New Jersey lawmakers passed two bills Thursday aimed at addressing racial injustice, one making Juneteenth a state holiday and another abolishing the county-level title of freeholder, which sponsors say alludes to a time when Black people and women were excluded from government.
The measures passed the Democrat-led Legislature and head next to Gov. Phil Murphy, who earlier indicated he supports both bills.
Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when word reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and they were free.
New Jersey is the only state in the country to use the title freeholder for county government officials. Under the bill, they will be referred to as county commissioners.
The bill’s sponsors say the title calls to mind the state’s colonial past when property ownership was limited to white men. Plus, the sponsors say, the title was frequently confusing for voters who were unsure what it meant.
The title itself referred to someone who held property free of any debt.
Legislation to rename the title has been around since 2011 when Republican state Sen. Joe Pennacchio introduced it as a way to eliminate confusion among residents about what the office holders do, which is run county government.
But both measures gained support and moved in the Legislature after the worldwide protests and rallies for racial justice stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, who was black, died after a white police officer held him down with a knee on his neck.
"Things are coming to a head right now because we’re in this moment of global racial reckoning," said Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway in a video posted on Murphy’s Twitter account. "So many different aspects of how one became a citizen, how one — well first acquired property — became a citizen, was able to vote, was able to hold office, was tied to a very particular phenomenon, being male and being white and being free."
Murphy said in his own tweet that New Jersey was on the verge of removing "painful symbols and references of oppression."
The legislation passed with little opposition. The Juneteenth measure, which technically makes the third Friday in June a holiday, got zero no votes, though, a dozen Assembly members abstained.
Republican Assemblyman Hal Wirths said he supported the holiday but abstained because he thought the fiscal strain of another state holiday would be too great, and another day should be swapped out to balance the proposed new holiday.
The Legislatures nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates the new holiday will increase annual state costs by about $3 million to cover overtime.
The freeholder legislation passed 31-6 in the Senate and 61-12 with four abstentions in the Assembly.