Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday signed into law a measure to change the title of county freeholder to commissioner, erasing a relic of the era when it was legal for Black people to be enslaved in the United States.

New Jersey is the only state that still uses the centuries-old term chosen freeholder for the county board. Many Black people and women have labeled the term offensive.

“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,” Murphy said in a statement. “Amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges rooted in structural racism, this action will eliminate the use of the term ‘freeholder’ in county government — a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.”

Murphy signed the bill during a ceremony with some of the state’s 19 Black freeholders. The legislation gives county governments until Jan. 1 to stop using the term to describe their top elected officials.

“Although we may be the last state to end this vile categorization of county officeholders, we are the first to pass legislation and sign it into law, with overwhelming bipartisan support,” said Union County Freeholder Angela R. Garretson.

Lawmakers have said they were prompted to sponsor the bill in part by the civil rights movement sparked by the slaying of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

The freeholder title is derived from an old English word referring to “free land owners” at a time when only white men could own property. The property could have included enslaved people.

When the term was first used in the 1500s, only white men who owned land and were free from debt were eligible to hold elected office. Black people and women could not own property.

A bill to change the term was first introduced in 2011. It was presented again in July and quickly enacted, boosted by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country.

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, (D., Hudson) said the law was long overdue to “forever eliminate the archaic and hurtful term of ‘freeholder.’”

In a statement, Camden County Freeholders Jonathan Young and Barbara Holcomb, both Democrats, praised the change. Both are Black.

“We have long believed that New Jersey’s elected officials deserve a more dignifying title, one that represents what we strive to be today, not the sins of those long ago who used the office to further the oppression of others,” they said.

Some of New Jersey's 19 Black freeholders pose for a photo after Gov. Murphy signed into law a measure abolishing the use of the term to refer to their offices.
Courtesy of Teska Frisby
Some of New Jersey's 19 Black freeholders pose for a photo after Gov. Murphy signed into law a measure abolishing the use of the term to refer to their offices.

Voters in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties elect freeholders, typically five to seven, who serve three-year terms. They manage taxpayer-funded budgets; oversee property, parks, jails, and roadways; and govern county affairs.

Some counties, including Burlington, have stopped using “chosen freeholder.” The legislation requires counties to update their letterheads, stationery, websites, and other documents within a year, but not if replacing them would cost taxpayer funds.