NEWARK – The City of Newark and the County of Essex came together this morning to honor the late
Ken Gibson, the first African-American mayor in the city’s history (and the first African-American mayor of a northeastern city), with an eight-foot bronze statue in front of the City Hall where he served.
“It will be there for eternity,” God willing,” said the city’s sitting mayor, Ras Baraka. “Ken Gibson was something special to all of us, and to me. I grew up knowing him as an icon, seeing him from time to time and knowing his role in history. I began to see it [more] right before he left us. He graced me with the opportunity to have conversations with him, not just about politics, but how to take care of yourself, what to watch out for. They were very serious conversations to me. More than anything, he deserves to stand here in front of city hall.”
Mayor Gibson died in 2019 at the age of 86.
A legendary political figure in Newark who emerged as a gentle and unifying force in the aftermath of the city’s worst, most racially divisive period, Mr. Gibson became mayor of Brick City in 1970, defeating Hugh Addonizio. The Alabama native and Newark Central High graduate served for 16 years, before failing in his fifth reelection bid in 1986, losing to Sharpe James.
“It was a difficult time,” Baraka said. “People wanted you to be a miracle maker. People became disgruntled because he couldn’t snap his finger and move this huge animal, this submarine, and get it to turn around.”
The crowd of dignitaries and guests included members of the late mayor’s family, Lieutenant Governor
Sheila Oliver, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10), Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Jr., state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28), Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-28), Essex County Commission President Wayne Richardson, and Newark City Council President Luis Quintana.
Payne spoke with conviction about the late mayor. “A statue to his legacy is the perfect honor,” said the congressman. “He was a trailblazer even before he was elected mayor. He was one of the city’s most prominent engineers at the time when there were not many African-American engineers.”
With the unveiling of the statue, “We will always be able to look toward City Hall and see our mayor forever.”
The sculpture was created by Mississippi native Thomas Jay Warren. Over the course of a 34-year career, Warren has created 50 public monuments in 19 states and Canada. His portfolio of sculptures include U.S. Representative Donald Payne, Sr., as well as civil rights figures Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers. The City commissioned the statue with support from Essex County Executive DiVincenzo, Jr., who also installed the artwork. It was funded by Essex County, Prudential, and the Newark Community Impact Fund.
Quintana said that as a youngster he used to go to City Hall.
“Mayor Gibson was inspiration t the Black and Brown Convention of Amiri Baraka,” Quintana said. “We should teach it in the schools, in Newark, we should teach it around the state, that we had the first African-American mayor.”
A native of the South Ward of Newark, Lieutenant Governor Oliver said she would not have had a political career without the example and influence of Mayor Gibson.
She still remembers celebrating his historic 1970 victory.
“My admiration and respect for Mayor Kenneth Gibson began in 1970 when, as the new Mayor of Newark, his leadership inspired me to pursue a career in public service. After college, he opened new doors for me with a position in his administration during a tumultuous time in Newark history,” said Lt. Gov. Oliver, who serves as Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs. “He inspired and encouraged me and gave me a platform to fight for the many injustices I recognized and felt passionate about as a youth – social and economic inequalities such as fair housing, equal employment opportunity, and public health. I proudly served in his administration and will always consider him a role model and a friend. I owe the very foundation of my career in politics and government to him. This statue that is being dedicated to him today will forever enshrine his service and positive impact on the great City of Newark.”
Essex County Executive, who played a critical role in partnering with the city to envision and install the statue on Broad Street, recalled his own organization’s special political history with Gibson.
The late Steve Adubato, Sr., backed Mr. Gibson for mayor over incumbent Mr. Addonizio, lending North Ward backing to Mr. Gibson’s historic cause.
“Ken Gibson broke barriers when he was elected as the first African American Mayor of Newark and any major northeastern municipality. The city he inherited was still in turmoil after the riots and Ken worked tirelessly to unite its residents and lay the foundation for the city’s recovery. His hard work is the basis for the successes in the City that we enjoy today. Having his statue in front of City Hall is an appropriate way to honor Ken who loved his hometown so much,” said County Executive DiVincenzo.