Junius Williams

Mugshot of Junius Williams during the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. -Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Junius Williams grew up in Richmond, Virginia before leaving to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1961. While in Amherst, Williams became involved in the wave of campus activism that was sweeping the nation and, during breaks from classes, was involved in the national Civil Rights Movement. Williams participated in the March on Washington (1963), was involved with the Northern Student Movement (1964), and was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama during the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. During his senior year at Amherst College in 1965, Williams was recruited by Tom Hayden, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to come to Newark and work with the SDS-sponsored Newark Community Union Project (NCUP).

Upon his arrival in Newark, Williams immediately became involved in organizing the city’s poor and working-class Black communities around issues in housing, police brutality, and employment. Williams and other NCUP members went door-to-door in the Central Ward to ‘get people to overcome their fears and go on eventually to become their own community organizers and leaders.’ While working for NCUP, Williams also attended law school at Yale University and worked at Essex-Newark Legal Services Project. When the War on Poverty came to Newark, Williams became involved in the city’s anti-poverty agency, the United Community Corporation (UCC) as well.

In 1967, Williams joined in the fight to prevent the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey from taking nearly 200 acres of land in the Central Ward and displacing 20,000 Black and Puerto Rican residents. During the rebellion in July of 1967, Williams directed a team of law students in the VISTA program in interviewing witnesses of violence inflicted by police and National Guardsmen and prepared sworn affidavits for the Essex-Newark Legal Services Project.

Junius Williams in front of NAPA headquarters, 1968. (Junius Williams Collection)

After the rebellion, Williams and Phil Hutchings of SNCC formed the Newark Area Planning Association (NAPA) to continue the fight against the medical school. Williams utilized his connections with regional planning and architecture students at Yale to develop an alternate plan for the medical school. With the alternate plan in hand and support from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, NAPA and the Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal opened a new chapter in the fight against the Medical School land grab. Williams became co-chairman of the Negotiating Team with Harry Wheeler to successfully negotiate an agreement with city, state, and federal officials that reduced the original acreage, guaranteed low-income housing construction, and mandated job training and hiring for the city’s Black and Puerto Rican populations in the school’s construction.

In addition to his work with NAPA, Williams also directed the Newark Housing Council, which was created to coordinate the development of more than 1,000 units of low-income housing on land coming from the Medical School Agreements. Williams was also a member of the United Brothers (1968) and took part in the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention (1969) to support Ken Gibson’s 1970 mayoral election. Under the Gibson administration, Williams became the youngest director of the Model Cities and Community Development Administration in the nation at the age of 26.

Williams went on to become the youngest president of the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest organization of Black attorneys in the nation. He has held many notable positions in Newark, where he is currently the chairman of Newark Celebration 350, the organization that has planned and financed more than 200 activities to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the city’s founding.

Reflecting on Williams’ contributions in Newark, Tom Hayden later wrote, “If he had come along forty years later, he might have been Barack Obama. But instead he became one of those gifted young black leaders who invested their lives in creating the conditions for Obama’s future.”

References:

Junius Williams, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power

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…

Junius Williams describes how he was recruited by Tom Hayden to come to Newark in 1965. — Credit: Robert Curvin Collection

Strategies for the Medical School Fight

Strategies for the Medical School Fight

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Memo from Junius Williams outlining possible strategies to combat the proposed Medical School in the Central Ward. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Junius Williams explains the political significance of the Medical School Fight for Newark’s Black communities. — Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Route 75 and Political Power in Newark

Route 75 and Political Power in Newark

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Paper written by Junius Williams explaining the political implications of the planned Route 75 construction on the 1970 mayoral election. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

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