Elizabeth Public Library, July 12, 2014 1-3PM
P. H. Mattingly
2014 MARKS THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 1964 Civil Rights legislation in the United States of America. Except for the 1944 G.I Bill, one is hard pressed to think of a more significant piece of legislation in the 20th century. Close observers have noted the necessity of the 1964 legislation matched with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to form the essential constitutional phalanx that breached many of the racial barriers – north and south – that had endured for the first half of the 20th century. These constitutional break-throughs should not let us relax a national vigilance against ongoing racial prejudices. But these laws, however threatened by recent Supreme Court decisions, have become rooted in the public imagination and in voting patterns since the 1960s. Spurred on by national events like the 1963 March on Washington, these laws have come to represent a benchmark from which there is no turning back.1
As important as were these national turning points, leading up to them were a number of events that began with local dynamics entirely. One considers the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins and a host of unsung but courageous individuals who raised their hands in their communities to insist on another way. In Elizabeth NJ, to take one example, a number of individuals had made local inroads and had mustered momentum that rippled out into the counties and the regions of New Jersey. Our event today proposes to identify and discuss three of the many persons who distinguished themselves for their larger social vision and their private fortitude.
Stephen Sampson, born in Cuthbert Georgia in 1919, had served in the army during World War II. After his discharge, he did not return home immediately to his parents and 7 siblings. Instead, he sought out a young lady who had served in the Women’s Army Corps and who lived in Roselle, NJ. But during his army years he had been associated with several protests by African-Americans seeking improvement in conditions and treatment. He had experience in such activities and some successes. So in addition to his pursuit of a young lady, he cast about once in the Union County area for the local branch of the NAACP. That happened to be also the office of Granville Nesbitt, whose funeral home is still today situated at 165 Madison Avenue in Elizabeth. Together they planned a picket of Howard Johnson’s – on the present site of Daffy Dan’s on Route 1 & 9 – and sought to break down that organization’s racial barriers. If the result was less conclusive and constructive than they wished, the 1947 incident of 100 persons protesting peacefully at the restaurant was one of the first exercises in Elizabeth that later came to be called the Civil Rights Movement.
In an August, 2000 interview, Sampson elaborated on his motivations. He did not know until much later of A. Philip Randolph’s planned March on Washington in 1941 to protest restrictions to black labor in the burgeoning war industries. The federal government worried that a mass march would result in rioting and prompted the President (FDR) to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination in war industries, if the march was cancelled. Randolph cancelled the march and established a powerful precedent for the later civil rights organization: the protest was all black; its successful tactic was direct action, and its beneficiaries were the black working class.
Even before this 1941 benchmark, Sampson had his own personal awakening. His father, Press Sampson (b. 1880), had been a farmer all his life and every March went into town to purchase fertilizer for his fields. When Sampson was about 9, he went with his father and entered the general store. The proprietor behind the counter gave him no notice and went on with his conversation with several other white men. Sampson’s father stood quietly for the longest time. Finally Steve said to his father, “Let’s get out of here.” They walked out and his father took him aside to say “This is how it is in the South now. I hope it won’t be like this in your time.” From that time, Steve Sampson asserted, “I began to wonder how things might become different.” One of his uncles also had formed a local Georgia chapter of the NAACP and was very active. His example also spurred Steve’s imagination.
Before the army, Steve went to visit relatives in Orlando, Florida and there began his apprenticeship as a barber. “I have been barbering since I was 12,” he explained. “In a barber shop, everyone eventually comes in and everyone talks.” After the war, sometimes in the 1940s, Steve opened his own barbershop on the corner of Reid and East Grand streets in Elizabeth. By the 1960s he had amassed a considerable collection of books on African-American history, books that were not available in any of the local public libraries. As the school year began to cultivate Black History month in February, public school teachers would descend on his barbershop to borrow relevant books. The outflow was considerable and, as he admitted, “I began to lose some books.” A friendly bookseller supplied him with replacements and he continued his practice.
In addition, and as importantly, Sampson installed a voting machine in his barbershop and refused to cut anyone’s hair who would not learn how to operate the machine. He named his business, “Not Just a Barbershop.” Then he began teaching classes of 25-35 individuals in local churches to insure African-Americans would be familiar with the voting process. He also ran classes for the NAACP on West Grand in Elizabeth and did so for 35-40 years. Before long he and the NAACP approached Mayor Thomas Dunn to urge him to hire African-American workers in City Hall. “Early on I had trouble with Dunn,” Sampson acknowledged,” but later we became good friends.” The early trouble was put succinctly by Dunn to Sampson, when he said “I don’t have to do anything for African-Americans. They are not organized. They represent only 3% of voters in this city.” Sampson was at first affronted but had to admit Dunn’s numbers were correct. He set out to change them and in the process to get a cross-section of African Americans, not just working class folk. Sometime in the 1960s Sampson organized a sit-down protest in the streets of Elizabeth to insist that black workers be hired in the expansion of government buildings. Eventually Dunn conceded that the organization had its political effect. “I can deal with you now,” he told Sampson in the early 1970s, and appointed the first black in City Hall: Charley Seymour, a CPA in the finance office. Soon after, Sampson engineered the first carpenter in the carpenter’s union and the first electrician in the electrical union. He also was instrumental in the appointment of a black detective on the police force. After that, there were a number of other appointments.2
One critical moment occurred in 1967, when the riots in Newark threatened to spread to neighboring towns and cities. Mayor Dunn notably issued a “shoot to kill” order aimed at looters and marauders of the business district. Sampson got together with several ministers and insisted “We need to get something done.” At the time there were sharpshooters on the roofs of many First Street buildings. Even more, a local leader – Big Mary – had been locked up by the police on dubious charges. Crowds were already present demanding her release. Tensions were mounting. Sampson and the ministers went to the mayor and stated that if he wanted to stop a riot, he needed to let Big Mary go home. “Mary,” Sampson did not need to add, “was very tough too.” The mayor arranged for a police car to take Big Mary home and tensions eased. Sampson felt the episode was a culmination of sorts of all his previous efforts. Afterward he always announced his plans to local politicians. In the 1970s and 1980s the 3% of voting blacks, Sampson estimated, became 90% of the black voting community.
In this shift from agitation to negotiation, Sampson thought it politic to link resources with the expanding Hispanic community. By the late 1970s they had pressured the Elizabeth Board of Education to re-examine the core curriculum and the textbooks, which made no mention of national or socio-cultural contributions by African-American or Hispanics. Sampson worked hard to disseminate information about New Jersey’s Abbott decision, a legal effort to equalize expenditures in the city to bring urban schools to a functional par with educational standards in the suburbs. He felt the implications of the Abbott system, once known by ethnic and racial groups, would permit them to know what to ask for as they approached their school boards. In spite of the Civil Rights moment and its legislative benchmarks, public schools seemed to lag behind through the 1970s and 1980s. Sampson also noted that the national NAACP had a reputation for less aggressive action than the local branches. The national office was more inclined to pursue a legal rather than a protest or direct action strategy.
By the end of the 20th century Sampson felt his support eroding. Agitators like himself were reaching retirement age. Still, his own group met regularly with the mayor and pressed their priorities. They did the same with the Board of Education to scrutinize the curriculum and work toward one that was more inclusive, “so that,” Sampson explained, “everyone sees where they fit in.” In the early years of the 21st century, Sampson gave his energies to spreading the word of civil rights activism through family reunions. Many of these events were simply entertainments; but in his eyes they were important moments for educating individuals about their relatives’ experiences. The younger generation, he claimed, often do not know what the struggles were like or the courage of their own kinsmen. Such sharing of knowledge provided the groundwork of a “new perspective” and “self-esteem,” by which he meant – citing the example of his Jewish neighbors – they never forget their origins or the experience of the holocaust! Sampson’s transmission of his historical knowledge and his own experience underscores the power of individual initiative and the centrality of local endeavors, even when the protagonist seems both daunting and invulnerable. Sampson passed away in 2005, but in September 2003 the city named its senior facility after him, dedicated by a supportive crowd of over 700 persons.
A second activist in the Civil Rights moment from Elizabeth was Nida E. Thomas. She was born, Nida Edwards, in Wayne County, North Carolina in May, 1914 and came to Elizabeth about 1926. Her father, Thomas Edwards, originally a sharecropper, had joined his family’s lot with the great internal migration of African-Americans to the North during the years before and after the First World War. She drew from her African-American heritage and received support from her mother who worked in Elizabeth for Libson Bros, a furniture manufacturer, and her father whom E. I. DuPont employed as a mechanic. Her family supported her educational ambitions, and her focus on a post-secondary education as a social worker. However, at Battin High School in her native city, she was told that there were no social work jobs for her and no real educational programs to train her. She nevertheless harbored her ambitions and enrolled in 1938 at Atlanta University’s School of Social Work, now the Clark-Atlanta School of Social Work. She graduated there in 1942.3
On several occasions she and her fellow students gathered in the dormitory parlor to listen to a visitor, W. E. B. Dubois, the distinguished scholar, NAACP activist and editor of the influential magazine, Crisis.4 In a later interview (2001) Thomas recalled, “We’d sit on the floors or sit in chairs, whatever, and just listen to him talk. Well, now you can imagine my surprise. Here’s this man talking about things, going to Europe and going to Russia and doing things in this country and doing things in that country … and I didn’t even know where these countries were. I sat there really in a state of absolute unbelief that this man knew so much about everything. And he, he never let us forget that we had a right, and we shouldn’t let color prevent us from having set goals for ourselves, and that we should work toward those. He believed that there were opportunities, but that we needed the appropriate education to be able to do those things. What I learned later was that he was way ahead of the times. He was thinking things that people didn’t think were possible. Later I learned that he was one of the first to help set up the Crisis magazine for the NAACP. And he spent a lot of time with the NAACP. And of course, Crisis magazine is still done, and that was quite a long time ago.”
After she graduated from Atlanta University, Nida took a job as Community Relations Director for the Urban League. For a time she worked in Atlanta, memorably under the direction of Goode Brown. Her first challenge, drew on her Atlanta research on street corner organization. Her corner was a vacant lot full of weeds. While inspecting the property, she was approached by several local toughs who demanded to know what she thought she was doing. She explained that she was determined to convert the derelict lot into a playground for children and that she needed their help. Taken aback, they began to discuss the project. In the course of the discussion, she also noted that she would only be there 6 months and needed to move quickly. “If you want something done,” she described her principle, “involve the residents and have them make it their project.” She got rid of the weeds. The culmination of the 6 months became a party, where the participating girls and boys did the cooking and table setting. Then they all went home to dress up and return to dance. Nida claimed to have known how to dance but conceded several boys showed her steps she had not known. A resounding success. Whenever you begin a project, “ she elaborated a corollary, “you have to have a plan.” From 1942 to 1944 she worked in Elizabeth with William Ashby, the League director, where she developed plans for integrating restaurants and theatres.
In 1944 the Urban League sent her to Englewood, New Jersey, and she dealt with the racial tensions there until 1952. There she organized youth groups, addressed discrimination in entertainment and other public places, and developed non-violent responses to racial barriers. In addition, she addressed problems of prejudicial problems in the educational system, housing issues and, in general, the perceived problem of black homeownership. In 1952 Nida Thomas took a position with the New York Education State Department under Commissioner James Allen,5 who relied on her to develop a multicultural set of precedent-setting curriculum materials. Her outreach work with many organizations put her in regular contact with Commissioner Allen who assured her priorities were those of his department. This informal network, she later acknowledged, assured her program success in the state bureaucracy. Like Stephen Sampson, she was a proud participant in the 1963 March on Washington which culminated in Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have A Dream.” Like so many activists that day, Nida also had a dream.
During this period she also enrolled in graduate work at New York University’s School of Education and received her Masters degree. During her NYU days, she met and studied with Professor Dan Dodson, a tall, improbable Texan, who began his professional career as an avowed segregationist. Dodson’s conversion experience to integration priorities was a function of his own “northern” education and exposure to students like Nida E. Thomas. Dodson’s work with Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, advocating support for an extraordinary athlete named Jackie Robinson, advanced the cause of integration.6 This Robinson association reminded Nida E Thomas of an earlier event at a Jersey City baseball game [April 18, 1946 between Montreal Royals and the Jersey City Little Giants] with her father, witnessing a Black ballplayer, [Jackie Robinson, second baseman for the Montreal Royals] - “I was flabbergasted” – in the midst of a white audience and culture. Fortunately, “she admitted,” when he came to bat, he did very well.” [Robinson that day homered his second time at bat, then added three singles, two stolen bases and drove in four runs. He finished the 1946 season with .349 average and the International League’s batting title.] Thomas’s experience at this event sparked her sense of African-American possibility, as it did for so many other Americans.
In 1968 she left the New York Department of Education for New Jersey and went to Trenton and the New Jersey Department of Education as Director of the New Jersey Office of Equal Opportunity, where she developed the state’s first affirmative action program. She replicated much of her work from New York into her adopted state, paying special attention to the breakdown of racial barriers in New Jersey sport competitions among public schools. She was also instrumental in the project Building My Heritage Library for youth ages 5 to 12. “It was important for every child to see persons in their books and in their school that they can relate to.” When she first came to Elizabeth after Atlanta University, she observed that there were no black principals or teachers. There were also no relevant materials. Today that situation at least has changed substantively.
In 1984 Nida E.Thomas retired from her professional obligations, settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey and entered the busiest stage of her life. Among other things she served in many capacities for the United Way, including president, and on the boards of Family and Children’s Services, the Center for Infant Development (with Harriet Bloomfield), and the Community Coordinated Child Care. For a number of years she was president of the Feminist Press, which made a special effort to reprint books authored by black feminist authors. In December 1999 Thomas became the first co-president (with Orlando Edreira) of the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc. [http://www.visithistoricalelizabethnj.org], which seeks to construct a new historical narrative of Elizabeth, N.J. including racial and ethnic populations ordinarily omitted from this genre. She busied herself in her retirement more actively than in many of her career positions. She was a life-long activist in behalf of the promise of American life for all of the country’s peoples.
Nida Edwards married and had two daughters, Patricia (of Las Cruces, New Mexico who passed away June 2004) and Rosemary (of Albany, New York). She was a longtime member of Elizabeth’s Zion Baptist church. She always admired the achievements of black professionals like Mabel G. Holmes, the first black principal in Elizabeth New Jersey schools and John Warren Davis, formerly president of West Virginia State University and her Englewood, New Jersey associate in the 1950s. On August 28, 2008, age 95, Nida Thomas passed away, a life lived joyously to the full. Her civil rights legacy was an unshakeable commitment to the inclusive involvement of all persons in the process of constructive social change.
A third person who was both a practitioner and eye-witness to the civil rights movement in Elizabeth was Sheriff Ralph Froehlich. His experiences have been varied but his actions testify to an important but often ignored feature of the Civil Rights movement namely, that often elected officials were as committed to the movement as those activists that railed against the Establishment. The taproot for Froehlich’s support of Civil Rights activism, he himself traced to the 1930s and the example of his grandfather. When he was a youngster in the Elizabeth school system, his grandfather took him to the movies, to the Liberty Theater on Elizabeth Avenue. At the time the Froehlich’s were living in a mixed black and white neighborhood on Williams Street. The movie was King Kong and many of Ralph’s black friends went along to see the film. After they all paid their admissions, the blacks were shown the stairs to the balcony and Ralph and his grandfather were ushered to their seats downstairs. Ralph’s grandfather was sufficiently upset that he never went back to that theater again. Even then he knew the worth of people who judged character not by the color of their skin. It was a lesson Ralph never forgot.
Later in his career as an Elizabeth policeman, Ralph’s partner was his good friend, Bucky Hazel, an African-American and very good cop. In the early 1960s Union county officials decided to expand the county building and create a parking garage. However, at the time the building trades had no black members. Protests began, calling for access to the trades and to construction work that was supported by taxpayers. On one occasion, with hundreds of protesters between Caldwell Place and Rahway Avenue, Froehlich and his partner were sent to clear the streets of sit-down protesters. When they approached, Ralph’s partner suddenly realized his daughter was among the sitters about to be arrested. He and Ralph, very gently, lifted her into the police wagon, with Bucky Hazel and Ralph chuckling but at the same time, realizing proudly it was the right thing to do.
Ralph Froehlich would go on to join the Urban League and serve several years as its Chairman, providing support to activists like the Rev. Benjamin Whipper of New Zion Baptist Church 7, Stephen Sampson, and Rev. Joseph Garlic, whose work not only replaced the notorious Miglore Manor with attractive low-income housing in Elizabethport but who founded the organization, Brand New Day. Sometime in the mid 1970s Froehlich channeled his reform instincts into the redress of Mayor Tom Dunn’s practices toward Elizabeth police. “Mayor Dunn,” Froehlich observed, liked to have things his way and told the Police Administrators’ Association, if they didn’t like his policies, to run someone against him.” The Association chose Froehlich who was forced to leave the police force to accept election as City councilman at Large. After a year, circumstances led to his election as County Sheriff, an office he has now held for 37 years, the longest, continuously serving Sheriff in the United States. In that time the lessons of both his grandfather and the Civil Rights movement have contributed to a very different mode of police enforcement in the city, in Union county as well as New Jersey itself. In this case, the initiative came as often from above as from below.
This presentation compliments the current historical scholarship, which has stressed the precarious sequence of decisions that sustained the Civil rights Movement. There were without doubt revolutionary judicial and administrative decisions that powered the movement. But through the 60s and 70s especially, there were on the local level individuals of great courage and resolve that really sustained the momentum for which many very different, nationally visible individuals received the credit. We have no intention of tarnishing the stellar figures of the movement, but we have every intention of celebrating ground-level, unsung individuals who have always in America’s most democratic moments distinguished themselves for their commitments to the US’s bedrock values.
1Gavin Wright, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 19-23; Wright argued that ”The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts provided the statutory foundation, but more often than not, genuine progress in employment, school desegregation, and voting was achieved only through strong of compliance…. This perspective justifies an approach that regards the acts with historical turning points and the revolution as what was done in their wake … (p30) the Civil Rights revolution was not a program of redistribution but an integration of blacks into the mainstream of a regional economy from which they had long been excluded.” Hugh Davis Graham, Civil Rights and the Presidency: Race and Gender in American Politics, 1960-72 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp Introduction; Terry H. Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp 76-80.
2 Interview with Stephen Sampson (August 15, 2001) by author, Martin Bldg., Elizabeth NJ
3 Interview with Nida E. Thomas (August 15, 2001) by author, Martin Bldg, Elizabeth NJ
4 David L. Lewis, W. E. B. Dubois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (NY: Henry Holt, 1993), Chaps 13-17.
6 Robert M. Thomas Jr., “Dan W. Dodson, 88, Foe and Scholar of Racism,” New York times (August 19, 1995).
7 Benjamin Whipper served New Zion Baptist Church from 1962 to 1972. Cf: http://www.newzionbaptistchurch.org