Newark residents who made a difference; the sign says it all

  By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on October 21, 2014

A street sign at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Osborne Terrace bears the name of J. Wesley Tann Jr., a Newark resident who worked tirelessly as president of his block association.


The street-sign tributes are located less than a half-mile apart in Newark’s South Ward .

They were erected earlier this year, within three months of each other.

One sign bears this name: J. Wesley Tann Jr. Way.

It was placed last month at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Osborne Terrace, the block where J. Wesley Tann Jr. lived and made civic virtue his calling card as president of the block association.

Neighbors say Tann was the link between them and City Hall, the person who fought like hell to improve their neighborhood.

“He worked hard to keep this place safe and beautiful,’’said his sister Mabel Blair, who lives across the street. “Naming this block in his honor would bring a smile to his face.’’

Down the hill from Tann Way is another street sign — in memory of a woman who protected her area with a whistle and a stop sign. Barbara Hillman Way is at the corner of West Bigelow Street and Ridgewood Avenue, a neighborhood of two- and three-family homes where Hillman made her mark as a school crossing guard who didn’t just stop traffic for 37 years. She pushed for school lunch programs and organized coat drives when kids were hungry and cold.

“She didn’t just cross the kids,’’ said her son, Glenn Hillman. “She was a community person.’’

Tann and Hillman didn’t know one another, but the street-sign tributes demonstrate that they are people who cared a bit deeper about their community.

Tann died Nov. 23, 2012. He was 84.

Hillman died Nov. 4, 2013. She was 82.

Street designations are rare in Newark and reserved for those residents who city officials believe have made outstanding contributions. Tann and Hillman are among an estimated 100 people who have earned this tribute, but there’s talk of another to honor a patriarch of the funeral business in Newark.

His name is James E. Churchman Jr. He died Sept. 11 and, in a moment, we’ll get to what made a him a treasure in this city.

With Tann, however, we can talk about how, as a young teenager, he came to live in the Washington, D.C., home of former Congressman Adam Clatyon Powell Jr. The civil rights activist, who knew a friend of Tann's father, took in the 13-year-old boy after both his parents died.

At a young age he was exposed to the social graces and enjoyed the company of famous blacks such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson and Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights leader who was an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We can admire his accomplishments as the first African-American fashion designer to open a salon on Seventh Avenue in New York, where he created maternity clothes for Jacqueline Kennedy and sleek outfits for opera singer Leontyne Price and Jennie Grossinger, of Grossinger's Resort.

Those who visited his home when he moved to Newark in the mid-1970s quickly discovered that dining with Tann was an experience. The food and décor could have been featured in a magazine, not surprising since this was a man who was an interior designer, event planner and an expert in protocol and etiquette.

“When we sat at his table we felt just a little bit more elegant,’’ said his neighbor and friend, Al Bundy.

Tann’s pedigree stood out, but what people remember most is that he showed folks how to live, how to treat one another, how to comport oneself with dignity and respect.

This, along with acknowledging his community advocacy, is the sentiment that resonated at the street dedication ceremony organized by Newark Council President Mildred Crump.

She’ll never forget how Tann led the fight with city officials to rid an apartment building of drug dealers.

“His life was threatened because he fearlessly pushed back,’’ Crump said. “He was the advocate for it.’’

Tann had nothing to hide. His life was an open book, just like the blinds of his kitchen window — through which anyone could see him cooking, talking on the phone, looking out for the the people in his community. Crump and his sister hope they continue to live his example.

Blocks away, Barbara Hillman helped thousands of city children get to school safely for 37 years.

Glenn Hillman said no child was ever injured under her watch, an achievement she was most proud of when she retired in 2007.

When Glenn looks up at the street sign, he’s still amazed that his mother had such an impact and that she would be honored with a street sign, the result of a recommendation from district leader Keith Hamilton to then-South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka.

Hillman’s street sign indicates that she was a steadying force in the community during a time when there were two-parent households and neighbors who looked after each other. Kids played safely outside without worrying about crime that grips the city today.

“It symbolizes the people who lived on the block,’’ Glenn Hillman says. “It’s a memory of how beautiful the community was then.’’

And that brings us to Churchman, and the way he comforted families.

Dolores Walker, now 75, has been singing his praises since 1971.

She was 32 years old and had eight children when her husband died. She didn’t have the money to bury him, but promised Churchman that she would pay him back. This was a story he heard often from people, but she said, in her case, he believed it was true.

“He was a good man,’’ Walker says.

Not only did he wait for her payment, Walker says, he also drove her to the Social Security Administration offices to make sure she would receive benefits for the children.

“I hope they do give him a sign . He deserves it,’’ she said.

His daughter, Edith C. Churchman, said her dad was a gentleman with his own family and with the families he served. He never got mad or argued with customers and, even when his health declined, she says, he still tried to go to funerals to be sure proper attention was given to the families.

“He always put people first,’’ she said.

So, on Sept. 16, the people paid homage to the man who treated them fairly. The ceremony was classy, just like Churchman, who was always impeccably dressed.

There was a horse-drawn carriage to carry the casket, followed by 41 funeral hearses from across the state. When the processional reached Trinity & St. Philips Cathedral on Broad Street, a brass band was playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.’’

There is a street sign in front of Churchman’s Funeral Home on 13th Avenue and Seventh Street. It reads: “James Churchman Sr. Plaza” (the name of Churchman’s father). The elder Churchman was recognized about 10 years ago for his dedicated service and commitment to families.

But that’s going to change soon. One more name will be added to the sign: James Churchman Jr.

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