Earl Harris

Earl Harris examines damages to his business from State and Newark Police during the 1967 rebellion. (New Jersey State Archives)

Earl Harris was one of the first Black men elected to county office as a Republican Freeholder for Essex County. He became a Democrat, supported Hugh Addonizio in his 1962 mayoral campaign, and served as an aide during Addonizio’s first administration. In return for his support, Harris later said, “Hughie told me that I could have the South Ward.” When Harris ran in 1966 against Lee Bernstein for City Councilman of the South Ward, however, his campaign cars were routinely ticketed and his staff members were threatened and intimidated by police. Harris went on to lose the race in the run-off election.

Subsequently, Harris abandoned his support for Addonizio and was an active voice in Newark’s struggles for civil and human rights. He routinely spoke out about police abuse, as well as urban renewal during the Medical School Fight. During the 1967 rebellion, Harris and other leaders acted as intermediaries between Newark’s Black communities and city officials in attempts to quell the disturbances. Their efforts had little impact on city officials, however, and Harris’s restaurant on Elizabeth Avenue was shot up by State Police and Newark Police days later. The restaurant was not yet open for business, but the windows were shot out and the equipment shot and destroyed, causing Harris to lose his investments in the store, for which he was never reimbursed by the state.

In the wake of the rebellion, Harris joined the United Brothers, a newly formed political organization aimed at creating a Black united front to win the 1970 mayoral and city council elections. At the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention in 1969, Harris was nominated to run on the “Community Choice” ticket for the councilman-at-large contest. When rumors abounded that Mayor Addonizio’s people were paying off individuals to cast doubt on a Black victory on election day, Harris came up with a slogan that resonated from sound cars: “You can take the man’s money, but vote for the brothers.” Mayor Addonizio retaliated by having Harris arrested mid-day during the 1970 campaign on High Street for unpaid parking tickets.

Earl Harris (front row, third from left) with a group of political and civic leaders in 1960. (Al Henderson/Newark Public Library)

Harris won a seat on the City Council in that 1970 election, finishing fourth among the at-large candidates, and was the only Black at-large candidate to be elected. Harris later went on to become the first Black President of the Newark City Council in 1974.

As president of the City Council, Harris clashed often with Mayor Ken Gibson; and with Amiri Baraka, his former supporter in the 1970 election, over the proposed Kawaida Towers construction in the North Ward. Harris led the charge to deny a tax abatement for the housing project, even going as far as ordering the arrest of Baraka, his wife Amina, and five others during a City Council meeting.

Harris went on to serve on the city council until 1982, when he ran unsuccessfully for Mayor against Ken Gibson, Joe Frisina, and Junius Williams. Gibson defeated Harris in a run-off campaign. Harris died in 2007, never having achieved his ultimate quest for the position of Mayor of Newark.

References:

Robert Curvin, Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation

Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within a Nation

Who’s Coming In, Who’s Going Out?

World War II kicked off the second Great Migration, as African Americans from the South sought better living conditions in Newark and other cities. Between 1940 and 1950, the African American population of Newark increased from 45,760 to 74,965—growing from 10.7% to 17.2% of the city’s total population. In many ways, this population influx marked a tipping point for recognition.

For most of Newark, the depression ended. “Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job. The New Jersey Afro-American wrote in 1941 that while contracts for nearly a billion and a half dollars in government defense orders have been placed with firms in New Jersey, the Urban League finds that these firms have steadfastly refused to hire colored workers.”

 

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“Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job.
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But some African Americans did find employment. Jobs for blacks in the Newark defense workforce improved from 4% in 1942, to 8.8% in 1943. With the overall economy booming, Newark’s downtown stores began hiring some African Americans as elevator operators and janitors. Large restaurants hired blacks as chefs, cooks and waiters—they could work, but not sit down to eat. The war years helped enhance the prospects of some, while still denying prosperity for the many.

Whites Begin to Leave

Around 1947, the white middle class started deserting Newark for the suburbs, along with the businesses that sustained them. The post World-War II boom was good for businesses for a while, but factories, schools, and streets had been neglected during the war. Overcrowding was a problem, especially in the ghettos. These conditions made the suburbs very attractive as alternatives to Newark.

The G.I. Bill of Rights and FHA loans made it easier for whites to buy a house, and brand new highways built by the federal government with taxpayers’ dollars made it easier to drive those new automobiles to the suburbs, in Essex County and further west. These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.

 

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These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.
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But Newark’s heterogeneous ethnic character remained intact in the early and mid-1950s. Newark was described as follows by writer Joseph Conforti:

The Germans had given way to the Irish who in 1950 shared political power with an Italian and a Jew. The ethnic division of the city could also be observed less directly. Many occupations were ethnically identifiable: the police and fire departments were overwhelmingly Irish; the construction trades were Italian; the merchants were largely Jewish, the small luncheonettes were Greek, the large businesses were owned and operated by WASPs, skilled craftsmen were likely to be German, and the factory operatives were Irish, Polish and Italian. Even the city’s taxicabs had ethnic identifications…yellow cabs were operated by the Irish, 20th Century cabs by Jews, Brown and White cabs by Italians, and Green cabs by blacks.

Newark’s Changing Demographics

Ghettoization continued in Newark. By 1940, the Third Ward (today’s Central Ward) alone contained more than 16,000 black residents. By 1944 nearly one third of the apartments and housing in the black areas were below the standards of minimum decency. Some houses still had outside bathrooms.

The slums were among the worst in the nation. The situation was particularly grim for African Americans, clustered on “the hill” just west of the Essex County Court House. Public Housing did not help a lot. There were 7 low-income projects finished before the war, but by 1946, there were 2,110 white families and only 623 black families in the buildings. Four of the projects housed no black people. The best low-rise public housing, such as Bradley Court, was reserved for whites; while the poorest units, such as F.D.R. Homes, were reserved for blacks. Ultimately, the majority of African Americans were steered into the growing number of high rise public housing which just happened to be built in the center city where black people had been confined beginning at the turn of the 20th century.

 

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Four of the projects housed no black people.
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The 1950 Census showed the trend in population increases for blacks, and decrease by whites. Newark’s total population rose only slightly from 429,760 in 1940 to 438,776 in 1950. Black residents had increased from 45,760 to 74,965—more than a 60% increase. When newspapers took a look at the faces of misery, increasingly they were black.

Even though the city began hemorrhaging jobs (250 manufacturers left between 1950-60; 1,300 manufactures left during the 1960s), the more dramatic change in the city’s socioeconomic structure was the rapidly changing composition of the city’s population.

African Americans were rapidly become politically and economically obsolete in a city where they would soon be in the majority. Segregation and discrimination by race and class defined Newark’s offering to the city’s newest immigrants.

Listen to the people speak about their experiences as newcomers to Newark below…

1970 Campaign Poster

1970 Campaign Poster

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Campaign flyer for the 1970 Mayoral and City Council elections in Newark. “The Community’s Choice” was nominated during the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Convention. –Credit: Newark Public Library

Statement at Blight Hearing

Statement at Blight Hearing

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Transcript of Earl Harris’s statement to the Central Planning Board on June 13, 1967 during the Medical School “blight hearings.” — Credit: Newark Public Library

Testimony at Governor

Testimony at Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorders

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Testimony given by Earl Harris to the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorders on Dec. 8, 1967. The Commission was formed to investigate causes of the 1967 Newark rebellion.  — Credit: Rutgers University Digital Legal Library Repository

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American repairman at work. — Credit: PSEG

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

African American Stoker

African American Stoker

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American stoker at work. — Credit: PSEG