Former Newark mayors share their life and times in the city

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on May 17, 2016

The road to Newark for Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James was as interesting and similar as the men who became the city's first and second African-American mayors.

They were young boys, four years apart in age, when their families left the south, like many blacks migrating north, looking for an opportunity.

Gibson grew up in Enterprise, Ala, but the family house had an amenity that upset his father's white employer in the 1930s.

"The people that he worked for got jealous because we had an indoor bathroom and they didn't,'' Gibson said.

Because of that, his father's pay was cut, forcing him to leave and find work elsewhere.   When he settled in Newark, Gibson said, the family joined him in 1940.

Four years later, James' mother, Beulah James, fled segregation and an abusive boyfriend in Jacksonville, Fla. She packed up James and his brother, Joe, in the middle of the night with a plan to board a freight train headed this way.

"Mother built a fire on the track and the train stopped,'' James said.

It was an evening of intimate story-telling and conversation one night last week when two of Newark's most engaging political figures traded tales at the Newark Public Library.

The event was one in a series of notable Newarkers reflecting on the city as it celebrates its 350th anniversary. The discussions, organized by former Star-Ledger reporter Guy Sterling, will continue through the end of the year as the schedule is finalized.

On this evening James and Gibson were entertaining and inspiring. They opened windows into their lives, shared the highs and lows of their mayoral tenure, and praised Newark's school system for providing them with a top-notch education.

"Teachers cared,'' James said. "They'd yell at you, they'd scream at you, they kept you after school. You had homework and they would hit you and throw things at you.''

The audience cracked up, but understood where he was going.

"They treated you like you were their own family,'' James said.

The Centennial Room in library was filled with men and women of the former mayors' era, so they could relate to Gibson when he talked about how he was determined to pursue college instead of learning a trade, something many blacks were encouraged to do.

"I decided that anybody who told me that I couldn't do something, that was the reason I was going to do it,'' he said.

James graduated from South Side High School, Montclair State University and earned his master's degree in physical education from Springfield College. He initially became a teacher once he realized a career in professional sports was not in the cards.

Gibson, analytical and scientific, started out as an engineer after graduating from Central High School and the Newark College of Engineering.

Both men, however, said they felt compelled to seek office following a governor's commission investigating the 1967 civil disturbances. This was a time when the city was in bad financial shape and its government was perceived as corrupt.  Gibson, who was elected in 1970, said there were deep racial and economic divisions.

"What people don't understand is that segregation didn't just exist in the south,'' Gibson said.

He said blacks couldn't sit downstairs in Newark movie theaters and they were not allowed into the private "Downtowner Club'' restaurant at Bamberger's department store.

James said black political leadership was necessary, because it was practically nonexistent in Newark. But one way blacks could change their plight was to get involved with United Community Corporation(UCC), a Newark organization in charge of federal antipoverty funds. With the money, James said UCC was required by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act to  fund neighborhood programs and elect local community boards with officers to address local concerns. 

Years later, at the Black and Puerto Rican Convention, more progress was made when local leaders put together a candidate slate with James running for the South Ward council seat and Gibson vying for  mayor.

In four mayoral terms, Gibson said, he was most proud of creating health centers to lower Newark's high rates of tuberculosis and venereal disease, but disappointed that the quality of education in the school system began to decline.

After 16 years as a councilman, James defeated Gibson in 1986 and took over a city beset with crime and poor public housing. But he reduced crime, ushered in the Prudential Arena, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and built 30,000 new units of housing.

Gibson and James' had contrasting styles but both were effective in office. Now that they are not,  the two still have much to offer. The audience remained riveted for two hours listening to Gibson, his cadence measured, his thoughts methodical and humorous at times. 

James' delivery gained speed with each idea, his voice growing loud to make a point. Fiercely defensive of Newark, James often wrote letters to The Star-Ledger objecting to stories he thought were negative.  As a councilman, James demanded and received an apology from Talk Show Host Phil Donahue for criticizing Newark.

Both men talked about their difficulties as mayor trying to meet  the public's expectations , how they struggled with their vision to move Newark forward. Gibson didn't have a supportive council. James was more fortunate, but, he said, the council he worked with was politically astute and it challenged him often.

After their time leading the city, each man had their troubles with the law. Gibson pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2002 after bribery and fraud charges were dismissed. James, who was Newark's mayor for 20 years, served an 18 month jail sentence after a federal jury convicted him on fraud charges.

In 50 years, Gibson hopes Newark's educational future has improved. James is worried about the city, given the state of today's national politics and divisive rhetoric.

They had much insight to offer. Gibson said his path almost ended before it began. He accidentally swallowed a whistle at 5-years-old that lodged in his chest. Doctors told his father he was going to die. But a Philadelphia physician managed to remove it.

Gibson turned 84 on Sunday.

James, 80, credits the perseverance of his 101-year-old mother for how he turned out. And he honors, Gibson, his "hero,'' for leading the way and showing him the ropes.

''How many years are left for Ken Gibson and Sharpe James to sit on a stage together?'' James asked.

Who knows, but their historical treat last week was recorded for others to enjoy in years to come.

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