The Burlington County Freeholder Board plans to give itself a new name, abandoning a centuries-old title considered by some as sexist and racist.
Director Felicia Hopson announced a plan Tuesday to introduce a resolution at the board’s Aug. 12 meeting to replace the term chosen freeholder with county commissioner. She said the county plans to begin phasing out the use of the word on its materials, website, and signs.
The action comes days after Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, (D., Gloucester) expressed support for replacing the slave-era term. Lawmakers are expected to consider a bill on Thursday to adopt the term commissioner, which is used by most states, and require all 21 counties to use it.
New Jersey is the only state in the country that uses the word freeholder to refer to its elected officials. The title is derived from an old-English term that referred to “free landowners” at a time when only white men could own property. The property could include enslaved people.
“Continuing our work to end systemic racism must be everyone’s objective, and eliminating an antiquated title from an era when slavery and racism [were] tolerated is one step we can take right away,” Hopson said in a statement. “Burlington County was a cradle of the abolitionist movement and home to several stops along the Underground Railroad, and we will once again lead the way by proactively eliminating this vestige of discrimination.”
The first Black Democrat to head the board in the predominantly white county, Hopson said the board doesn’t want to wait for the Legislature and Murphy to act and will immediately stop using the term freeholder in communications. She said the cost will be minimal because materials and signs will be updated under the county’s normal replacement schedule.
Hopson, of Willingboro, joined 18 other Black freeholders in a statement Tuesday calling for the state to abandon a word “that was born out of a period in which exclusivity, misogyny, racism, and privilege reigned.” They noted that New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery.