Thomas Mundy Peterson – Thomas Mundy Peterson was the first African-American to vote in an election on March 31, 1870 under the provisions of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Born in Metuchen and the son of a slave, Peterson cast his vote in Perth Amboy in a local election over the town’s charter, which he voted in favor of revising. He was given a medal for making history at the time by local citizens Along with making history as America’s first Black voter. The medal is housed at the historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana. Peterson was also the first Black person in Perth Amboy to serve on a jury.
Paul Robeson – Born in Princeton, Paul Robeson was singer, actor and activist. He became the third African American to enroll at Rutgers University in 1915. While at the school he played for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team and played other sports becoming All-American. Robeson also participated in the debate team and sang in the glee club. He also became active in the Civil Rights Movement and other social justice campaigns. His numerous film roles include Show Boat, The Song of the Rivers and The Emperor Jones.
Trenton Six – The Trenton Six (Ralph Cooper, Collis English, McKinley Forrest, John McKenzie, James Thorpe, and Horace Wilson) is the group of the six African-American men convicted in August 1948 by an all-white jury sentenced to death for the alleged murder of elderly white shopkeeper William Horner in Trenton. The Civil Rights Congress and the NAACP had legal teams that represented three men each in appeals to the State Supreme Court. The NAACP claimed that the court’s instruction to the jury, and remanded the case to a lower court for retrial. After several trials, Forrest, McKenzie, Thorpe and Wilson were all acquitted, Cooper pled guilty and was sentenced to life and was paroled in 1954 before disappearing from records and English died in prison.
Jacob Lawrence – Famed painter Jacob Lawrence is best known for his portrayal of African-American life in his works. He was the first African-American artist to be represented in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Born in Atlantic City, he was just 23 years old when he gained national recognition with his 60-panel Migration Series. His works have been displayed in several museums including the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Jessie Redmon Fauset – Fredericksville native Jessie Redmon Fauset was a African-American editor, poet, essayist, novelist, and educator. She made tremendous contributions to the Harlem Renaissance with her literary works and literary editor for the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis. Fauset was the first African-American graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls and is considered to be the first black woman accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Through her role she discovered several famous Black writers, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay.
Count Basie – Famed jazz musician, composer and bandleader Count Basie was born in Red Bank in 1904. He led Count Basie Orchestra anc made significant contributions to jazz music and wrote norable songs including “April in Paris” and “One O’Clock Jump.” In 1958, he became the first African-American to win a Grammy Award in the Best Jazz Performance, Group category for his album The Atomic Mr. Basie. He would go one to earn a total of nine Grammys. Over the course of his 60-year career, Basie released over 35 albums and appeared in eight movies.
Sylvia Dubois – Sylvia Dubois Was an African-American woman born into slavery who became free after striking her slave mistress. Dubois was born in Sourland Mountain, NJ in 1788 she was a slave working at a tavern in Great Bend, Penn. In 1808, history dictates that while scrubbing a floor, Dubois’ slave mistress did not like the work she was doing and hit her. Dubois hit the slave mistress back. She fled to New York but later returned to Great Bend and her master set her free. Dubois then went to New Brunswick to be with her mother. She later inherited Put’s Tavern owned by her grandfather becoming the owner. Dubois lived to be 100 years old and died in Sourland Mountain.
Donald M. Payne – Congressman Donald M. Payne was the first African American to represent New Jersey in Congress when he was elected in 1989. A native of Newark, Payne was also the first Black president of the National Council of YMCAs in 1970. He first entered politics in in 1972, when he was elected to the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders serving three terms. Payne also served three terms on the Newark Municipal Council. During his nearly 25 years in Congress, Payne was a member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and was active on issues relating to Africa and was an advocate of education. Upon his death in 2012 while in office, his son Donald Payne Jr. was elected to his seat.
Marion Thompson Wright – Marion Thompson Wright became the first African-American woman in the United States to earn her Ph.D. in 1940. Born in East Orange, Wright earned her Ph.D in History from Columbia University. She earned her bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Howard University where she taught after earning her Ph.D. Her dissertation was on “The Education of Negroes in New Jersey,” which was used during Brown v. Board of Education. Speaking from personal experience, Wright attended Barringer High School in Newark where she was one of two Black students at the school at the time.
Whitney Houston – Singer and actress Whitney Houston was born in Newark in 1963 and is the most awarded female artist of all time. She is also one of the best-selling music artists of all time selling 200 million records. The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, Whitney began singing at age age of 11 at New Hope Baptist Church and performed with her mother at nightclubs. Whitney’s self-titled debut album was released in 1985 containing the single “Saving All My Love for You” topping the Billboard charts. She earned a total of seven Grammys. As an actress, Whitney starred in the films The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife. A history maker, Whitney was the first woman of color to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine, the first African-American woman to receive consistent heavy rotation on MTV and first woman in music history to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart. She died at the age of 48 in 2012.