Each year, Best of NJ is proud to celebrate Black History Month throughout February. Our Black History NJ series is dedicated to spotlighting notable black and African Americans that have impacted the Garden State. These influential figures — both past and present — reflect a small sampling of the talent New Jersey natives have to offer. From actors and athletes to authors and attorneys, join us as we present some of New Jersey’s best and brightest!

If you like the series, or learned something new, be sure to share your favorite articles on social media! If you’d like to share your ideas for other influential folks we should spotlight, tweet to us @bestofnj, or send us a message on Facebook. We look forward to hearing from you!

Black History NJ: The Complete Series


Black History NJ: Edith Savage-Jennings

Edith Savage-Jennings

In the 1950s and ‘60s, New Jersey was no stranger to the Civil Rights Movement, which pushed the country towards a much greater sentiment of social justice and tolerance. In fact, NJ played a role in the movement as well as the events leading up to it. One major component was young New Jerseyan, Edith Savage-Jennings. The Civil Rights “champion” (as she’s known) was born in Florida in the early 1920s…

Black History NJ: Marion Thompson Wright

Marion Thompson Wright

The first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history in the United States, Marion Thompson Wright, was born on Sept. 13, 1905 in East Orange, New Jersey. Wright, who also was the first African American historian to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia University, was one of two black students at Newark’s Barringer High School during her attendance. Wright earned an academic scholarship to Howard University…

James Dickson Carr

James Dickson Carr was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 28, 1869. His father, William, was a Presbyterian minister. Though he was born in Maryland, Carr and his family made a couple major moves, resulting in public school attendances throughout New Haven, Connecticut and Elizabeth, New Jersey. At the age of 18, in 1886, Carr entered the Rutgers College Grammar School…

Black History NJ: Darryl DMC McDaniels

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels has been a cultural unifier all his life. As one-third of the pioneering rap group Run-D.M.C. alongside Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons and their late DJ, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, McDaniels — who happens to be a longtime northern New Jersey resident, and proud of it — helped break down cultural barriers in the ’80s by crossing rap music over into the mainstream…

Black History NJ: Tasha Smith

Tasha Smith

Actress, comedian and model, Tasha Smith, was born in Camden on February 28, 1971. She was raised by a single mother who gave birth to twins at the age of 15. Smith grew up amid gangsters, poverty and drugs, but she never let go of her dream to be a part of Hollywood. During her first year living in Los Angeles, Smith saw Martin Lawrence at the Comedy Act Theater, igniting her career in the performing arts…

Black History NJ: Eddie S Glaude

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Both the Chair of the Center for African American Studies and the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. was born on Sept. 4, 1968, in Moss Point, Mississippi. He is a self-professed man of humble roots, as he acknowledged in a commencement speech he delivered at Colgate University on May 17, 2015…

Black History NJ: Todd Bowles

Todd Bowles

New York Jets Head Coach Todd Bowles was born on Nov. 18, 1963. He grew up in Elizabeth, NJ in the now-demolished Pioneer Homes projects. His mother, Joan, raised four kids while juggling two jobs. In his youth, Bowles helped turn the Elizabeth High School football team around before playing college football at Temple. Bowles wasn’t drafted out of college, but the Washington Redskins signed him…

Black History NJ: Carl Lewis

Carl Lewis

Olympic track and field champion Frederick Carlton Lewis (aka Carl Lewis) was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 1, 1961. His mother, Evelyn Lawler, competed in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1951 Pan American Games, where she finished in 6th place representing the United States. Lewis’s younger sister, Carol, was also a track and field star who specialized in the long jump. Carol went on to win a number of medals…

Black History NJ: Keshia Knight Pulliam

Keisha Knight Pulliam

Actress Keshia Knight Pulliam was born in Newark, New Jersey on April 9, 1979. She lived with her parents and two brothers. Her career actually began in New York City, not far from her childhood home, when she was just nine-months-old. The gig was a print advertisement for Johnson & Johnson baby products. After that, her career was a non-stop series of successes…

Black History NJ: Victor Cruz

Victor Cruz

Football star Victor Cruz was born on Nov. 11, 1986, in Paterson, New Jersey. Cruz, who helped lead the Paterson Catholic High School football team to an undefeated season in his senior year, has dealt with and overcome adversity his entire life. He spent a post-graduate semester at Bridgeton Academy in Maine, where he earned an SAT score that helped him gain eligibility to play at the University of Massachusetts…

Black History NJ: Avery Brooks

Avery Brooks

The state of New Jersey has facilitated the growth of countless actors, activists, musicians, directors and educators. Among them is multi-talented star Avery Brooks, who encompasses all five traits in one. Brooks has accomplished a great number of things in his lifetime, often known for his role in Star Trek, but his dedication to preserving African American culture is especially noteworthy…

Black History NJ: Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson

Tennis icon Althea Gibson was the first African American to win a Grand Slam title, in 1956. She was born in Silver, South Carolina on Aug. 25, 1927, but moved with her parents to New York when she was very young. Gibson grew up on West 143rd St., between Lenox and Seventh Avenue, a block that was designated as a play street and featured a paddle tennis court right in front of her family’s apartment…


2016 Series

James StillFebruary 1: James Still

Known to his patients as “The Black Doctor of the Pines,” Dr. James Still became a wealthy and accomplished herbalist and homeopathic healer in the mid-1800s. Still was born to Levin and Charity Still, two former slaves from the Pine Barrens, on April 9, 1812 in Burlington County. He came from a poor family, and although he did attend school occasionally, he largely had to rely on himself…

Dionne WarwickFebruary 2: Dionne Warwick

Marie Dionne Warrick — more widely known as Dionne Warwick — was born on December 12, 1940 in East Orange, New Jersey. Warwick’s mother, aunts and uncles were members of The Drinkard Singers, a popular family gospel group originating in the 1930s. Warwick began singing gospel at a very young age at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, frequently joining The Drinkard Singers on stage and even on local television stations…

Jacob LawrenceFebruary 3: Jacob Lawrence

On September 7, 1917, Atlantic City, New Jersey became the birthplace of soon-to-be artist Jacob Lawrence. Lawrence lived in AC until he was a teenager, before he and his family moved to New York City. Shortly after, he took an interest in art and joined arts & crafts classes in Harlem. It became obvious Lawrence was talented from a young age, with instructors often commenting on his potential…

Jessie Redmon FausetFebruary 4: Jessie Redmon Fauset

The 1920s Harlem Renaissance spawned a number of incredible voices and artists. Among the impressive list is New Jersey’s own Jessie Redmon Fauset, who found success as a poet, essayist, novelist, teacher, and editor throughout her long lifetime. On April 27, 1884, Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in Camden County, New Jersey. Fauset faced a number of obstacles growing up, but managed to overcome each…

Larry DobyFebruary 5: Larry Doby

Lawrence Eugene Doby was born on December 13, 1923 in Camden, South Carolina. He spent the first 14 years of his life in Camden before moving to Paterson to be reunited with his mother, who had moved there four short years earlier. Doby soon attended Paterson Eastside High School, excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track. His football team was invited to play in Florida one year after winning the state championship…

O'Neal, ShaquilleFebruary 6: Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal was born on March 6, 1972 in Newark. Growing up, O’Neal would frequent the Boys and Girls Club of America in Newark, which he credited for providing him with a safe place to stay active and keep off the streets. Due to his step-father serving as a career Army Reserve sergeant, O’Neal and his family spent his earlier life relocating to military bases in Germany and Texas, until finally settling down in San Antonio…

Cory BookerFebruary 7: Cory Booker

Cory Anthony Booker was born on April 27, 1969 in Washington, D.C. He grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey, about twenty miles north of Newark. Booker was raised in a religious household; his family would often attend mass at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As he got older, Booker played on the 1986 USA Today All-USA high school football team before graduating from Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan…

verett Frederic MorrowFebruary 8: E. Frederic Morrow

Everett Frederic Morrow was born in Hackensack, New Jersey on March 20, 1906. He went on to attend Hackensack High School, during which time he served on the debate team for three years before becoming the team’s president during his senior year. He graduated in 1925. After graduation, Morrow attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine until 1930. He was one of only two African American students enrolled in the college…

Wayne ShorterFebruary 9: Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey on August 25, 1933. His love of music spawned at a young age, and his father encouraged him to take up clarinet when he was a teenager. He graduated from Newark Arts High School in 1952 before attending New York University, from which he graduated in 1956. Shorter spent the next couple of years in the United States Army, where he played with Horace Silver…

Joetta Clark DiggsFebruary 10: Joetta Clark Diggs

Joetta Clark was born on August 1, 1962 in East Orange, New Jersey; she subsequently grew up in Newark. As a child, she experienced riots and a number of other difficulties in her hometown, but through such adversity forged a will to succeed. Clark Diggs attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and graduated with a degree in public relations. During her time in college, she won nine collegiate titles…

Ice-TFebruary 11: Ice-T

Tracey Lauren Morrow, famously known as Ice-T, was born on February 16, 1958 in Newark, New Jersey. Despite being born in Newark, he and his family soon moved to Summit, New Jersey. Once there, Ice-T first experienced the brutality of racism at the young age of 7. At the same time, he escaped any form of abuse from his Caucasian friends because, since he had lighter skin, they thought he was white…

William StillFebruary 12: William Still

William Still, younger brother of Dr. James Still, was born on October 7, 1821 in Burlington County, New Jersey. He was the youngest of eighteen children, fourteen of whom were born after his parents and two siblings escaped slavery. Just like his brother James, William Still lacked much formal education and, instead, successfully taught himself how to read and write. Still grew up in New Jersey…

Whitney HoustonFebruary 13: Whitney Houston

Whitney Elizabeth Houston was born on August 9, 1963 in Newark, New Jersey. She began singing at a very young age, performing for the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where she also played the piano. As a teenager, she attended Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a Catholic girls’ school in Caldwell. Her mother, Emily “Cissy” Houston of the Drinkard Singers, was a constant source of musical education…

Dennis RodmanFebruary 14: Dennis Rodman

Dennis Keith Rodman was born on May 13, 1961 in Trenton, New Jersey. His father, Philander Rodman, Jr., walked out on the family when his oldest child was just 5 years old. Controversy surrounds the family, as Rodman has stated that his father had 46 other children, though Philander Rodman, Jr. claims he only has 29. His mother Shirley took up a number of odd jobs—sometimes four at a time—in order to support the family…

Al AttlesFebruary 15: Al Attles

Alvin Austin Attles, Jr. was born on November 7, 1936 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Weequahic High School in Newark, then went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in Physical Education and History, along with a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction, from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. Though Attles originally intended to coach at his local junior high school…

Flip WilsonFebruary 16: Flip Wilson

Clerow “Flip” Wilson, Jr. was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on December 8, 1933. His family frequently faced major financial difficulties, due to the combination of being raised in a big family during the Great Depression – Wilson was one of ten children – and his father’s difficulty maintaining a steady job. In 1941, Wilson’s mother walked out on the family, and his father was unable to take care of the children by himself…

Florence Spearing RandolphFebruary 17: Florence Spearing Randolph

Florence Spearing Randolph was born in Charleston, South Carolina on August 9, 1866. She was one of seven children born into a privileged African American family, whose free black ancestry extended back to about two generations before the Civil War. At 19 years old, Randolph moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, where she met Hugh Randolph from Richmond, Virginia. The couple married soon after and had one daughter named Leah Viola in 1887…

John RockFebruary 18: John S. Rock

John Stewart Rock was born on October 13, 1825 to free black parents in Salem, New Jersey. Rock’s parents encouraged him to complete his education, something that was uncommon for even whites during that time period; but by the age of 19, he had completed enough schooling for him to work as a teacher. He worked for four years in a one-room school in Salem, where he gained the adoration of his students as well as veteran schoolteachers…

Marvin HaglerFebruary 19: Marvin Hagler

On May 23, 1954, a boxing legend was born in Newark, New Jersey. Marvin Nathaniel Hagler spent the beginning of his life in the Central Ward of Newark, where he experienced the Newark Riots first-hand, which killed 26 people in July of 1967. The riots also caused $11 million in property damage, which included the Hagler family’s dwelling, forcing them to move. The family relocated to Massachusetts, where Hagler took up boxing…

Paul RobesonFebruary 20: Paul Robeson

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton. He was the youngest of five children. His mother came from a prominent Quaker family, and his father escaped slavery when he was a teenager and became a minister later on in his life. When Robeson was six years old, his mother died in a house fire, and he and his family were forced to move into the attic of a store in Westfield. Robeson attended Somerville High School…

Queen LatifahFebruary 21: Queen Latifah

Dana Elaine Owens, more famously known as Queen Latifah, was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 18, 1970. She donned the nickname “Latifah” for the first time when she was 8 years old, after she found out it meant “delicate” and “sensitive” in Arabic. Owens grew up in a police family (her father and brother were cops), which she credits for influencing her lifestyle and philosophy, and making her a tough person…

Cozy ColeFebruary 22: Cozy Cole

The 20th century produced a number of jazz musicians, but perhaps none as dynamic as great American jazz drummer, Cozy Cole. William Randolph “Cozy” Cole was born on October 17, 1909 in East Orange. In 1926, Cole and his family moved to New York City, where the presence of influential musicians like Duke Ellington and Sonny Greer was more conspicuous. It was here Cole began to develop a love of music, particularly jazz…

James P. JohnsonFebruary 23: James P. Johnson

On February 1, 1894, James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey to parents William H. Johnson, a mechanic, and Josephine Harrison, who worked as a maid. His father was a self-taught pianist and also sang in the church choir, which Johnson attributed to inspiring his musical career. In 1908, Johnson and his family relocated to the San Juan Hill section of New York City…

Lauryn HillFebruary 24: Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Noelle Hill was born on May 26, 1975 in East Orange, New Jersey. Her family eventually relocated to South Orange after moving around the area for a bit. She was raised Baptist and grew up in a racially integrated area, where she made friends with black and Jewish children, including future actor Zach Braff who was from the same neighborhood. Hill’s family was very music-oriented…

Joe BlackFebruary 25: Joe Black

Joseph Black was born on February 8, 1924 in Plainfield, New Jersey. He began playing baseball in his youth, and after high school graduation, Black attended Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. After college, Black was signed as a pitcher to the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro League. In his seven seasons with the Elite Giants, he guided the team to the Negro League Championship twice, winning both of them…

John AmosFebruary 26: John Amos

John A. Amos, Jr. was born in Newark, New Jersey on December 27, 1939. In 1958, he graduated from East Orange High School. From there, he attended Long Beach City College before moving on to Colorado State University and graduating with a degree in sociology. While in college, Amos played football for the Colorado State Rams, and later became a Golden Gloves boxing champion. He was signed to the Denver Broncos in 1964…

Roscoe Lee BrowneFebruary 27: Roscoe Lee Browne

On May 2, 1922, future actor Roscoe Lee Browne was born in Woodbury, New Jersey; he was raised in a Baptist family (his father was a Baptist minister). After graduating from high school, he attended Lincoln University in Oxford, Chester County, Pennsylvania and became a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Before graduating in 1946, Browne served in the Negro 92nd Infantry Division in Italy during World War II…

Micki Harris and The ShirellesFebruary 28: Micki Harris and the Shirelles

Addie “Micki” Harris was born in Passaic, New Jersey on January 22, 1940. She attended Passaic High School, where she met Beverly Lee (another Passaic native), Shirley Owens, and Doris Coley. The four girls became best friends, and were inseparable throughout high school. The quartet soon found that they were musically inclined, and formed their own group called The Poquellos, which means “little birds” in Spanish…

Count BasieFebruary 29: Count Basie

William James “Count” Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 21, 1904. Basie grew up in a music-oriented family; his father played the mellophone, and his mother played piano (she gave Basie lessons in his youth). During junior high school, he spent much of his time at the Palace Theater in Red Bank, where he gained free admission from doing smalls jobs for the theater…


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