A highway could have connected routes 280 and 78. Neighborhood fight stopped it.

Updated Oct 27, 2019

Junius Williams still has the map of Route 75, a proposed six-lane highway that never happened in Newark nearly 50 years ago.

“We stopped that highway," said Williams, Newark’s city history. “That was my favorite campaign."

At the time, Williams was director of the Newark Area Planning Association (NAPA), a grassroots organization that raised hell in 1968 to fight against the transportation project to connect Route 280 and Route 78.

The midtown connector, Williams said, would have cut through the Central Ward, displaced thousands of poor black families and weakened their political power under an urban renewal plan that had been on the books earlier during the decade.

“We just didn’t know about it," Williams said.

Newark activists were involved in a lot of important work back then, including the campaign to get Kenneth Gibson elected as the city’s first black mayor. They were also protesting plans by the city of Newark and the state to relocate the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to the Central Ward.

Williams was part of that fight, too. Had it gone through as planned, 20,000 families would have been displaced. Instead, Williams was part of negotiations with city and state officials to come up with another plan that reduced the acreage on which the medical school would be built.

“This one (Route 75) kind of fell through the cracks," Williams said.

Not for long.

Williams created placards and bumper stickers - Keep Black Newark Alive, Stop Route 75 - to protest the project when he was spokesman for the Emergency Committee to Stop Route 75. He organized community meetings at Central Presbyterian Church on Clinton Avenue, forming coalitions and unusual alliances in October 1968.

Aside from traditional community and civil rights organizations, members of the Black Panther Party and white ministers were part of the 40-member coalition that boarded a bus to the State Highway Commission in Trenton. State officials contacted Williams to meet with him about community concerns since he was leading the opposition.

“He (Junius) was an intelligent legal and community activist," said former Mayor Sharpe James. “You don’t find too many who are like that."

Williams said the coalition – many of whom were militant - didn’t hold back when the meeting started. Some stood on the conference table, he said, looking down at state officials that included New Jersey Transportation Commissioner David J. Goldberg.

There were disputes about just how many people would have been affected by the highway. Williams said upwards of 20,000 people were in jeopardy. But based on the 1960 Census, the city’s planning office said the figure was more like 2,800 families or 8,700 people. The state’s highway division estimated 2,000 families and the Newark Housing Authority said 1,500.

The numbers did not sit well with former City Councilman Calvin West. He led his council colleagues to approve a resolution urging then Gov. Richard Hughes and the state department of transportation to stop land acquisition for the highway.

“I recall being against the project," West said. “As I reflect, I remember it well."

West agreed with Williams’ position that blacks in the South and Central wards would have suffered politically.

“Essex County was becoming a powder keg as for as the advancement of minorities," West said. “If I’ve got a home that is demolished, I don’t have them to vote in the next election. They’re gone."

By February 1969, the project was halted and no longer talked about as an engine for economic growth to relieve congestion on local streets. Former Mayor Hugh J. Addonizio and Goldberg suspended acquisition of property in the path of the highway that would have run parallel to Belmont Avenue – now Irvine Turner Boulevard – and Norfolk Street.

Bill Yuen, who was a member of NAPA, said the highway didn’t make much sense nor did it serve much purpose. In addition to Trenton demonstration, he said a group of them also traveled to Washington, D.C. to raise the Route 75 issue with Congress during a transportation hearing.

“It looked like to us that it was designed to wipe out what was left of the Central Ward," said Yuen, a lawyer and now a resident of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Many organizations supported the protest, including the Newark branch of the NAACP, United Afro-American Association, Urban League of Newark, state chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, Metropolitan Baptist Church, the North Jersey Community Union, New Hope Baptist Church and Area Board Three, a subsidy of the United Community Corporation.

Of all the things that Williams has been a part of in Newark, he said blocking Route 75 was his most satisfying conquest. Unlike the medical school issue, Williams said he didn’t have to go to court, or come up with an alternative plan for the highway.

With Route 75, the highway project hit a dead end in a few short months when people organized and got angry.

“It’s kind of funny when you look at it now, but it was serious back then," Williams said.

 

This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future -- all the unusual things that make our great state what is it. Got a story to pitch? Email it to local@njadvancemedia.com.

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