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July 10, 2020

New Jersey leaders push to replace 'freeholder' title 'born from racism'

Gov. Phil Murphy says its 'past time' to remove term from state's public discourse

Government Racial Justice
new jersey freeholder title Edwin J. Torres/New Jersey Office of the Governor

New Jersey officials expressed support to replace the title 'freeholder' with 'commissioner.' The state is the only one in the country that uses the term to describe its county leaders.

New Jersey is the only remaining state that uses the title freeholder to designate its county government officers.

But state leaders seek to cut ties to the "outdated" term – a reference to a time when only white property owners could hold elected office. Instead, they favor switching the names of the states' 21 boards of chosen freeholders to "chosen board of county commissioners." 

Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin released a joint statement Thursday acknowledging their support of legislation to change the title.

"As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism," the Democratic leaders said. "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"This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice."

Each county's freeholder boards includes several elected members who perform legislative and executive duties. 

The last legislative attempt to rename the term was introduced by Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, a Republican from Morris County in 2018. His bill passed the Senate but failed to make it out of the House. 

A new bill sponsored by Pennacchio, Sweeney and Sen. Vin Gopal, a Democrat from Monmouth County, is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee on Thursday, according to North

The title is an English word dating back centuries and refers to someone who owned debt-free land. It was a prominent term when New Jersey was colonized. At the time, only white men could hold public office. 

New Jersey did not limit voting rights based on gender or race between 1776 and 1807 – and there were some women who owned land, according to the Asbury Park Press. But white males were the predominant land owners when the elected freeholder position was established in colonial America.

New Jersey did not abolish slavery until 1804. It was a gradual emancipation that allowed some residents to hold slaves decades afterward. 

New Jersey officials have sought to make various racial justice reforms – particularly in criminal justice and law enforcement – in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. 

Additionally, monuments of historical figures with connections to slavery and oppression, like Christopher Columbus, have been torn down Trenton, Camden and other cities.

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