Newark’s Justice: William J. Brennan Jr., The Newark History Society’s Panel Discussion

Since early June, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (his new statue) has stood high in front of the historic Essex County Hall of Records, watching his native city and far beyond with an anxious expression. During his 34-year tenure in the U.S. Supreme Court, with his over 1,300 legal opinions, Justice Brennan literarily touched all aspects of every American’s life. However, 13 years after his death, American democracy and its fundamental values, such as church-and-state separation, and even the First Amendment itself, seem to face a serious challenge. With questions of the Constitution framers’ intentions during the “Tea Party” insurgence, Justice Brennan’s legal genius and his passion for human dignity are more needed than ever before. With these thoughts in her mind, Linda Epps, the Director of the New Jersey Historical Society, opened the discussion on Justice Brennan on the evening of October 20.
Brendan O’Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia University, a Newark connoisseur, and “the only person alive who has read through the 1929 Newark city budget,” organized the discussion with a question to all panelists: “What would Justice Brennan have been without Newark?”

Facing a crowded Newark audience, Seth Stern, an author of the long-awaited biography, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, started his presentation apologetically for devoting “only” 40 pages about Brennan’s Newark experience in this huge volume of almost 700 pages. He said, “We have to get Brennan quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court,” the institution that became his life. A talented storyteller with an admirable ability for even distant details, Stern traced Brennan Sr.’s ascendance from a penniless Irish immigrant in1893 to an almost legendary figure at his sudden death in 1930. Tens of thousands of Newarkers rushed to join his funeral precession from City Hall to St. Patrick’s Cathedral while three New Jersey National Guard airplanes dropping white flowers along the cortege. However, the humble family experience had a deep imprint on young Brennan and his firm commitment towards justice and human dignity, particularly for the deprived, humiliated, and voiceless underdogs.

Seton Hall law Professor Edward Hartnett observed Brennan’s deep distrust of elected political power, which he developed during his youth seeing his father brutally attacked. In his book, Stern also described young Brennan’s most fearful moments when his father drank alone, frustrated and disturbed by local politics. Hartnett pointed out that, in contrast, since becoming a state judge after the 1947 State Constitution Convention overhauled the backward judicial system, Brennan Jr. had never wavered in his faith in the judicial power to create a more humane society. Hartnett sited case after case among Brennan’s numerous legal decisions where he extended justice through a living Constitution.

A walking encyclopedia of Essex County politics, Assemblyman Tomas Giblin is a long-time president of Local 68 Operating Engineers, the Brennan Sr.’s union in the 1910’s. During the hardest days in the Great Depression, Giblin’s father got a one-day-a-week job from Commissioner Brennan. Thirty years later, Justice Brennan’s Baker v. Carr decision paved Giblin Senior’s path to another job, this time in the State Legislature. To Giblin, the Brennan family’s support to young Irish immigrants is legendary.

The Brennan family’s Irish connection, however, often led to the ethnic stereotype that Georgianna Brennan deeply resents. Justice Brennan, Geogianna’s father-in-law, was always dear “Pop,” not a mischievously smiling Leprechaun with short arms around his colleagues, as caricatured by authors like Bob Woodward. She recalled the hardworking old man baby-sitting grandchildren on a Christmas morning while writing legal opinions on a yellow pad next to the kitchen table. She testified what Seth Stern described all through his 700-page book – the heroic but quiet sacrifices that Brennan made, together with his wife Marjorie and their children, for the justice of all. Having reached the pinnacle of his legal career, Justice Brennan was far from a wealthy man, but often resorted to borrowing money from friends for his children’s education. Shortly before her death, Marjorie overcame her cancer pain and showed up for the last time in Justice Brennan’s Supreme Court chamber to observe his questioning. Georgianna Brennan is particularly proud of her Newark roots, “I am a Newarker because I was born, married, and worked in Newark.” What she did not mention is that her own father Pearce Franklin, an able attorney, served as a Newark City Commissioner between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, even longer than Brennan Sr.

The evening’s audience seemed to enthusiastically embrace the Brennan’s, particularly William J. Brennan Sr., as their own. I remember reading a 1928 New York Times report about 100,000 children attending a Brennan “family picnic” in Dreamland Park, which blocked the Lincoln Highway traffic for hours. Today, with the Newark Public Library facing extensive service cuts and Brennan’s Barringer High School falling into chaos, it is hard to imagine that political leaders like Commissioner Brennan could command such affection from ordinary citizens. Justice Brennan said in 1986, “Everything I am, I am because of my father.” For today’s Newarkers and Americans whose lives have been deeply touched by Brennan’s monumental legal works, we may be tempted to say, “Everything we are, we are because of Justice Brennan.”


High Street District Walking Tour, June 13th

Hello, join for a walking tour of the old High Street, Lincoln Park, and lower Broad.  Our tour will begin at Arts High School and take in a collection of architecture representing over 150 years of Newark history.   Come learn what’s so “Divine” about the Hotel Riviera, take in the wonders of “beer baronial” architecture with the Krueger and Feigenspan mansions, consider ethnic migration at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, several former synagogues and Presbyterian churches, consider class migration in the former Silk Stocking district of Lincoln Park, and finally marvel at what civic pride can do at the Essex County Courthouse.
Special Opportunity! We are going to be seeing the inside of Hopewell Baptist Church/B’nai Jeshurun.

The tour begins at 2:00 at Arts High School (550 Martin Luther King Blvd).  Please check on the day of the tour if there is a forecast of inclement weather.   The cost of the tour is $10 for adults, $5 for anyone 13-18, and free for anyone younger.

More information is available at my website:

There is no need to RSVP.

Weequahic Tour, Sunday, November 1st

Hello, I am going to be leading a tour of Weequahic on Sunday, November 1st at 2:00. The tour will cover all aspects of Weequahic’s history, from Indian and colonial days to the agrarian century, to the suburb’s train-associated growth, the Jewish generation, and finally the neighborhood and park of today.
The cost is $10 general, $5 for members of the Weequahic Park Association or a Newark historical society.

We will be meeting at the intersection of Lyons and Elizabeth Avenues. Please see for more information. Check the website on the day of the tour in the event of inclement weather.

North Ward Walking Tour Tomorrow

Hi, in case anyone is interested, I’m leading a walking tour tomorrow on Broadway and Mt. Prospect Aves in the North Ward.
We will be meeting at 230 Broadway at 2:30 PM. We’ll be seeing lots of things you never noticed before and learning lots about where many famous Newark episodes took place. Please come for an informative afternoon.

Cost: $10 for first time tour attendees.

North Ward Walking Tour, June 14th

Hi, I’m leading another Newark walking tour on 2:30 Sunday, June 14th. We’re going to be touring the North Ward, seeing a diverse collection of churches, mansions, cemeteries, and grand apartment buildings.
We will be meeting in front of the old New Jersey Historical Society building at 230 Broadway. From there, we will see the old Mutual Benefit Building, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, the old Rutgers School of Pharmacy and various Puerto Rican Sites. At Elwood we’ll climb uphill to see the prospect of Mt. Prospect. We will take a look at some of Newark’s finest apartment buildings and surviving mansions. Two highlights will be the Mt. Prospect Manor apartments and the Clark Mansion, now the North Ward Center’s headquarters. Finally, we’ll descend the hill again to Broadway, where we will visit Ahavas Shalom, the oldest functioning synagogue in Newark and the Clinton AME Zion Church, the oldest black congregation in Newark, and a gem of Victorian Gothic architecture. Along the way, we will learn about the different ethnic groups that have lived in the North Ward, such as the Italians who dominated the neighborhood mid-century, as well as the area’s industrial history.

More information is available on my website.

Ironbound Walking Tour, March 15th

Hello, I’m going to be leading yet another Newarkology walking tour this March. Join Newarkology on March 15th as we tour the fascinating ethnic and industrial history of the old “Down Neck.”
There is no better way to learn about the many cultures that have called the Ironbound home, from Dutch, to German, to Italian, Jewish, Polish, African-American and, of course, Portuguese than by slowly walking the neighborhood, spotting the many artifacts of ethnic groups long past. Additionally, we will see a few of the Ironbound’s most interesting remaining industrial sites, including a chocolate factory, a varnish plant, and a brewery or two.

The tour will begin at 2:00 and will last two and a half hours (so we’ll be ending just in time for dinner). If there is inclement weather please check the main page of my website, on the day of the tour to check for a notice of cancellation. If the weather is bad I will reschedule the tour for some point in April or May.

The meeting place is the intersection of Ferry and McWhorter Streets, by the Dutch Reformed Church.

More information is available at:

Rutgers University Remembers Student Protests, Celebrates Black History Month

Rutgers-Newark: Remembering a 1969 Protest by a Few that Opened Doors for Many at Rutgers University

Forty years ago, a single act of courage by a group of committed students forever changed Rutgers University.  On Feb. 24, 1969, young men and women from the Black Organization of Students, along with some supporters, occupied Conklin Hall at Rutgers University in Newark, protesting the scarcity of black students, black faculty and minority-oriented academic programs on campus.  The event lasted only 72 hours – but the new programs and policies that it triggered are responsible for transforming the whole of Rutgers University into a multicultural institution, with the campus in Newark cited as the most diverse national university in the United States (U.S. News & World Report, July 2008). 

Rutgers in Newark will pause to reflect on those 72 hours, and publicly recognize and thank the people who braved expulsion and arrest to stand up for their beliefs.

The University will be celebrating Black History Month with a number of programs that are free and open to the public

  • Feb. 21, 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., 29th annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series, New Jersey’s largest and oldest Black History Month observance. Paul Robeson Campus Center, 350 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Essex Room East and West, Newark NJ. Info: Marisa Pierson, 973/353-1871, ext. 11,,
  • Feb. 25, 6 – 9 p.m., “Repatriation of African Art,” a panel discussion. Rutgers Center for Law and Justice, 1st floor, Baker Trial Courtroom, 123 Washington St., Newark. Co-sponsored by the Art Law Society. Free and open to the public (non-Rutgers visitors must check in at front desk.) Information: Rebecca Esmi,
  • A Celebration of Diversity: The 40th Anniversary of the Conklin Hall Takeover (contact: Gerard Drinkard, 973/353-3824, or
    • Feb. 5, 5-7 p.m., “We Only Know What We Can Remember” Exhibit, Robeson Gallery, Paul Robeson Campus Center,.  Opening reception for Conklin Takeover exhibit in Robeson Gallery featuring photos and documents from the John Cotton Dana Library Archives Digital Preservation Initiative. Exhibit will be displayed in Orbit II Gallery through July 2009.
    • Feb. 12, 4 – 6 p.m., “Inside the Conklin Hall Takeover,” a DVD Screening, Reception & Discussion with Special Performance by Unity Theatre. Bradley Hall Theatre. A brief documentary of interviews and reflections with Chancellor Steven Diner, Dr. Clement A. Price, Dr. Norman Samuels, Junius Williams, current Rutgers students, Black Organization of Students (BOS) alumni including Richard Roper (1st president of BOS), George Hampton (participant in the 1969 takeover) and other noted faculty.
    • Feb. 23, 11:30 a.m. – 12:50 p.m., JUKE JOINT POETRY JAM Essex Room, Paul Robeson Campus Center. Celebration of diversity in verse and rhyme featuring students and alumni from various cultures. Multi-cultural refreshments will be served.
    • Feb. 24, 1-5 p.m., “A Look Back, A Leap Forward,” hosted by Dr. Clement A. Price, with performance by Unity Theater,., Essex Room, Paul Robeson Campus Center.  This program commemorates the 40th anniversary of the protest actions of Feb. 24, 1969, by BOS and other students which opened the doors to forever change the cultural makeup of Rutgers-Newark, today the most diverse university in America. Special guests include: President Richard McCormick, Chancellor Steven Diner, ‘69 Liberators.
    • Feb. 27, 6-10 p.m., 40 Years: Liberation of Conklin Hall Reunion, Essex Room, Paul Robeson Campus Center. Closing ceremonies of the celebration of the historic 1969 Conklin Hall Takeover. Awards honoring the ‘69 liberators with special guest speakers Dr. Clement A. Price and the Rev. Dr. Howard, Chair, Rutgers Board of Governors.