Four Who Made a Difference for Blacks

Groups and Communities
Published January 28, 1999

Four Who Made a Difference for Blacks

| Published January 28, 1999

Harold Lett (1897-1974) was director of the New Jersey Urban League, a director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Programs in Police and Community Relations and a member of the Newark Housing Authority. The Newark Public Library

Distant aspects of African-American history are really not all that removed from Newark’s modern history.

Often events are overlooked, forgotten, pushed aside or simply lost in the passing from one generation to another. Specialized history, whether it is military, social, political, ethnic, racial or any other concentrated area, can be enriched not only by standard printed sources, but also by newspapers. What rests in ancient archives and newspapers are invaluable research tools. If the topic is of recent origin, it can enhanced by interviews or oral history techniques. Today, we begin our exploration of Newark’s African-American past, a task that is far from complete yet extremely important.


The institution of slavery existed in Newark and Essex County for approximately 125 years before it was eradicated by the start of the Civil War. To truly understand slavery and its effects upon us, a more detailed study needs to be made than is possible in the confines of this column. But here are a few examples of what happened locally. In 1746, there seemed to be no problem in distinguishing the conflict between the Bible and slavery in Puritan society. Emanuel Cocker advertised in the New York Gazette on November 26 for a Newark runaway—'Charles aged about 35 years, and speaks broken English.' Cocker offered 5 pounds for his return. In following years both New York and local newspapers ran advertisements for the recovery of Newark runaways. In 1776, during the Revolution, there was reference to Cudjo, a slave who fought for the aged Benjamin Coe in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. As a result, Cudjo was awarded his freedom and a house and a lot on High Street, now Martin Luther King Boulevard, following the war.

It was up to newspaper editors Jabez Parkhurst and Samuel Pennington to be the first in Newark to speak out against slavery. 'No longer such injustice was to be tolerated in the land of liberty…Shall Americans who nobly resented the first attempts of a designing ministry to enslave them, and took up arms to defend their right, and conquered under the banner of freedom, continue to hold their fellow-men in thralldom? For shame!' While slavery still existed in Newark, there were also 75 free black Newark taxpayers who had their own local businesses and the right to vote. But a voting fraud case involving illegal voting procedures resulted in the loss of voting rights not only for blacks (not to be returned until the 1870s), but also for women, who were not re-enfranchised until 1920. The year 1834 saw Peter Johnson and Henry Frayton, both black, organize the Newark Anti-Slavery Society to protest slavery. They were joined by local Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Samuel Cornish. At the time the only Newark church to take a strong stand against slavery was the Free Presbyterian Church. That act resulted in its alienation from older established churches. As late as 1810 there were 1,129 slaves in Essex County, most of them living in Clinton Township, later the Clinton Hill section of Newark. They were employed on the farms that once dominated the area. By 1846 the number of New Jersey slaves had dropped to fewer than 300. Strong opinions were finally beginning to turn the tide against slavery. By 1860, all blacks in Newark were free, with many working in jobs ranging from manual labor to tending restaurants which they were eventually to own. The corner had finally been turned on a sad era of American history.

Hartman H. Brown

As late as 1969 accounts of former slaves were still appearing in the paper from time to time. Hartman H. Brown was a former slave from Louisiana brought north to stay with what remained of his family. Although his memories were of the Deep South, there were people who actually could remember back before the Civil War in Newark. Brown recalled how as a boy the Union soldiers laid siege to Fort Beauregard, La. After the war he reported playing in the old trenches and told himself that he would live a long time. He was interviewed in a Newark nursing home at 117 and reportedly died at 123 in 1969. Before moving to Newark to live with a grandson, the Rev. J. C. Brown of the New Light Baptist Church, he had been taught how to read by plantation slave tutors, served as a deacon in his old home church for almost 75 years, and shared a happy life with his wife until she died at 94.

Joseph Scotland

Joseph Hugh Evans Scotland was born in Antigua, British West Indies, in 1863, joined the Royal Navy and eventually ended up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his uncle lived. The isolation of the area and the conservatism of the community soon resulted in his move on to the United States, where he received a scholarship to attend Cooper Union in New York. The lucrativeness of a job on the railroad resulted in Evans’ employment with the Jersey Central Railroad, where he met such people as President Grover Cleveland and J. Pierpont Morgan. Evans soon opened a small diner in Newark, the Homestead Lunchroom, at New and Broad streets across from Hahne’s department store. It became a popular meeting place for department store staff as well as the public. About the same time, he wrote John H. Davis, a New York City bank president, saying, 'I was very impressed by your board of directors yesterday but I believe that every bouquet needs a spot of color in it. I’d like a job with your organization.' His request resulted in 10 years of employment with the bank. New Jersey soon called out to him again, this time with the post of justice of the peace and documents clerk of Essex County. Former Gov. Franklin Murphy pushed for Scotland’s appointment to this important post. Scotland soon became known as 'Newark’s marrying justice' as well as 'major domo of the record vault' in the clerk’s office. In addition to his regular vocation, he was keenly sensitive to and a supporter of 'Negro rights.' He was adamant in his support in adding 'colored teachers' to segregated schools, and was also associated with several literary clubs. Scotland always kept a fine cigar box on his desk that had belonged to his father, a world traveler in the British Navy aboard the H.M.S. Northhampton. ‘‘It links the old and the new,' he said. 'It is a steady reminder that a Negro can raise himself to a place where he is respected by white men as well as black.'

Walter E. Fenderson

Walter E. Fenderson was one of the founders of the Newark NAACP and a senior member of the African-American community for a good portion of the first half of this century. A native of Swansbury, N.C., he lived on Elm Street for most of his life and died in Newark’s Presbyterian Hospital. Fenderson’s father moved north, first to New York City and later became part of the Newark scene. At first Fenderson got a job with the old Century Club. He later became purchasing agent for the General Education Board of New York, which later merged with the Rockefeller Foundation. Fenderson married Grace Baxter, daughter of James Baxter, Newark’s first African-American school principal, and became part of one of Newark’s oldest and most distinguished black families. Fenderson’s lifelong devotion to the NAACP started when his father registered him as a boy before the family moved to Newark. It continued through the years. He thought it necessary to affiliate with the organization because 'prejudice is very big.' In later years he abstained from serving on the NAACP board, not wanting to appear to monopolize the organization or to overpower it with 'too many Fendersons.' Well-known throughout the community, he was active with the Friendly Neighborhood House in Court Street and the YMCA, and was warden of the old St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, an active parishioner of Trinity Cathedral, and a member of the Urban League and active supporter of the Newark Museum. Fenderson was secretary of the F & A M Lodge No. 116, and was a member of the Alpha Lodge of Newark for 46 years. Like Prudential’s symbol of the rock of Gibraltar, Walter Fenderson served as an example of a man who stood on the principles of fairness and equality.

Harold Lett

Harold Lett, former director of the New Jersey Urban League, was born in Cass Lake, Minn., son of the only black family in town at that time. He knew nothing of the world of prejudice until he left home at the age of 27 to work in a Lansing, Mich. furniture factory. He later went into government service with the Michigan Department of State, where he soon rose to head of the correspondence and complaint section of the state’s auto title division. In 1929, Lett became industrial secretary of the Urban League of Pittsburgh. Four years later he decided to move to Newark. As director of the interracial New Jersey Urban League, he was now in a position to be at the focal point of black activity in Essex County. At that time, the league provided a child health clinic at 53 W. Market St. and worked in close cooperation with the New Jersey Tuberculosis League. But the main purpose of the organization was 'to break down discrimination against the Negro in the business and industrial world, and to gain equal rights in governmental employment agencies.' Based upon the working conditions he found in Newark’s society, Lett was surprised that the Negro 'had not turned to open rebellion when denied equal rights to make a decent living.' His theory was they were restrained because 'the Negro is essentially an individual. He does not take easily to mass movement, and his education, even when he received very little, always emphasized two points—Christianity and Americanism.' By the 1940s, Lett felt that equality was about ready to come, and that World War II would make it a reality. 'We have always had freedom and equality for minorities in theory. This is a way to bring theory and practice together. We are going to try to make it as painless as possible.' As a former director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Programs in Police and Community Relations, as a governmental official in Michigan, as a member of the Newark Housing Authority, as a coordinator of many human relations workshops across the state and country, and as an active churchman, Harold Lett was a tremendously successful adopted Newark son.