Amy Gatto

Prior to being elected to the Atlantic County freeholder board, Amy Gatto was mayor of Hamilton Township.

A bill in the state Legislature requiring counties to change the title of “freeholder” is driving a debate over whether the title is racist.

The bill, sponsored by state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and already passed by the state Senate, would require every county to change the name of its freeholder board to “The Board of Chosen Commissioners.” Freeholders would then be called commissioners, and all signs and letterhead around the state would eventually reflect that change.

Local state Sens. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, and Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, voted against the bill. The Assembly has not voted on it.

The term “freeholders” has been used in New Jersey since the state’s founding, but originates in England. In the 13th century, the British Parliament was expanded to include free men who owned land free and clear, called “freeholders.”

The earliest known records of the state refer to “Chosen Freeholders.” The controversy lies in the fact that only white men who owned land could vote in New Jersey between 1807 and 1870.

Cape May County freeholders in May voted against changing their title.

On Tuesday, the Atlantic County freeholders tabled a resolution opposing the name change after a nearly hourlong discussion.

“It’s not erasing history, it’s making a change and trying to do better now,” said Mico Lucide, a former Assembly candidate and now the Gender and Sexuality Projects Coordinator at Stockton University.

Defenders of the name say the issue is political correctness gone awry.

Seth Grossman, a Republican candidate for Congress in South Jersey, said if freeholders have to change their name, then the Democratic Party should change its name, too.

“If Democrats really are ashamed of racism, then perhaps they ought to rename the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson that brought this racism to America,” Grossman said.

Sweeney’s point in sponsoring the bill was that the term “freeholder” is confusing and it would be better if the county representatives were called commissioners.

But Grossman said if people don’t know who or what freeholders are, that’s a failure of the public school system.

Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick, a Democrat, wrote an Op-Ed to The Press of Atlantic City on July 11 stating it’s time to change the title.

“I believe the time has come to leave this racist and misogynistic term behind and move into the 21st century, where we value the diversity of the population and are finally able to dismantle institutional prejudice at its core,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “If we celebrate the diversity of our board, boasting two people of color and four women for the first time ever, then why can’t we make the recognition official and rid ourselves of the term that, in its definition, negates that diversity?”

County Executive Dennis Levinson also wrote an Op-Ed to The Press this month, saying the term “freeholder” was inclusive because, in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807, all people who owned land were able to vote regardless of their gender or race.

In 1807, New Jersey changed its voting rights to landowning white men only, until in 1870 the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave black men the right to vote. Women were given the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

“It is estimated that as many as 10,000 women voted in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807. We don’t know the number of black voters, but we do know there was no law specifically prohibiting them from voting in New Jersey, unlike other states that used terms such as ‘free white men,’ ‘white males’ to exclude them,” Levinson wrote. “‘Freeholder’ is unique to New Jersey. It reflects a time when for 30 years New Jersey was the only state to truly demonstrate inclusion.”

Ashley Bennett, the only black woman on the freeholder board, said she doesn’t have a preference on the name.

“I took this position because I wanted to do real work, not get into a debate about a title,” Bennett said. “There are real issues in this county that we need to talk about.”

Contact: 609-272-7260 Twitter @ACPressDeRosier

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