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.”

"That said, 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.  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 Removing the offensive and outdated term of ‘Freeholder’ is one big step in the right direction.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.”


New Jersey’s 19 Black Freeholders

Kenneth Armwood, Freeholder Deputy Director, Middlesex County
Ashley R. Bennett, Freeholder, Atlantic County
T.J. Best, Freeholder, Passaic County
Tyshammie L. Cooper, Freeholder, Essex County
Ernest D. Coursey, Freeholder, Atlantic County
Samuel T. Frisby Sr., Vice Chairman, Mercer County
Angela R. Garretson, Freeholder, Union County
Romaine Graham, Freeholder, Essex County
Barbara Holcomb, Freeholder, Camden County
Felicia Hopson, Freeholder Director, Burlington County
Jim Jefferson, Freeholder, Gloucester County
Rufus I. Johnson, Freeholder, Essex County
Wayne L. Richardson, Freeholder Vice-President, Essex County
Shanel Y. Robinson, Freeholder Director, Somerset County
Andrea Staten, Freeholder, Union County
Jack Surrency, Freeholder, Cumberland
Jerry Walker, Freeholder, Hudson County
Rebecca Williams, Freeholder, Union County 
Jonathan L. Young, Sr., Freeholder, Camden County

Garretson has been pushing for the change and broached the subject with Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney during an event at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside last week. 

Garretson, who among others has lobbied for the change in year’s past, also reportedly made the suggestion to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin recently.

Robinson, and Somerset County Deputy Freeholder Director Sara Sooy addressed the issue during the Freeholders Reorganization meeting in January, attended by Murphy, where he administered their oath of office.

“It is high time this name went into the dustbin of history and I'm very happy we're going to do it, I hope sooner than later,” Murphy said last week. 

Last Thursday, the state's three top Democrats issued a joint statement:

“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism. It’s past time for New Jersey to phase out the term ‘freeholder’ from our public discourse – a term coined when only white male landowners could hold public office. 

This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice.”

A proposed bill would alter the title from Board of Chosen Freeholders to the Chosen Board of County Commissioners. The bill is to be considered today by a Senate committee.

The centuries-old term "freeholder” derives from an old English term and harkens back to colonial America.

According to New Jersey's first constitution, adopted on July 2, 1776, two days before the Declaration of Independence, a county representative must be worth, “fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same and have resided in the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election."

At the time, African American slaves and women were not able to own property, and thus were prevented from holding public office.