Burlington County to end use of freeholders title

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Citing the urgency to remove symbols of injustice and inequality, Burlington County Freeholder Director Felicia Hopson announced plans for the county to immediately begin phasing out the term “freeholder” from county materials and communications.

“Continuing our work to end systemic racism must be everyone’s objective and eliminating an antiquated title from an era when slavery and racism was tolerated is one step we can take right away,” Hopson said in a prepared statement. “Burlington County was a cradle of the abolitionist movement and home to several stops along the Underground Railroad, and we will once again lead the way by proactively eliminating this vestige of discrimination.”

Hopson will introduce a resolution at the board’s next meeting on Aug. 12 to replace the term “chosen freeholders” with “county commissioners” on the county’s website, social media, letterhead, stationary, signage and other materials.

The board will immediately cease to use the term freeholder in communications, but materials and signage will be updated over time under the county’s normal replacement schedule, according to the statement. By phasing in the change, the county is not expected to incur any significant additional expense.

Freeholder is an Old English term dating back to before the American Revolution to denote a person who owns land and is free of debt, which was a requirement to hold public office. At the time, only white men could own property and serve.

The title is now used solely in New Jersey for those elected to county governing bodies.

Hopson said the title is rooted in an era of discrimination and inequality and must be replaced. She applauded bipartisan legislation from Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senator Joseph Pennacchio to require counties to do away with the term but said Burlington County should not wait for the Legislature and governor to act.

“Governor [Phil] Murphy and legislative leaders have endorsed the change, but Burlington County will not stand idly by and wait for change to be forced on us. Retiring this relic title from a period of slavery is the right thing to do and our county will lead the way in the implementation of this historic change,” she said in the statement.