On Feb. 12, New Jersey State Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver came to speak to the packed Lenfell Hall at the College at Florham as part of a series of Black History Month events organized by the Black History Month Committee.
Oliver is a Democrat representing the 34th district in the General Assembly and has served as speaker since 2010. She is the first African-American woman, the second African-American and the second woman to hold this position in the state legislature.
According to Tom Hester of New Jersey Newsroom, the last woman speaker was Marion West Higgens in 1965 and the last African-American speaker was the Rev. S. Howard Woodson in 1974 and 1975.
In the past, Oliver served on the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the East Orange Board of Education and attempted a mayoral run in East Orange.
Oliver began her presentation by discussing how the United States has gone from a country that once considered slavery and bondage of another group of people to be socially and legally acceptable to a country that fought to secure the rights of those same people.
“When you compare our existence to the various countries and civilizations in the world,” Oliver said, “I think that something that speaks well for the foundations upon which the United States of America was created is that it is a country that, through the centuries, transformed and transitioned itself.”
Oliver also said that the activism shown in the 1960s through the Civil Rights Movement has continued through today.
“People in this country continue to fight for equality, and for justice, and for equal opportunity for all people,” Oliver said. “I think those are the principles that differentiate the United States of America from any country that exists on the planet as we know it.”
Oliver discussed the way the United States treated African-Americans through the period of the Civil War.
She also discussed how, in the third year of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, setting in motion the freeing of slaves.
“I think it’s important to understand that this occurred 200 plus years since slavery was introduced into this new nation,” Oliver said.
The first slaves were brought to the United States in the 1600s to Jamestown, Va., where some of the early colonists were located.
Oliver said that not only were the early settlers of the United States those seeking religious freedom, but people in jail who were given the option to either stay in jail or go to the new nation as an indentured servant.
“What indentured slaves were, were those that, in exchange for voluntarily coming here, agreed to work for a certain number of years until they paid off their debt,” Oliver said. Many times the prisoners in debtors prisons would be the ones to voluntarily work as indentured slaves.
“By the 1800s, slavery had become a way of life in America,” she said.
According to Oliver, there were governmental and civic leaders that were opposed to slavery in the Northern states at the time, but in the South slavery was something for them to fight for. Slavery enabled southern states to build up the massive amount of wealth that existed in those states through cotton, sugar cane, tobacco and other agricultural exports.
“To have people work for free… to do all the work, you reaped an incredible amount of wealth,” Oliver said.
At the end of her presentation, Oliver was overcome by emotion when discussing what it is like to see her picture on the wall next to the former assembly speakers.
Her final message to the audience was to become active participants in the political process.
Kwame Gilbert, a senior political science major, said that Oliver had a strong connection to the audience.
“She got emotional at the end,” Gilbert said. “You could definitely see that she cared about the topic and its connection.”
He continued, “When I look at politics and read the news, it’s always important to participate in whatever’s going on. She was encouraging people to do that and that’s one of the messages that stuck out to me.”
Other students, like Evelyn Bailey, a freshman psychology major, were inspired by Oliver’s presentation.
“For people to come out and hear African-American speakers is a wonderful thing because 400 years ago it wasn’t possible. We weren’t in colleges,” Bailey said.
“As an African-American, it’s an honor to see somebody come out and take their time and talk to us about the history and the little things people may have forgotten about.”
Bailey said that the part of the presentation that stood out to her the most was when Oliver was talking about her position as assembly speaker and seeing her picture on the wall.
“I am really thrilled that people of African-American culture can have those titles,” Bailey said.
To Bailey and Oliver, Black History Month is not just a month.
Rather, it’s every day of the year.