From public art to police oversight, N.J. looks to right its racist past

By: - August 4, 2021 7:05 am

Photographs on a wall in the Statehouse celebrate largely the white men of New Jersey history. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo)

New Jersey may not be the first state that springs to mind when considering the history of slavery and systemic racism. But the ugliness emerges after even a cursory probe into the past.

The Garden State was the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery, initially rejecting the Thirteenth Amendment. Perth Amboy was one of the busiest slave ports on the East Coast. And the Great Emancipator? Abe Lincoln lost the popular vote here – twice.

Today, largely due to protests over police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, lawmakers here, like everywhere else, are navigating a racial reckoning, and proposing remedies to right the state’s racial wrongs.

Some have already passed. Gov. Murphy last fall declared Juneteenth a state holiday. In March, he signed into law a bill that requires New Jersey’s schools, starting this fall, to teach diversity, inclusion, and equality from kindergarten through 12th grade. And lawmakers last year officially designated Cape May’s historic Howell House as the Harriet Tubman Museum.

There are plenty more proposed bills in the pipeline, addressing everything from reparations to police oversight to statues and seals.

Lawrence Hamm, founder and chairman of the Newark-based grassroots group People’s Organization for Progress, applauded such measures. People have been demanding changes for decades, Hamm said, adding that advocates hope now that the consciousness of much of the nation has changed, policy changes will follow.

But, he added, “we need more than marches.”

“Your job as a legislator is to make the laws that we’re protesting for, and there’s been a lot of speeches and bills introduced, but the bills are not becoming laws,” Hamm said. “That smacks of hypocrisy to me.”

Below are some of the initiatives lawmakers say will help New Jersey atone for its racist past and begin to ease the lasting inequities it caused. The Legislature has a narrow window, starting in November, to act on them before a new session begins in January.


Lawmakers are mulling a bill that would create a Reparations Task Force. Members would spend two years studying the history of slavery and recommending policies to address its lingering harm, which could include compensating descendants.

If the bill passes, New Jersey would become the second state in the U.S. to create a reparations task force. California was the first.

“We see the legacy of slavery today in New Jersey through red-lining and other issues,” said Henal Patel, director of the Democracy & Justice Program at the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which is championing the bill. “New Jersey has the worst disparity rates in incarceration in the country, where a Black juvenile is 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white juvenile, and 61% of the adults incarcerated are Black.”

The racial wealth gap is stark, she added. A recent study by Patel’s institute found the median net worth of a white person is $106,210, compared to $179 for a Black or Latino person.

“These numbers show the cracks structural racism and oppression have created in our foundation,” Patel said. “They were created by structural and policy design. So it’s important then that they have to be repaired by design.”

Police oversight

One bill under review now would create local civilian review boards to review police operations and conduct. The boards would have subpoena powers, which reformers regard as critical to their watchdog role.

Criminologists have found that people of color are disproportionately impacted by police brutality, with one study finding Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed than white men over the course of their lifetimes.

Another bill in committee, dubbed “George Floyd’s Law,” bans the use of chokeholds by any law enforcement in New Jersey. Several lawmakers also want to make police disciplinary records public.

Reformers worry police unions will foil many of these measures.

“The police are not only a paramilitary force – they’re a political force,” Hamm said. “They’re helping to shape laws that govern their behavior.”

Police unions have tried to block even minimal disclosures about police discipline. They sued then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year after Grewal ordered the release of names of officers who have been subject to major discipline. The unions lost after the state Supreme Court ruled in Grewal’s favor.

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State PBA, said at the time, “The NJSPBA does not and will not protect bad officers who violate the public trust and, yet, the 99.9% of good men and women serving in law enforcement continue to find themselves under attack.”


For 133 years, the statues representing New Jersey in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., have been two white guys. For Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), that’s many decades too long.

Murphy is one of several lawmakers who say a marble statue of Richard Stockton and a bronze statue of Philip Kearny don’t accurately represent the diversity of a state where women outnumber men and people of color account for almost a third of its 9.3 million residents. Besides, Stockton owned slaves, critics point out. (Even Stockton University removed a statue of its namesake in response to backlash.)

Murphy’s bill would replace the two with statues of Harriet Tubman and suffragist Alice Paul, a Burlington County native.

“Football teams and baseball teams change their uniforms and their symbols throughout their existence. Why can’t New Jersey change too, after 100 years?” said Murphy, a board member at the Alice Paul Institute in Mount Laurel.

Murphy also has proposed requiring representation of Paul in the Statehouse (where portraits of white men line the walls of many corridors), and creating a task force to reexamine the state seal, which features two white women and was created in 1777.

“The state has significantly changed since that time, and some believe that the state seal no longer provides an accurate representation of the state,” the bill reads.

Black history

A bill that has passed through several committees would establish a Black Heritage Trail and create a New Jersey Black Cultural and Heritage Commission. Markers would go up at locations of historical significance and public programs to educate the public about Black history in New Jersey would be created.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.