Civil Rights ‘Tales’ Recall a Life Spent on the Front Lines

Groups and Communities
Published July 4, 1996

Civil Rights ‘Tales’ Recall a Life Spent on the Front Lines

| Published July 4, 1996

In 1987, Leonard Coleman then state community affairs commissioner and now president of baseball’s National League, and Thomas Kean, then governor of New Jersey and now president of Drew University, presented William Ashby with a portrait that was placed in the New Jersey Community Affairs Building in Trenton, renamed in his honor. The Newark Public Library

With the unveiling of the second edition of William Ashby’s civil rights journal, 'Tales Without Hate,' Newark’s history has unfolded a bit further.

The new hardbound book was heralded during a recent reception in Centennial Hall of the Newark Public Library, the same spot where Ashby stood just a few years earlier, acknowledging accolades on the eve of his 100th birthday. He died the following year. On the recent evening, a large crowd gathered to remember and salute the many accomplishments of the man whom many still refer to as the dean of the city’s civil rights leaders.

While Ashby’s life was devoted to the betterment of housing, employment and health, his interest in Newark’s architectural history was reflected in the active role he played as a charter member of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee.Ashby, affectionately known as Uncle Billy to family and close friends, was born in Carter’s Creek, VA, close to Williamsburg and Jamestown, and grew up in Newport News. His parents were tax-paying, property-owning free blacks of York County, Va., a fact he mentioned in every biographical interview. One of 10 children, he did not remain in the Tidewater area of Virginia long, moving north at an early age to live in Roselle, N.J., with his mother. She had left Virginia in search of a better life as a domestic. An overnight passage from Norfolk on the Old Dominion Steamship Line brought him to New York and then to New Jersey, where he resettled with his mother and a brother. After his arrival, he worked as a gardener and later waited on tables at a Newark restaurant. Soon he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he received his undergraduate degree. When he returned home, the only job he could find was waiting on tables. 'I felt a contemptible disgust with myself…a college graduate and still a waiter,' he later recalled.

After hearing a speech by Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs at the Newark Labor Lyceum on Springfield Avenue, Ashby decided, 'I will devote myself to the service of my fellow man.' Reading a description of course work for the Yale School of Religion inspired him to apply. He was accepted and, upon completion of his degree, returned to Newark to become the state’s first black social worker. For a year he taught in North Carolina at the National Training School. But soon he was back in Newark again to accept a position as the head of what would become the Urban League. The year was 1917. Many of the challenges and skirmishes in which he became entangled as one of Newark’s first and most prominent civil rights leaders are included in the new book. Some are serious, some humorous. All are important facets of Newark history.

From 1917 to 1927, Ashby was a familiar face whenever a crucial event affected the city or its residents. One of his greatest supporters was Mrs. Felix Fuld, sister of the department store owner, Louis Bamberger. From 1932 to 1944, he served in a similar position with the Urban League in Springfield, Ill. He subsequently was transferred to Union County, N.J., serving there until his retirement in 1954. Retirement did not mean isolation for this old soldier, for Uncle Billy’s trademarks his straw hat with its dashing red, white and blue band and his walking cane soon become familiar sights at meetings throughout the city. When the Newark Human Rights Commission met, he was there, serving as a commissioner for several years. Ditto the Advisory Committee onCivilRights, the Afro-American Committee of the New Jersey Historical Society and the Newark Club of the Frontiers International. In his later years, he became a loyal member of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, first as a founding member and later as the organization’s recording secretary.

Throughout his long years, Ashby was supported by his loving wife, Mary; his niece, Mrs. Simeon (Edith) Moss; and close friend Walter Chambers, as well as dozens of people too numerous to name. Those who knew him well considered him dedicated and tenacious in his career, kind and loving in his personal affairs and keenly interested in the general good of the individual as well as the community as a whole. Ashby was recognized throughout Newark for his many accomplishments. While plaques and citations of all sorts decorated his West Market Street home, three special tributes stand out: the vest-pocket park named for him by the Frontiers International on the street where he lived; the naming of the state Department of Community Affairs headquarters in Trenton in his honor; and the recent publication of the second edition of his book, 'Tales Without Hate.' As Victoria Snoy, president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, noted during the library reception, the incidents he recorded in his book did as much to preserve the city’s historical records as did his efforts to save bricks and mortar. Late in life, Ashby noted, 'I am an old man in the last decade of a century of life. For me, the dusk of living has come. (But) as long as one in the dawn of his existence will reach across the decades and grab the hand of one in the dark, then mankind need not to fear that it will be blasted into oblivion tomorrow.'