BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

As the nation tears down symbols of injustice, the state is looking at removing the name “freeholder” from the rolls of elected officials, claiming it is connected to racial bias.

The naming of county legislators as freeholders is unique to New Jersey and dates to the state constitution of 1776.

As confusing as the name may be — New Jerseyans probably wonder what a “freeholder” actually is — some say there’s bias associated with the name.

While a freeholder or county freeholder has always been a member of the board that governs a county, the title of freeholder, created in revolutionary times, meant a landowner who was free of debt and who could therefore hold public office. 

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The New Jersey State Constitution of 1776 defined freeholders as “...all inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth 50 pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for 12 months immediately preceding the election, [who] shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.”

The name “freeholder” in “Board of Chosen Freeholders” is because “clear estate” is also known as a freehold.

Although the constitution says “all inhabitants,” at the time a Black man or a woman of any race could not run for or hold an elected position because they could not own land. 

That has changed. Today there are 19 Black and 43 women freeholders in New Jersey.

But the name hasn’t changed, and it’s the connotation of the antiquated word that for years has been questioned by many. 

“As our nation tears down symbols of injustice, we must also tear down words we use in New Jersey that were born from racism. 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,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a joint statement with Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin. 

In March, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and Assemblywomen Bettylou DeCroce and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson introduced a bill that would change “chosen freeholder” to “county commissioner.”

Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill said discarding the freeholder title is long overdue, citing the word’s roots in systemic racism. 

“There’s a lot of hurt in the symbolism of that word,” he said.

He also pointed to the confusion over what exactly the term “chosen freeholder” means. County supervisor, county legislator or county commissioner, the terms used most frequently in other states, are clearer, Gill said. 

Some criticism of the bill centers on the cost of the name change during the economic downtown due to the pandemic. The bill would require counties to update letterheads, stationery and other paperwork, as well as their websites, to bear the title of county commissioners within one year of the bill’s effective date. 

The bill would not require counties to update or replace signs or other paperwork to reflect the title change if doing so would require the expenditure of county funds. In such a case, the title would have to be changed whenever the paperwork is next updated or replaced in the ordinary course of business. 

Gill anticipated changes to legal documents and updates to county websites. Most Essex County buildings don’t carry the name of Board of Chosen Freeholders on them; most dedication plaques have board members’ names on them, he said. 

Murphy said, “We are committed to forever ridding from this state, long past overdue, the word freeholder. It is high time this name went into the dustbin of history, and I’m very happy we’re going to do it, I hope sooner than later.” 

While eliminating the freeholder title will not address all issues related to systemic racism in Essex County, “it’s a small step that should have been taken many years ago,” Gill said. “I think there’s broad-base support for the name change.” 

This isn’t New Jersey’s first attempt to replace the name. In 2018, legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-26th, would have allowed but not required county governments to adopt the title of “commissioner,” replacing “freeholder.” The bill died at the end of the session and was never reintroduced. 

If the bill becomes law this time, it would take effect on Jan. 1 following the date of enactment. The bill has been reported out of an Assembly committee. A Senate version of the bill has also cleared committee.

Erin Roll contributed reporting to this article.