Recently I was talking to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Senator Wynona Lipman’s name came up. It occurred to me that many of the young politicians might not know who Senator Lipman was. So, I will try to educate and do justice to his enduring greatness.
I sat in the Legislative Assembly with the senator and attended events with her in the 1990s, but did not fully appreciate her amazing contributions at the time.
Senator Lipman was born in LaGrange, Georgia, where she attended public schools. She attended Talladega College when she was 16 and was a major in French. Senator Lipman received a master’s degree in French studies from Atlanta University, then taught at Morehouse College. Of course, Senator Lipman once served as a tutor to Martin Luther King Jr., after receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. She obtained a doctorate. from Columbia University and continued his studies in Paris.
She studied at the Sorbonne for two years and met her future husband, Matthew Lipman, a professor at Columbia University. The two married in Paris. Matthew Lipman was white, Jewish, and sadly, at the time of this union, fifteen states in the United States, including his home state of Georgia, would not have legally recognized this intermarriage. The husband and wife educators returned to the United States and found jobs in New York, before moving to Montclair, New Jersey.
Wynona broke into politics in the 1960s. She started as a Democratic committee member and then rose to committee chair. Not exactly a surprise to many who knew her.
Candidate Lipman ran for a seat in the then-known Essex County Freeholders and won in 1968. Within three short years, she was chosen to be the Speaker of the County Legislature. Freeholder Lipman ran for the state Senate in 1971 and defeated an incumbent, Milton Waldor, a Republican from southern Orange, by some 900 votes (85,644 to 84,736). She was the first woman of color to be elected to the Essex Freeholder Board and the State Senate. (She was the third woman to serve in the New Jersey Senate).
Senator Wynona Lipman served 27 years in the State Senate. After moving from Montclair to Newark (that damn redistricting), Senator Lipman won her next 8 races – all with over 83% of the vote and she died in office on May 9, 1999. Professionally, Wynona was a respected teacher in Essex County. Middle School.
Senator Lipman was nicknamed the Steel Magnolia. According to friends, this nickname was given because it presented itself as a beautiful flower, but if you stepped on it, the steely resolve would be visible. According to testimony from Senator Nia Gill, she says that when she steps onto the Senate floor today, she is treated with respect and fairness solely because of Senator Wynona Lipman’s groundbreaking service. (Senator Gill began her career as Lipman’s legislative aide.)
It’s hard to believe, but for part of Senator Lipman’s term in the Legislative Assembly, there were only men’s bathrooms. During these times of need, a state trooper had to stand guard in these restrooms to allow privacy for the sole legislator.
During her tenure, Senator Lipman was recognized as a strong advocate for child abuse and neglect, education, AIDS and women’s rights. Over the years, Senator Lipman has served on the following committees and boards:
Chairman of the Commission on Sexual Discrimination
Member of the Supervisory Board of the Governor’s School
Member of the International Trade Commission
Director of the Order of Women Legislators
Member of the Black National Legislators
Life Member of the National Council of Negro Women
Life Member of the NAACP
New Jersey Black and Latino Caucus Coordinator
Member of the Governor’s Council on AIDS
Member of the Child Abuse and Neglect Working Group
Board member of Worldshare and Share New Jersey
Perhaps the greatest and most enduring legacy of this pioneer is WYNONA’S HOUSE. It was established in his honor in Newark as a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children who have been abused or neglected. This unique organization uses more than 70 multidisciplinary advocates to help children. Much more needs to be done to raise awareness and provide desperately needed funds for Wynona’s House. Joe D and I left our conversation pledging to plan a multi-year effort to support Wynona’s House efforts.
Recently, Senator Brian Stack told me at lunch that time flies and we need to slow down and pay attention to the important things around us. I hope that after reading about this pioneering legislator, people will stop for a moment and reflect on the profound legacy that Senator Lipman left behind. While you do this, donate to Wynona’s House to play a part in continuing this legacy.