Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. Photo courtesy NJ Gov. Phil Murphy's Offie

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITY — The words “trailblazer,” “mentor,” and “friend” came up repeatedly as many prominent leaders of color throughout South Jersey heaped praise on late Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver who died unexpectedly on Tuesday.

Oliver, who frequented South Jersey as the leader of the state’s Department of Community Affairs, was serving as interim governor at the time because Gov. Phil Murphy was out of the state. She was the first African American to serve as lieutenant governor in the state as well as Assembly Speaker.

Her tireless work through the state earned her praise from colleagues, associates and people from all walks of life.

“Lieutenant Governor Oliver and I were beyond colleagues, we were close friends,” said Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small in his statement. “We often joked about her living in Atlantic City when she retires because she was here so frequently. This is a tremendous loss for our city, our region and our state. She was a strong advocate and a champion for Atlantic City.

“She supported all the positive things my administration wanted to do for our residents, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. We owe the existence of our current departments of Youth, Multicultural and Senior Services to Lieutenant Governor Oliver. On top of all that, she was a wonderful person, always a pleasure to be around. On behalf of the entire City of Atlantic City, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to her family and to her colleagues. Our hearts are with you during this difficult time.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Kim said on Twitter: “New Jersey is heartbroken today. Sheila Oliver was a giant in our state, from leading the Assembly to being Lt. Governor. The good she did for our state is immeasurable.”

State Sen. Troy Singleton said that it was an honor to work alongside her when they both served in the Assembly together.

“Throughout her lifelong career in public service, she has been an awe-inspiring force, breaking down barriers and inscribing her name in history,” Singleton said, “She has certainly left her mark on the State of New Jersey … My thoughts are with her family during this difficult time.”

State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, and Assemblymen William Spearman and Bill Moen from Camden’s Fifth District released a joint statement.

“As a member of the New Jersey Legislature, she was a trailblazer, becoming our State’s first Black woman to serve as Speaker of the Assembly. She was a dedicated public servant, devoting her life and work to the residents of our great state. Her commitment to New Jerseyans across the State and her unwavering dedication to our communities will be forever remembered.

“We remember not only as a colleague, but as a friend. We extend our most heartfelt condolences to the Oliver family and to all of her loved ones during this difficult time. This is a profound loss for our State. May her memory and legacy not only comfort but inspire all those that knew her.”

Bert Lopez, president of the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County and a member of the New Jersey Puerto Rico Commission, said Oliver was a friend to the state’s Latino community and advocated for all cultures.

“Thanks to her support we were able to hold a Latino Town Hall and to revive the Atlantic City Latino Festival,” Lopez said. “Her passing is a tremendous loss to our community and our state. I extend my deepest condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. My heart and prayers are with you.”

South Jersey’s Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, called Oliver a “fearless public advocate” back from when she was serving the 34th District in the New Jersey Assembly.

“She always spoke truth to power and ensured that communities of color were heard and respected. Her work, dedication and service was a true inspiration to all. To honor her legacy, we must close ranks and recommit ourselves to this fight for civil rights, social justice and equal opportunity.”

Kaleem Shabazz, the immediate past president of the Atlantic City NAACP and influential city councilman, said Oliver always focused on people and was a staunch advocate for urban development, social justice and civil rights.

“Lt. Governor Oliver was a champion of Atlantic City,” Shabazz said. “I was privileged to call her a friend and a colleague in public service. Sheila Oliver made a difference in Atlantic City, in New Jersey and the lives of countless numbers of people she touched. I will miss Sheila Oliver and will always cherish her memory.”

Richard Todd Edwards, a Bridgeton businessman and respected South Jersey political operative, said that despite the power Oliver gained climbing up the state’s legislative ladder, she always remained faithful to her roots and who embraced her from the very start.

“I worked with the lieutenant governor on numerous occasions and she never forgot where she came from,” Edwards said. “She was always down to earth and real. If you can imagine what she had to go through as a Black female to reach up to where she was, that’s impressive.

“Now she has a lot of Black females following in her footsteps but I want to make sure she gets the respect that’s due.”

Evesham’s Fatima Heyward, president of the New Jersey Young Democrats, said that Oliver constantly gave her time to young people and inspired many women like herself.

“She saw the importance of kindness and building up the next generation of diverse leaders,” Heyward said. “She inspired many, especially women of color and young girls. She broke barriers and set an example for how to be a part of the solution.

“Oliver advocated for social justice, women’s equality, and education, ultimately becoming the first woman of color to serve in a statewide elected office in New Jersey history. More specifically, she was the highest-ranking Black leader in state history. Her contributions, dedication, and hard work will forever be remembered.”

Marcus Sibley, chairman of the New Jersey Progressive Equitable Energy Coalition said the organization is saddened by her lost voice she provided on climate concerns, especially for people of color.

“One can only imagine the pressure, stressors, trials, and tribulations associated with being the first person from a group appointed to such prestigious public offices; let alone the first Black woman,” Sibley said.

“Sheila Y. Oliver took on this challenge multiple times throughout her career, and has set a course that we all now have an obligation to further. We’re all thankful for her leadership, dedication, and the inspiration she provided for New Jerseyans throughout the state for decades.”

Loretta Winters, longtime president of the Gloucester County branch of the NAACP, said Oliver was always more than a legislator and trailblazer, but so many felt personally close and connected with her.

“Sheila Oliver was a remarkable woman in both her personal and professional life,” Winters said. “She was a true advocate of equity, equality, and inclusion. Her sudden death leaves us all empty but she leaves behind a legacy of love, unity and her undying support of women’s rights.”

Quanette Vasser-McNeal, president of the Cape May County NAACP, said for many like her, the sacrifice and commitment she displayed is not lost or will it be forgotten.

“The Honorable Sheila Y. Oliver was a pioneering woman, whose work, dedication, and service was a true inspiration to all, Vasser-McNeal said. “It goes without saying, her loss will be felt throughout the state. On behalf of the CMC NAACP, I would like to extend our deepest condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. We are forever grateful for your sacrifice in serving the great State of New Jersey.”

A message from the New Jersey Federation of Democratic Women VP Rachel Greene, of Deptford, and its leadership including President Margaret Weinberger applauded the work she did for other women around the state in elevating their causes.

“The Lt. Governor was our friend, mentor, and inspiration to our New Jersey Federation of Democratic Women,” the organization said. “Sheila’s sage advice, along with her willingness to participate and serve the people of New Jersey, helped the NJ Federation maintain its presence in both the NJ State and National Democratic Party.

“She cannot be replaced. Sheila’s legacy will live on, and her wisdom and commitment are models for the women in our organization. Sheila never backed down from serving her community and the state of NJ. Her work focused on helping others achieve their goals for a more Democratic state.”

Anna Miller, who has served multiple terms on Glassboro City Council said she will always remember Oliver as a willing trailblazer, cementing her legacy in the state’s history books.

“Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver was a trailblazer and humanitarian who dedicated her life to public service,” Miller said. “May her legacy live on.”

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