Matthew Carter, Montclair’s first Black mayor (History and Heritage)
(MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBRARY)
The subject of this week’s History and Heritage was one of Montclair’s great “firsts,” but beside the uniqueness of being the township’s first Black mayor, Matthew Carter was simply the best person for the job at the time.
He didn’t solve problems all by himself. His gift was that he could bring people with opposing viewpoints to the table and was a superb moderator, always remaining the calm center and voice of reason.
The Rev. Paul Leggett, the former pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church who served with Mayor Carter on several committees, recalled that Carter “saw people in the image of God even when he disagreed with them” in a Montclair Times testimonial published on March 22, 2012.
Carter was born in Danville, Virginia, in 1913. He studied theology at the Theological Seminary, Virginia Union University, Richmond, and obtained a master’s degree in divinity there in 1942. He later received an honorary doctor of divinity from the same institution.
He was the pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia. He got involved in the YMCA in Richmond as executive director of the Lehigh Street Y.
He married Frances Hill, a teacher, in 1944. They moved to Ohio, where he became the associate director of the Southwest Area Council of the National YMCA and then the executive director of the Spring Street Y in Columbus.
They moved to Montclair in 1958, when he became the associate director of the Association Press, the publishing arm of the national YMCA. In 1969 he organized the Department of Community Affairs at Hoffman-LaRoche, the pharmaceutical giant, and became its first manager. LaRoche was based in Nutley until it left the state in 2008.
His wife started teaching in Paterson.
Carter quickly became involved in local civic affairs. In 1962, only a few years after he moved here, he was named to the Taylor Committee, which made a recommendation to the Board of Ed to consolidate the high school (freshman year and the three subsequent years) at the Park and Chestnut streets complex and have two junior high schools feeding into them until a central junior high could be built on Park Street. There were four junior high schools at the time that shared space with various elementary schools.
Carter was also part of the Charter Study Committee that was formed to review town government. At the time the town was governed by commissioners who performed specific duties. They chose the mayor from within their ranks.
In 1973 Montclair adopted the manager-council form of government with an elected mayor, elected council members who represent different parts of town and a full-time, professional manager.
Late in 1962 Carter was asked to join a committee to suggest candidates for the town commission. There had never been a commissioner from a minority group in Montclair. Dr. John Fitzgerald, a dentist who lived on Orange Road, ran for a spot on the commission in 1960 but was not elected.
Several members of the committee resigned because they did not believe the committee was properly supporting minority candidates. Carter did not actively seek a nomination, but the committee started to coalesce behind him. In 1964 he was elected to the town commission. He was made the commissioner of public works and was selected to be the deputy mayor.
On July 12, 1967, the Newark police arrested and allegedly beat John W. Smith, a Black taxicab driver. After decades of unfair treatment and inadequate representation, several hundred African Americans came out to protest the arrest.
Things got out of hand, and Newark descended into one of the worst race riots in American history. Twenty-six people, including William Furr of Montclair, were killed. Millions of dollars of damage was done, and Newark still bears the scars of the event.
Violence erupted in other New Jersey communities and started to erupt in Montclair. Windows were smashed at several local businesses. Two clothing stores and a tavern were looted. Cars were stoned along Bloomfield Avenue, and homemade incendiary devices were thrown at several buildings.
George Rice, the president of the local NAACP, and other members of the board decided to keep their offices on Bloomfield Avenue open extra hours to counsel people and allow them to vent their grievances. Carter invited people to air their grievances at Town Commission meetings.
The NAACP, the Montclair Clergy Club under the Rev. Lincoln McGee, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian on Orange Road, and members of Montclair’s Civil Rights Commission urged people to attend those meetings and came to the meetings to assure people that there would be meaningful dialogue.
Afterward, people expressed their surprise and gratitude that they were allowed to speak freely. Many stated that they had never been given a chance to express their concerns and were astonished to hear well-thought-out possible solutions to their problems.
Montclair avoided the chaos of the next few weeks.
In 1968 Carter received the largest number of votes for Town Commission and was selected to be the mayor. His term was largely spent dealing with court-ordered school integration. These were contentious times, with Montclair trying several different ideas before it settled on the successful magnet school concept. Many of the ideas were controversial, and Carter had to shepherd many angry people through turbulent times.
Carter decided to run for the state Senate in 1972. He declined to run for a third term on the Town Commission. He did not win the state election.
Throughout his career, Carter was always interested in decent, affordable housing for all his constituents. As president of the Union Housing Development Corp. of Montclair he, along with others, created the Erie Lackawanna Plaza Apartments on Glenridge Avenue in 1979. They were renamed the Matthew G. Carter Apartments to honor him after his death in 2012.
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.