Governor Murphy Signs Legislation That Will Eliminate The Title of “Freeholder” from Public Office

By: Follow South Jersey Staff

Camden City Hall. Photo credit: Camden County Facebook Page

TRENTON, N.J. — Governor Phil Murphy has signed a bill which requires the county officials’ title of “chosen freeholder” to be changed to “county commissioner” and all “boards of chosen freeholders” to be known as “boards of county commissioners.” The legislation will go into effect January 1, 2021.

“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,” Governor Murphy said. “Amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges rooted in structural racism, this action will eliminate the use of the term ‘Freeholder’ in county government— a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.” 

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said that it is important to recognize and rectify “a legacy of bigotry,” even if only symbolic.

“As we work to bring justice and equality to all Americans we must recognize that symbolism matters,” Sweeney said. “The public job title of ‘freeholder’ perpetuates a legacy of bigotry that disenfranchised groups of Americans and denied them full rights and equal opportunities. We should be diligent in erasing all remnants of oppression that are unjust and divisive.”

The term “freeholder” dates back to 14th century England and originally referred to a person who owned an estate of land which he had complete control over. The early New Jersey settlers continued use of the term for governing bodies. The term has been criticized because it suggests an era when only white, male landowners were able to hold public office. New Jersey is the only state in the nation to use the term for public officials.

“The history of the term freeholder is rooted in misogyny, racism, and privilege,” Camden County Freeholders Barbara Holcomb and Jonathan Young said in a joint statement. “We have long believed that New Jersey’s elected officials deserve a more dignifying title, one that represents what we strive to be today, not the sins of those long ago who used the office to further the oppression of others.”

Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, who serves as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, said that the words we use must reflect the times in which we live.

“Changing the title of ‘Freeholder’ is long overdue,” Oliver said. “As a former Freeholder, I was fully aware that this title was not inclusive of African American women such as myself. History is constantly evolving, and our terminology needs to keep up with it to be more reflective of where we are as a society.”

Camden County Freeholders Holcomb and Young added that changing the county officials’ nomature is important for future community leaders.

“We are eager to learn of the impact this symbolic transition has on young women and people of color who will never again be forced to wonder whether the honor of serving in this position is available to them,” Holcomb and Young added.

The bill will require counties to update their letterheads, stationary, and other writings, as well as their websites, to reflect the change of title.

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