MIDDLESEX COUNTY – The term “freeholder” hints at America’s Colonial-era structural racism and Kenneth Armwood is joining the call to have it stricken from the political vocabulary.
The deputy director of the Middlesex Board of Freeholders and 18 other Black board members from across the Garden State released a statement Friday calling for word to be removed in New Jersey – the last state to use it.
"I wholeheartedly endorse the removal of the antiquated title 'freeholder' and I support a more inclusive title that reflects the true historical contributions to the great state of New Jersey of people from all backgrounds,” said Armwood, a Piscataway native and Rutgers graduate, on a Facebook post.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced last week that he and other state leaders were going to lend their support to legislation that would do away with what he called an “outdated” term.
Murphy said he favors referring to elected officials who oversee county roads, bridges, schools and parks as commissioners – a term that is common across the country.
This isn’t the first time the subject of retiring the “freeholder” title has been raised. But the United States has undergone a racial reckoning after George Floyd died after he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer’s knee in Minnesota on May 25.
Since, schools named for presidents (Woodrow Wilson), statues erected for explorers (Christopher Columbus) and team nicknames (Washington Redskins) have come under more scrutiny than ever.
“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism," Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a joint statement. "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."
The statement released Friday by Armwood and the other black freeholders applauds the efforts of Murphy, Sweeney, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and other prominent New Jersey lawmakers. It also points out that Sweeney and Oliver are former freeholders.
“Any attempt to make this issue a political football against the Governor is an insult and ignores the incredible impact of this moment,” according to the statement. “Removing the offensive and outdated term of ‘freeholder’ is one big step in the right direction.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.”
Here is the entire statement:
“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