By Maddie Orton
The name is derived from “New Ark” — as in a new Ark of the Covenant. Three hundred fifty years ago, Newark was founded by Puritans on land bartered from the Hackensack Tribe. Since then, its triumphs and its tribulations have been forefront on the national stage. This weekend, the city will celebrate its past, present and look to its future at the Newark Founders Festival. John Johnson, Jr. is Executive Director of Newark Celebration 350.
“What we are endeavoring to do with this particular celebration is shine a light on all of the wonderful things that are in this city. And that idea of the founders I think is very important, because we think of Robert Treat, we think of Abraham Pierson — these founders, the Puritans. I would posit that the founders are people like Amiri Baraka who was at the center of not only a cultural movement, but a political movement,” Johnson said.
Artists originally from the area like Cissy Houston, Faith Evans and Naughty By Nature will perform in Military Park. Almost 150 years ago, it was Thomas Edison who lit up this park with his first public use of electric lights.
“In addition to that, you have some early mechanical organizations — Westinghouse came out of Newark. A number of factories produced leather goods — shoes, bags and the such. Beer was a major industry as well,” Johnson said.
It’s also the birthplace of celluloid film. In fact, the arts have long had a place in Newark. Junius Williams is chair of Newark Celebration 350.
“The arts have been a sustaining character of Newark ever since there was a Newark. Jazz musicians, rhythm and blues, gospel. There were great people who came from here. Sarah Vaughan. Whitney Houston,” Williams said.
The city was once divided though with segregated housing and segregated schools. Post-World War II GI Bill money primarily went to white men and built up the suburbs. Highways created transit infrastructure. White flight meant an exodus of businesses and jobs from Newark. The tax base took a major hit. At the same time, the Great Migration led to a larger black community.
“However, the police force was white. Everybody in charge was white. The rules were fixed so that black people did not get a fair share or fair piece of the pie, and so there was tension on every level,” Williams said.
Add to that a series of bad interactions with police.
“Police killing people, police beating people. And finally, in July of 1967, John Smith, a taxi driver, was beaten by police in front of one of the high rises, and he was dragged into the police station and beaten some more, and that’s what set off the rebellion,” Williams said.
The riots lasted six days. Twenty-six people died, hundreds were injured and over 1,000 people were arrested.
“After that period, there was an organizational process within the black community where black coalitions formed together to eventually elect the first black mayor who was Ken Gibson,” Williams said.
And while the city’s unemployment rate is still nearly twice the state average and over a quarter of New Jersey’s homicides last year occurred in Newark, the city is seeing a renaissance. Over the last three decades, more businesses and more funds have come in. Companies are taking advantage of Newark as a transit hub and neighbor to New York City.
“Newark has changed tremendously in the last five to 10 years. We’ve gotten bigger in terms of reputation, we’ve gotten better in terms of reputation, we’ve got people coming in from all over the world to call this home,” Williams said.
And through events like the city’s 350th anniversary, Williams sees remembering Newark’s past as an important ingredient in continuing to build Newark’s future.
Newark’s Founders Weekend Festival will showcase the city’s art, food and music. Historic walking tours are available for history buffs who want to learn more about New Jersey’s largest city.