Secretary of state talks about African-American experience

Students of the First Year Seminar class “From Brown to Black Feminisms” taught by Gloria Dickinson, associate professor and chair of the African American studies department, were treated to a visit by New Jersey’s Secretary of State Regena L. Thomas on Monday.

Students in Dickinson’s seminar were required to read Helen Jackson Lee’s 1968 book “Nigger in the Window,” an autobiography chronicling her experience as the first African-American woman in New Jersey’s civil service.

Thomas was brought in to give her reaction to Lee’s book, as well as to discuss her own experiences as an African-American woman in New Jersey politics. She brought a lighthearted and energetic, yet deadly serious take on the subject.

“I know you all didn’t read the book,” she said, met with laughter from the freshmen, residents of Travers Hall floors 9 and 10. “I’ll admit, I didn’t read all of it either.”

In responding to the book, Thomas remarked, “I’m going to start off by saying very little has changed.” She provided one caveat, however, saying she wasn’t sure whether this sentiment simply stemmed from her sympathy for the African-American movement.

A native of Clinton, Ky., Thomas said she grew up in a world that was divided along lines of black and white. “Coming from the South, you don’t have a grasp of (diversity) – it’s either black or white, so I was filled with a kind of arrogance. Except it wasn’t arrogance, it was ignorance.”

She described coming north, where she was faced with Irish and Italian communities. “And I didn’t understand them,” she said.

Thomas was appointed to her position by former Gov. James E. McGreevey in 2002. “I was appointed to a position I never had a desire to have,” she said. “When the governor called and asked me, I laughed at him.” Until being appointed, she had never lived in New Jersey.

Nonetheless, Thomas, whose political background includes having worked for John Corzine’s 2000 Senate campaign, Robert Torricelli’s 1996 Senate campaign and McGreevey’s gubernatorial campaign in 1997, heeded the call. In addition, she spent 12 years working the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Campaign during his two bids for the presidency in 1984 and 1988.

In taking her position in New Jersey, she was charged with the promotion and enrichment of the state’s arts, history and culture.

One project she took on was a reenactment of Harriet Tubman’s journey on the Underground Railroad from southern New Jersey, which at the time lay below the Mason-Dixon line, to New York. As part of the reenactment, Thomas walked 180 miles from Gloucester County in South Jersey to New York. “I could not walk 180 miles if Harriet Tubman had not done it first.”

“Harriet Tubman was trying to free herself,” she said. “She wasn’t trying to make some big statement about slavery.”

Similarly, Thomas said she was not trying to make “some big statement” about her own race. “I’m just trying to be the best that I can be,” she said. “I owe my white friends, those who stepped beyond their comfort levels and accepted me as an African-American woman. I owe them for the space they shared in their life.”

“I’ve earned my right to be here,” she added. “People have died for my right to be here. I’m not going to explain it you anymore.”

Dickinson’s seminar is just one in a series of seminars offered to freshmen this year as part of the College’s recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended racial segregation in public schools.

“New Jersey being the most diverse state, according to the Census Bureau,” Thomas said, “we all have to learn to live together. It’s not an issue of color, but of culture.”

As Thomson left the room, all Dickinson had left to say was, “We have the most unique secretary of state.”