Kenneth Gibson not only made history being elected Newark’s first Black mayor in 1970, he was also the first African-American elected mayor of any major city in the Northeastern United States and the first African-American president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Gibson died in West Orange, N.J., on March 29 from illness. He was 86.
Tributes and condolences continue to pour in for Gibson, who is best remembered for his historic work during a pivotal time in Newark and American history. Elected in a runoff election in 1970, defeating incumbent mayor Hugh Addonizio, Gibson took office three years after the 1967 Newark race rebellion that lasted four days, leaving 26 people dead and hundreds injured.
In a statement, current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said Gibson set the stage for African-Americans to take office in the Garden State.
“He led in a tumultuous and difficult time as the city tried to recover from the Newark Rebellion,” Baraka said. “He was helpful to me as I became mayor of our city and helped me with the transition. He will be remembered in his effort to live up to his words, ‘Where the country is going, Newark will get their first.’”
Born in Alabama, Gibson grew up in Newark where he attended Central High School. He served in the military and later worked for the New Jersey Highway Department before completing his engineering degree.
Prior to his election for mayor of Newark, Gibson was chief engineer for the Newark Housing Authority and chief structural engineer for the city.
He served as mayor of Newark from 1970 to 1986 before being defeated by Sharpe James.
“Newark wouldn’t be where it is today without his steady stewardship,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said. “As the first African-American mayor of a major city here in the Northeast, he was a big inspiration for me and countless others.”
On Monday, April 1, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 62, ordering U.S. and New Jersey flags to fly at half-staff in honor of Gibson.
“An engineer by training, Mayor Gibson focused on issues of economic equality, fair housing, and public health, and it was in his administration that a young woman named Sheila Oliver started her career in public service, as Director of the Office of Youth Services and Special Projects,” Murphy said in a statement. “The striving Newark of today first began to take shape under Mayor Gibson, and the city’s future successes will, in no small part, find their foundations in his work.”
Gibson will lay in state at Newark City Hall Rotunda Room located at 920 Broad St. on Thursday, April 4, from noon to 6 p.m. Funeral service will be held at Newark Symphony Hall, located at 1030 Broad St., at 7 p.m.
He is survived by his wife Camille, his children Cheryl Gibson-Fuller, Jo-Anne Gibson-Banks, Kennon Hunter (Colin), and Joyce Bryan (Ivor), brother Harold, seven grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to the Newark Boys and Girls Club.