September 23, 2020

‘Freeholder,’ Title ‘Born From Racism,’ to Be Eliminated

The office of freeholder is unique to New Jersey, a title for politicians elected to one of the state’s 21 county legislative boards.

It dates back to New Jersey’s original Constitution of 1776, meaning those who had some form of an estate and at least “50 pounds of proclamation money.”

It also harkens back to a time when only white, male landowners could hold public office.

On Thursday, in the midst of a national reckoning over racial injustice and symbols of hate, Gov. Philip D. Murphy and the two Democratic leaders of the State Legislature announced that it was time to eliminate the word — and to instead call county elected leaders “commissioners.”

Under a proposed bill, the Board of Chosen Freeholders would instead be called the Chosen Board of County Commissioners.

“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism,” Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, said in a joint statement with Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate president, and Craig J. Coughlin, the Assembly speaker. “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.”

Support from the three top Democratic lawmakers in the state means that the bill, which is scheduled to be considered next Thursday by a Senate committee, is virtually certain to pass and become law.

“It is important that we erase the terminology that reflects racist attitudes in order to eliminate the vestiges of discriminatory practices,” Mr. Sweeney — who was once a freeholder in Gloucester County — said in a statement. “Let’s catch up with the rest of the world and call these officials who serve in public positions ‘commissioners’.”

A freeholder from Union County, Angela R. Garretson, had repeatedly urged the governor to rename the office — most recently on Thursday, at an event at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, N.J., a city where she was once mayor.

“It’s a very outmoded and outdated term,” said Ms. Garretson, who is African-American, “and it really doesn’t reflect our 21st-century ideals.”

She said she believed it was important for the title to accurately reflect the diversity of people who run for office today.

The simplicity of the new name — commissioner — will also lead to less confusion among voters, she said. “This is about breaking down barriers that have been in place for so many years.”

New Jersey’s legislative initiative comes as the discussion about the removal of symbols of hatred has intensified following nationwide protests over the killing in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.

The scope of the national debate over the appropriateness of statues or monuments has expanded rapidly beyond its original focus on Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee.

Last month in Portland, Ore., a crowd set fire to a statue of George Washington in Portland, Ore., and gunfire broke out during a protest in Albuquerque to demand the removal of a statue of Juan de Oñate, the despotic conquistador of New Mexico.

In many places, the response has been swift.

In New York, the American Museum of Natural History announced last month that it would remove a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, depicted astride a horse flanked by an African man and a Native American man, which had stood since 1940 outside the museum and had long been criticized as a symbol of colonialism and racism.

NASCAR said that it would ban the Confederate battle flag from its events and properties.

In New Jersey, Mr. Murphy gave up a desk used by Woodrow Wilson soon after Princeton University decided to remove the name of its onetime president from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges because of his “racist thinking and policies,” a statement from the university president said.

Few people outside New Jersey are familiar with the word “freeholder,” and the term was the subject of endless questions, said Ms. Garretson, who joined the freeholder board three years ago. With each answer, came a reminder of the word’s origin.

“Whether you were a woman, whether you were a person of color — this title didn’t fit,” she said.

John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said the title was so commonly misunderstood that freeholders would jokingly say they were members of the “Board of Frozen Cheeseholders.”

He said the confusion was more than just a matter of semantics.

“It’s one of those things that just separates random voters from people on the inside in a totally unnecessary way,” Mr. Weingart said. “Most people don’t have even the vaguest idea what county does to begin with, and this makes it slightly more mysterious.”

Jerry Walker, a Black freeholder from Hudson County, said the title not only excluded Black people but women as well. “Our country is moving forward,” he said, “and this is a great opportunity to change the narrative with titles that don’t bear that history.”