essex county commissioners celebrate african-american history month

Essex County Commissioners 2022 African-American History Month virtual ceremony. Pictured are honorees Annette Strickland (top row – left), Johanna L. Wright (top row –right) Pia Amos, granddaughter of the Hon. Roger M. Yancey (middle row – left), and Lionel Leach (bottom row, 3rd from left). Also pictured are Commissioner President Wayne L. Richardson, Commissioner Vice President Carlos Pomares, Commissioners Brendan Gill, Romaine Graham, Rufus Johnson, Robert Mercado, Patricia Sebold and Clerk of the Board Deborah Davis Ford. PHOTO BY ESSEX COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

(Newark, NJ) – On February 17, 2022, the Essex County Board of County Commissioners virtually held its 2022 African-American History Month Celebration via Zoom teleconference.  The ceremony commemorated the heritage, culture, resilience, and spirit of the African-American community, and acknowledged the contributions of Essex County’s African-American residents.

Commissioner President Wayne L. Richardson began the program with opening remarks speaking to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented over the last two years, and the efforts the Board and the County Administration have put forward to flatten the curve and guide our communities through this trying time. He also spoke to the importance of recognizing African-American History Month stating, “In our communities of color, we continue to lend a sensitive ear, a supportive hand, and a resounding voice to issues affecting those who are marginalized on the local and National front. We understand the struggle continues and we are here, and poised to continue valuable work for the citizens.” President Richardson continued, “Each February, our nation celebrates the spirit and dynamic leadership of African-Americans, both past and present. As a Black man, it is important to me that our contributions are celebrated both large and small because each of us are significant to the success of our communities.”

This year, the Board recognized four outstanding Essex County residents for their leadership: Lionel Leach of Irvington, Annette Strickland of Montclair, Johanna L. Wright of South Orange, and the Honorable Roger M. Yancey, Esq. (posthumously) of Newark.

Lionel Leach is the Head Coach of the men’s and women’s cross country and men’s and women’s track and field teams at Essex County College. Over the past four years, he has built up the number of student-athletes in both sports and helped them achieve success on and off the field. Prior to joining Essex County College as a coach, he was elected to the Board of Directors of USA Track & Field, and became the first African-American National Chairman of Youth Programs. Under his tenure, the USA Track & Field youth program became the largest track & field program in the world with over 92,000 athletes from the ages of 8- 18 years of age. Among his many accomplishments during his 36 plus years of coaching, he has coached 7 Olympians, 5 NJCAA All – Americans, 6 Women Colgate Games champions, won 5 NJCAA Region 19 cross-country championships, and in 2021 was named Atlantic Region Cross Country Coach of the Year.

Annette Strickland is the retiring Executive Director of the Schumann Fund for New Jersey, a private foundation that invests in the areas of early childhood development and public policy with an emphasis on racial and economic equity within the State of New Jersey.  Before her time with the Schumann Fund, she served in state and county government in a variety of roles including Director of Community Relations for the Essex County Prosecutor’s office. She is a member of the Essex County Human Services Advisory Council and – until recently – a board member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. For the past 30-years, she has worked to implement the core values of respect for community and community voice; a belief in and focus on racial and economic equity; and fostering authentic relationships with community partners and belief in their resilience.

Johanna L. Wright has built an extensive record of service as an advocate for children and their learning environments.  She has been a fierce proponent for equity and excellence, and has lent her skills to working with numerous individuals and organizations. She taught Science, Health and Physical Education at South Orange Middle School and coached Basketball at Columbia High School in Maplewood. As the head girls’ basketball coach at Columbia High School, she compiled a Hall of Fame career. She is widely recognized by her work in and out of the classroom, as well as on and off the basketball court, and her nurturing style has impacted the lives of many throughout the country. She has a rich history in civic service and has received many awards, including but not limited to, a Congressional Citation for Community Services, the Essex County Education Association’s Human Rights Award; the National Black MBA Association “Women in Leadership” Award, and is a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Coaches Hall of Fame.

The Honorable Roger M. Yancey was honored posthumously, and his award was graciously accepted by his granddaughter Pia Amos. He was born in 1902 in Howardsville, Virginia, graduated from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1923, and moved to Newark in 1925 where he resided until his death in 1972. At Hampton, he became more active in issues involving equal opportunity and decided to pursue advanced legal education. He graduated from the New Jersey Law School – now Rutgers University School of Law – in 1928 and became a member of the New Jersey bar in 1930. He was a notable African-American trailblazer in the legal field, and forged a path for future black attorneys to follow. In 1942, he was sworn in as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the New Jersey District, Newark Office. In 1944, he became a full Assistant U.S. Attorney.  In 1952, he left that position to become the first Black appointed Assistance Corporation Counsel for the City of Newark.  Soon thereafter, he was appointed a Deputy Attorney General for the State of New Jersey. In 1956, he left that post to accept an appointment as judge of the Essex County District Court. In January 1960, he was nominated to the Essex County Court and became the first African-American to ever serve on a county bench in New Jersey.  He remained on the bench until his death.

Minister James Branson, Jr., of the Union Baptist Church of Montclair delivered prayers during the occasion, and the audience was captivated by video tributes celebrating the African-American experience.

To view the event in its entirety, click here:

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Board of County Commissioners,
County of Essex
465 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.,
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Newark, New Jersey 07102