By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The new leader of the Montclair branch of the NAACP says he looks ahead to the group’s continuing a legacy of advocacy and community involvement in the spirit of his predecessor and close friend, and in the spirit of his own grandfather, the chapter’s first treasurer.
“Our motto is ‘Equal rights and justice for all,’” Montclair NAACP President Roger Terry said. “In Montclair, we have a diverse membership. It’s about helping human beings.”
Terry took the position after his longtime friend and chapter president Albert Pelham died in August.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, formed in 1909, works to “disrupt inequality, dismantle racism and accelerate change in key areas including criminal justice, health care, education, climate and the economy,” as described on its website.
The Montclair branch celebrated its 105th year with its Thurgood Marshall fundraiser event, held virtually on Nov. 19. In 1916, a small group of Black Montclairians had formed the local branch to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons, according to an article on its history published in the event’s program.
At this year’s fundraiser, the chapter presented its first ever Albert E. Pelham Outstanding Leadership Award to Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. Dr. Chris T. Pernell, a public health physician and health equity advocate at University Hospital in Newark, received the Thurgood Honoree Award. Deirdre Malloy, the Montclair NAACP’s Economic Development and Housing chairperson, received the Community Service Award.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), who spoke at the event, said DiVincenzo “sprang into action” when the coronavirus pandemic hit, getting healthcare workers the supplies they needed. Later, DiVincenzo made sure residents of Essex County had tests and shots through the county’s vaccine centers and various outreach programs.
DiVincenzo secured funding after Pelham — who in addition to being the local NAACP president was executive director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. — approached the county with the idea of opening a remote-learning center at the Wally Choice Center in Glenfield Park to combat the digital divide during pandemic school closures. Sherrill commended DiVincenzo’s ongoing support of area students.
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10), also speaking at the fundraiser, said Pernell, as a health professional and advocate, has always “put the health and safety of others first.”
Pernell’s father, Timothy, died from COVID-19 at the age of 78. She volunteered as a participant in COVID-19 vaccine trials, hoping to show others that she had trust in the vaccine. She also led a Montclair town hall discussion, “Building Trust in the COVID-19 Vaccine.”
“She is an excellent example of what we should follow during COVID-19,” Payne said.
Pernell called her work “heart work,” and said the community has given her strength.
“Whenever you sign up to fight, whether it’s to transform a nation, transform an education house, transform a courthouse or transform an operating room, whatever you sign up to fight, there will be times when everything comes tumbling down on you and you can either be consumed with the moment or the weight of that fight, or you can muster the courage and strength of the collective,” Pernell said.
Terry said Malloy was the primary negotiator in the passage of New Jersey’s Eviction and Homelessness Prevention Program bill, which earmarked $750 million in assistance for residents who could not pay their rent during the pandemic. She continued her work by aiding residents in their applications for the funds.
In Montclair, she was the lead consultant on the creation of Talbot Village, an affordable housing community. She also has served as the chairperson of the township’s Landlord/Tenant Housing Committee.
Malloy said the effects of COVID-19 on society have reinforced why she “remains engaged in grassroots-level advocacy for housing, jobs and social justice in our community.”
MONTCLAIR NAACP’S HISTORY
The first president of the Montclair chapter was the Rev. Fred Hardy, pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, according to the history in the Thurgood Marshall fundraiser program. Terry’s grandfather, Albert Terry, was the chapter’s first treasurer.
Through the years, the group has functioned as an advisory and advocacy organization. It has joined with community leaders and residents to promote and facilitate more affordable housing and senior housing, equal access to education, and voter education and registration. The group and its members have worked closely with local clergy, and with organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women, the League of Women Voters of the Montclair Area, Montclair Aging in Place, the Montclair Housing Commission and the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp.
The NAACP, partnering with churches and the county, sponsored COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics as well as food giveaways, Terry said.
The Montclair NAACP has always kept the education of Montclair’s youth a priority, the group said. Beverly Bussey, chair of the chapter’s Executive Committee, said the chapter has helped residents seeking education equity.
That was the case in the 1960s, when the Montclair NAACP was critical of the racial imbalance within district schools, and advised a group of residents who had filed a lawsuit seeking desegregation. The suit ultimately led to integration through busing and then a magnet school system in the 1970s.
At this year’s fundraiser, the guest speaker was attorney Elise Boddie, a nationally recognized expert in civil rights and award-winning legal scholar, and previously the director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Locally, Boddie worked on the redesign of Montclair’s magnet school system in 2007 after a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated voluntary school desegregation plans, saying a district can’t maintain integration by explicitly taking students’ race into account.
She said that when it comes to social justice, “we focus too much on individual behavior. Think in terms of systems and policies and how they interact with one another.”
Terry credited Pelham and his connections with Essex County for creating an after-school and summer program for students, Project Oasis, and a program for suspended Montclair High School students that offered an alternative to sitting at home, instead providing academic training and counseling. Both have been held at the Wally Choice Center in the county-owned Glenfield Park, located in Montclair’s Fourth Ward.
Terry, as a former Montclair police captain, said that giving students a place to go after school to foster relationships and receive homework help is crucial to filling those hours, which could be “lost” on the streets. It also gives working parents peace of mind, he said.
“Children are our most precious commodity,” he said.
Through a $20,000 grant from Enterprise Corp., those programs will continue, Terry said.
NAACP’s Education Committee has also been integral in matching young people up with summer employment, he said. Next summer, the hope is to help employ teens through Montclair’s Recreation and Cultural Affairs department.
Terry said the chapter will also focus on getting more residents out to vote, fostering more involvement in local government by residents, growing the chapter’s membership from the current 300 and recruiting younger members,
“More than anything we need to unite in times when we seem so divided. We may have different views on how to get there, but we need a way to come together to find an amicable conclusion. Stop complaining, and get more involved and step up to action,” Terry said.