‘God gave us Sheila Oliver.’ Political and entertainment royalty honor N.J.’s late Lt. Gov.


Hundreds of people — from governors and lawmakers to clergy and one legendary pop singer — gathered inside a towering cathedral in Newark on Saturday to bid a final farewell to the late New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver in a stirring, four-hour public funeral.

Oliver, the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the New Jersey Assembly and then the first to hold a statewide elected position, was remembered as a “trailblazer,” a “champion,” and a “giant,” 10 days after she died last week of undisclosed causes while still in office at age 71.

In the event’s main eulogy, the Rev. Al Sharpton noted Oliver never “backed down,” “sold out” or “turned her back on the people that made her.” He said “she was and is ours and always will be ours,” and unlike some other Black leaders, “never had amnesia” about her background.

“When she was in the room, we were in the room,” Sharpton told the audience as Oliver’s closed, American flag-draped casket sat at the foot of the stage at the ornate Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in her hometown. “What made Sheila Oliver what she became is she never forgot and she never let the folks in the room forget why she was in the room.”

“God gave us Sheila Oliver,” he added.

MORE: N.J. Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a pioneering public servant, dies

Oliver, a Democrat elected twice as Gov. Phil Murphy’s second-in-command, is the first elected official in the state’s executive branch to die in office since William Livingston, New Jersey’s first governor, in 1790.

Murphy’s office estimated the crowd Saturday was about 1,800 people.

The service was the final part of of a three-day state memorial tribute to Oliver, who had a three-decade political career that included time as an East Orange school board member and an Essex County freeholder, 14 years as a member of the state Assembly, four years as its speaker, and 5 1/2 years as the state’s second-ever lieutenant governor.

No other woman of color in state history has been Assembly speaker or held elected statewide office.

Saturday’s service came after Oliver’s casket lay in state at the Statehouse in Trenton on Thursday — the first time in New Jersey history a person was given such an honor at the state capitol — and then at the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark on Friday.

A long series of speakers remembered Oliver at the funeral, not just as a figure who broke barriers but one who spent years battling for social and racial justice, affordable housing, abortion rights, and tougher gun laws, and helping people of all communities.

Many compared her to Shirley Chisholm, the New York politician who was the first Black woman to serve in Congress and the first to run for a major-party nomination for president.

Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, a fellow Essex County Democrat who took over Oliver’s seat in the chamber, said “ego was not her choice of drug.”

“She was authentic,” Timberlake said from a lectern in front of Oliver’s casket. “And Lord knows, that’s all the people want — an authentic leader.”

Oliver was also remembered as a role model for women of color who have followed her.

“She was the moral compass in a room full of men, often drunk with power,” Timberlake said. “She took the political lashes for us.”

Timberlake called on Black women in the room to stand up.

“She was ours,” the lawmaker said.

She then asked everyone in the room to stand.

“Because she was yours, too.”

State Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the highest-ranking Latino in the history of the New Jersey Legislation, called Oliver a “phenomenal human being” who “understood government could work to protect people.”

“And she did that every single day,” Ruiz said. “She was often the only woman of color in the room.”

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12th Dist. — the first Black woman to represent New Jersey in Congress — called Oliver a “champion.”

“We put her up there on that pedestal because she belonged there,” Watson Coleman said.

Oliver’s 97-year-old mother, Jennie Oliver, was seated in the crowd but did not speak.

Among those in attendance were six sitting or former New Jersey governors: Tom Kean, Christie Whitman, Donald DiFrancesco, Jim McGreevey, Jon Corzine, and Murphy.

The Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, a former New Jersey secretary of state and congressional candidate who presided over the service, said “New Jersey has lost a giant” and noted Murphy “might not have been governor” if he didn’t tap Oliver as his top deputy.

“Buster got that right,” Murphy said. “I wouldn’t be standing here.”

The governor called Oliver “one of the finest public servants our state — and if I may be so bold, our nation — has ever seen.”

“She never settled for simply breaking one glass ceiling after another,” Murphy said. “Each time Sheila made history, she dedicated herself to breaking down barriers for everyone else.”

While euphoric gospel music was the soundtrack Saturday, pop legend Dionne Warwick, an East Orange native, did not perform. She did speak about her friendship with Oliver.

“Sheila was very dear to me,” Warwick, 82, told the crowd. “We had an awful lot in common.”

She even gave Oliver a nickname: “My hat lady.”

“This lady knew how to wear a hat,” Warwick said.

“I am truly gonna miss her. She was my champion, and she championed me through it all.”

A State Police bagpipe squadron played “Amazing Grace” at the end of the service. A private burial was scheduled for later Saturday.

Sharpton, the civil rights leader and former presidential candidate, noted he doesn’t deliver many eulogies anymore because “the hardest job of a preacher is to preach at the funeral of an irrelevant person.”

“But the fact is: Sheila Oliver eulogized her own funeral,” he said. “Because her work speaks for itself.”

Sharpton also noted this is a “strange time” in America.

“But we are built for these times,” he said. “Sheila taught us how to be strong.”

“She paid a price for us. Don’t mourn for Sheila today and shame her on Monday. Don’t praise her today and mock her on Monday. Leave here determined to keep on fighting for what she did.”

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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at @johnsb01.

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