Mayor’s Message: IDEA board member finishes history series

Mayor Louis Manzo

In this third and final entry in the series, Harrison Township IDEA Board member, Elyse Bittner, shares some great historical perspectives from a lifelong resident:

This February, in celebration of African American History Month, IDEA Board vice-chairperson, Margo Brooks-Carthon, sat down with Deacon Robert Greene of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, for a lengthy interview rooted in Deacon Greene’s life experience growing up in our town. Here are some highlights from their conversation about a few noteworthy African American residents in Mullica Hill’s history.

William “Peanut” Gaines was a track and field star and 1968 graduate of Clearview Regional High School. He ranks as the youngest inductee ever in the Gloucester County Sports Hall of Fame, and is a member of the Hall’s charter class. In a yearbook page shared by Deacon Greene dated 1966, it states that Bill (was) co-holder of the world indoor 60-yard dash record at 5.9 seconds, holder of Trinidad 100-meter record at 10.2 seconds, holder of the New Jersey State High School 100-yard dash record at 9.5 seconds, and a member of the United States AAU track team.

Lieutenant James C. “Billy” Johnson was a Mullica Hill native and a member of the 92nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. That name was coined after the Civil War for the all African American infantry division assigned to patrol the plains and protect settlers from cattle rustlers and thieves. The 92nd Division chose that name as they formed for World War I and it was the only all African American division to see action in Europe in World War II, noting that the US military was still segregated during the World War II years. Lieutenant Johnson was killed in action in Italy in October 1944. In recognition of his sacrifice, the Mayor and Harrison Township Committee named the Mullica Hill Post Office after him in 2018 and a plaque in his honor hangs in the lobby.

In 1984, Mullica Hill resident Elliot Heard was the first African American judge appointed to the bench in Gloucester County, by Governor Thomas H. Kean. Judge Heard received undergraduate and law degrees from Howard University, passing the Bar Exam in 1963 and becoming the first African American lawyer in Gloucester County. Heard presided over the family court division until his death in 1991.

The Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Advisory (IDEA) Board recognizes the importance of sharing African American stories and lifting their voices. We note that there are other notable African American residents in our town, and we invite readers to share their stories with us for future highlights.