Julia Miller, known to friends as Judy, is seen at two points in her life. Gov. Phil Murphy celebrated her achivements April 12, after her death earlier in the month from the coronavirus. (COURTESY OF THE MILLER FAMILY)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Even when your parents are larger than life, it’s the things they do for your family, for your friends, for your community that stick with you.

That might be why sons Eric and Craig Miller thought back to a lesson they learned about their mother when they were just children attending the then-Grove Street School, what’s now the private Deron School. Their Black family had moved into an all-white Montclair neighborhood a few years before, when parents Donald and Julia Miller bought a home on Stanford Place in 1962. And Craig Miller, who has dark skin, was told by his teacher his hands were “dirty,” Eric Miller recalled.

Julia Miller told the teacher just what was wrong with that, Eric Miller said. But she didn’t stop there. The next year, she was on the PTA. A few years after that, she was its president.

It wasn’t enough to push back on a problem; Julia Miller wanted to make a change for the better, Eric Miller said.

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“My mother was fierce,” he said. “You didn’t mess with her.”

Julia Miller, known to friends and the community as Judy, died April 3 at the age of 92 of coronavirus complications. 

To someone other than family, her time on the PTA might barely register as a footnote in what Gov. Phil Murphy Monday said was a life as a “giant in Montclair and the surrounding communities.” She’d been a longtime educator and civil rights activist, leaving a mark in and far beyond New Jersey — for instance, on a Fulbright grant in 1989, teaching about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement at Wuhan University in China, even amid the Tiananmen Square uprising. Her students asked her to teach them the anthem of the American movement — “We Shall Overcome” — her family said in an obituary.

In Montclair, the children lived what Craig Miller called “a charmed life.”

“She and my father provided a beautiful home for our family, as well as structure and inspiration,” he said. “They made very conscious choices about how they wanted to parent us, and expose us to all kinds of amazing people and places.”

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Eric Miller described the choice to move to Montclair as a “very intentional one” in the Civil Rights Movement. The New York Times, in a 2008 piece, describes how before the Millers came to Stanford Place, a white family purchased another home to keep them from moving into that house. 

But the sons said their parents married a love of their African heritage with an affection for their home and their neighbors — white and Black alike, with more of the latter moving in over the years.

“They had a very strong belief in being proud of where they came from — they completely embraced the neighborhood, which was very diverse,” Eric Miller said. 

As a child in Brooklyn, Julia Miller saw Elanor Roosevelt speak at the local settlement house — and after Roosevelt saw her helping with the program, Roosevelt offered her a ride home in her limousine.

Julia Miller graduated high school at the age of 16 and attended Brooklyn College, where she was mentored in student government activities by Shirley Chisholm, later the first Black woman elected to Congress. Julia Miller would later work on Chisholm’s history-making campaign as the first Black person to seek a major party nomination for president. 

In 1946, she met her to-be husband, Donald Miller, later creator of works including the Martin Luther King Freedom Mural in Washington, D.C. The original model for the mural was donated to the Montclair Public Library in 2017

In 1950, she joined the American Friends Service Committee and went to volunteer in Xochimilco, Mexico, for a year. In 1952, the Millers returned there together, on their honeymoon, volunteering to build a wastewater system. They were together until Donald Miller’s death in 1993.

Her life was defined in large part by continuing service to the community. She’d been a social worker at Settlement House NYC, and later at Mountainside hospital. In town, she was a member of the board of trustees of the then-Unitarian Church of Montclair, an Essex County committeewoman and a participant in various civil rights activities. 

She was appointed as a research associate to then-Gov. Richard Hughes’ Select Commission on Civil Disorders, which produced the Report for Action study of the 1967 riots in Newark. She worked as an ESL teacher at the Manpower Skills Center in Newark. 

Julia Miller was the founding associate director of the Black Studies Center at Seton Hall University, serving there from 1970 through 1984, when she retired as its director. She returned to Seton Hall as a consultant to design a universitywide student volunteer work center, now called D.O.V.E. — the Division of Volunteer Efforts. 

She earned a master of arts degree from Seton Hall and a doctorate in education from Rutgers University. She received Seton Hall’s highest honor, the Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid Medal for Distinguished Service, in 1987.

And from 1990 to 1998, she was the state director of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that provides students with support to stay in school. 

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For the Millers’ sons, their parents’ many involvements and leadership roles meant being exposed to intellectuals, artists and Black luminaries. They met Julian Bond, the activist, professor and civil rights leader. Alex Haley, the author of “Roots.” James Van Der Zee, the photographer known for his portraits of Black New Yorkers. Actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

“Our whole lives were like that. We would hear these amazing stories from even before we were born,” Eric Miller said.

Among those stories: When the Millers were newly married, they had a party that then-up-and-coming performer Harry Belafonte attended. 

“All of my mother’s friends would say, ‘Did you wash [his glass]?’ It’s all they were talking about,” Eric Miller said. 

For Eric Miller, there isn’t a distinction between his parents’ public life and their private life — “we just got more of them.”

But both adult sons remembered, in both of their parents, unending support and love — for each other, and for the children. The boys were encouraged to pursue their own dreams. And in their parents, they saw role models — strong personalities who might debate, who might argue, but who never fought, who never called each other names, who never came from a place of anger.

“It’s unlike any relationship I’ve ever seen,” Craig Miller said.

Julia Miller is survived by, in addition to her sons Eric and Craig (and their wives, Lin Wood and Shawn Miller), her sisters, Olga Guitano Cooke and Martha Diaz, grandchildren Abeo, Marlee and Trent, step-granddaughters Nicole Wood-Irizawa (Fumiaki) and Erika Wood-Heidemann (Mark), great-granddaughters Kei and Sophie, and dozens of nieces, nephews and many dear friends.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Don and Judy Miller Scholarship for the Visual Arts at Montclair State University. A celebration of life memorial service will be scheduled by the family at a later date.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly named the street on which Dr. Miller lived in a heading.