Legislature sits on bill to honor African American trailblazers

New Jersey state government is closed today to honor the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while the Legislature has still failed to honor the lives of two African American trailblazers who won historic elections to the State Senate and General Assembly. A bill to provide a plaque honoring Hutchins Inge, Jr., M.D., the first African American to serve in the New Jersey Senate, passed the Assembly last year but never received consideration by Senate State Government Committee Chairman Joseph Coniglio. New legislation introduced in January 2006 by Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, Michael Patrick Carroll and others, included Walter Gilbert Alexander, the first African American to serve in the General Assembly. A2339 was approved by the Assembly State Government Committee last June, but has not yet received consideration from Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nellie Pou. Alexander, a Republican who was elected to the State Assembly in 1920. The son of former slaves, Alexander was born in Virginia in 1880; he went to college at age sixteen and then to medical school. Alexander moved to Orange to build a medical practice and became involved in local politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the State Assembly in 1912 on the Progresive (Bull Moose) Party ticket with Theodore Roosevelt, and won in 1920. He went on to serve two terms in the Legislature and then spent many years on the state Health Commission. He died in 1953. Inge, a 64-year-old Newark physician, became the first African American to serve in the New Jersey State Senate. Inge was elected in 1965, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decision increased the size of the Essex County Senate delegation from one seat to four. Republicans thought they had scored a candidate recruitment coup when they convinced William Tompkins to be one of their candidates. The 52-year-old Tompkins first won an Assembly seat in 1949 and left the legislature when President Dwight Eisenhower named him United States Attorney in 1953. The founder of Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld & Barry, which remains one of the state’s top law firms, both parties viewed Tompkins a heavy favorite to capture one of the new Essex Senate seats created after the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decision. He was running on a ticket with incumbent Robert Sarcone, a 40-year-old rising star who had served as Assembly Minority Leader and had toppled a Democratic incumbent two years earlier, Irwin Kimmelman, a 35-year-old freshman Assemblyman who would later serve as state Attorney General and as an Appellate Court Judge, and with James E. Churchman, Jr., a Newark funeral home director and the state’s first African American GOP State Senate candidate. But 1965 turned out to be a Democratic year and with Governor Richard Hughes carrying Essex County by nearly 70,000 votes, Democrats (former Newark Municipal Court Judge Nicholas Fernicola, former West Orange Municipal Court Judge Maclyn Goldman, labor leader John Giblin — a former Freeholder and the father of Assemblyman Thomas Giblin –and Inge. Tompkins finished last, almost 24,000 votes behind Inge. Inge was a last minute addition to the Democratic ticket. The Essex County Democratic Chairman, Dennis Carey, wanted an African American to balance a ticket that included Irish, Italian and Jewish candidates. His first choice was Eulis “Honey” Ward, the Central Ward Democratic Chairman and later the Deputy Register of Deeds and Mortgages, and he actually appeared in a photograph of the ticket sent to several newspapers — but some last minute vetting by Democrats made them decide to pick another candidate after the filing deadline. Inge lost re-election in 1967 and retired to Cape Cod in 1970. He died in 2002, at age 101, without his achievement being honored in New Jersey.

Legislature sits on bill to honor African American trailblazers