Philip Thigpen remembered when the highest position an African-American could hope to achieve in Essex County government was janitor at the Hall of Records.
Thigpen recounted the county and city of his youth as he stood before an audience Monday that included Donald Payne Jr., the former president of the Newark Municipal Council who is now the second African-American from New Jersey ever to serve in Congress.
“They’re like the bookends” to the half-century separating the limited opportunities for blacks in the early 1960s and the election of Payne, who succeeded his father, the late Donald Sr., in the 10th District seat last year.
Thigpen and Larrie West Stalks were the honorees during the county’s Black History Month celebration, which was held at the LeRoy Smith Public Safety Building, where Thigpen received the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award. Stalks, who broke barriers as both an African-American and a woman, was given the Coretta Scott King Award.
Both awardees were recognized for their decades of service in county government and for paving the way for those who followed them. Thigpen, who has served as Essex County register since being elected in 2009, has also chaired the Essex County Democratic Party since 2001. A former East Orange councilman, Thigpen has also served as a freeholder and as director of the Essex County Department of Planning and Development. In 2012, he also served on the state’s Congressional Redistricting Commission.
Stalks, a Newark native who has lived in South Orange for 40 years, has also served as county register, a post to which she was first elected in 1974 and went on to fill for the next 20 years. Her career includes a number of firsts -- first African-American appointed department head in Newark history and first African-American president of the County Officers of New Jersey among them. She also served as a mentor to African-American women in government and became a Democratic Party stalwart, using her Rector Street home as a base that came to be known as “The House for Democrats.”
“I know whose shoulders I stand on, because if they hadn’t done what they did in the 1960s and ‘70s, there would not have been a Donald Payne Sr., or a Donald Payne Jr.,” Payne said. “I know from where my blessings flow.”
“When Larrie and Phil were growing up in Newark, there were limited opportunities for people of color,” said Speaker of the Assembly Sheila Oliver, who is also African-American. “They broke the sound barrier.”
As Oliver spoke, a PowerPoint presentation behind her scrolled through mini-bios of other prominent African-Americans, like Dr. Charles Drew, who created the first blood bank, and inventor Garrett Morgan, who developed a type of gas mask.
Also displayed was R and B great James Brown, who provided a handy quote for Oliver capturing the ethos shared by many African-Americans who have struggled against bigotry.
“‘I don’t want nobody givin’ me nothin’. I’ll open the door and get it myself,’” Oliver said.
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