New Jersey

NJ Will Stop Calling County Leaders Freeholders, Citing Term's Racist Roots

The term came from a time when only white men could own land.

Phil Murphy

The groups of politicians who lead New Jersey's counties will go by a new name soon, doing away with their old name that leaders said was "mired in the language of slavery."

The state will phase out use of the term "freeholder," after the heads of both houses in the state legislature and Governor Phil Murphy all said they support a bill to change the name.

The term was included in the state's Constitution in 1776, defining a freeholder as someone with property and real estate worth at least 500 pounds of "Proclamation Money," the currency at the time.

At that time, only white men could own land and thus become freeholders. Murphy said in a state press conference Friday that he, Senate President Steve Sweeney and House Speaker Craig Coughlin came to support the change. Angela Garretson, a Black woman who serves as a freeholder in Union County, explained to them the racist roots of the term.

Former freeholder Sweeney, D-Gloucester, also offered a statement on the change and referenced slavery. New Jersey passed a "gradual emancipation" law in 1804 but some Black people remained slaves until 1866, when the state ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, according to Princeton University.

"It is important that we erase the terminology that reflects racist attitudes & eliminate the vestiges of discriminatory practices," Sweeney said in a tweet.

The bill renames freeholders to county commissioners, and sets a deadline of one year for each of the 21 counties to change their website, signage and mailing supplies to make the new name uniform across their governing body.

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 "This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a corrective action to replace an outdated designation that is rooted in institutional prejudice.”

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