A three-day celebration of life for the late Lt. Gov. Shelia Y. Oliver began today with bagpipes and a state police honor guard escorting her casket from a gold hearse to the Statehouse rotunda where she will lie in state.
On Friday, Oliver’s casket will be escorted to the Essex County Historic Courthouse, where she will also lie in state. Oliver’s funeral and memorial service will be held Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred heart in Newark, where the Rev. Al Sharpton is set to deliver a eulogy at the request of her family.
As a steady stream of mourners—including Gov. Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy—paid their respects, US and New Jersey flags continued to fly at half-staff at all state buildings and facilities.
Inside the rotunda, Bishop Reginald W. Atkins, a New Jersey Assemblyman representing District 20, offered a prayer, saying in part, “We thank you that today as she (Oliver) has laid her sword in the sands of time, that you allow us to advance her cause. We pray, God … for this family who have endured such a tremendous loss.”
Oliver—who made history as the first Black woman to serve as lieutenant governor of New Jersey and the first elected Black woman to hold a statewide office—died Aug. 1 at the age of 71 following a brief hospitalization for an undisclosed medical condition. In addition to her role as lieutenant governor, she simultaneously served as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Oliver is the first elected official in the state’s executive branch to die in office since Gov. William Livingston, New Jersey’s first governor, in 1790.
“Sheila was not only a distinguished public servant, but also our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and hero,” the Oliver family said in a statement. “She leaves behind a legacy of dedication, service, and inspiration. We will remember her commitment to the people of New Jersey and her tireless efforts to uplift the community. May her memory be a source of comfort and strength to all who knew her.”
Born July 14, 1952, in Newark, Oliver graduated from the city’s Weequahic High School in 1970, before earning a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University and afterward a master’s degree from Columbia University. Embarking on a career that would span decades, she first served as Newark’s director of the Office of Youth Services and Special Projects and would later become development director for The Newark Literacy Campaign. She worked at Caldwell College (now Caldwell University) as the coordinator of career guidance within the Educational Opportunity Fund. Oliver not only taught classes at several colleges, but also acted as a consultant for a variety of nonprofits in addition to serving on nonprofit organizations’ boards.
Public office would beckon to Oliver: She served on East Orange’s Board of Education from 1994 to 2000 and concurrently served as an Essex County freeholder from 1996 to 1999. She was then elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 2003 representing District 34, which today is comprised of Montclair, East Orange, Orange and Clifton. Over the years, Oliver served on committees such as Commerce and Economic Development, and the Transportation and Independent Authorities.
From 2010 until 2014, Oliver made history when she became the Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly—the second Black woman in the US to lead a legislative house and the first to do so in New Jersey.
A staunch advocate for social and racial justice, strengthening struggling cities, and supporting gun safety, Oliver’s career would ascend when Murphy selected her as his running mate in the 2017. She assumed office on Jan. 16, 2018.
Oliver passed away while serving as acting governor, while Murphy and his family were on a short vacation in Italy.
“As we come together in shared mourning over the loss of our family member and friend Lieutenant Governor Shelia Oliver, we will remember the legacy she leaves behind as a changemaker and trailblazer,” Murphy said in a statement. “Together, we will honor and celebrate her remarkable contributions to the state she loved, recognizing the profound impact she had on the millions of people who call New Jersey home.”
NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka also offered condolences, saying in part: “Beyond being a loyal public servant to the state, especially in her leadership role with the Department of Community Affairs, Lieutenant Governor Oliver was also a strong and inspirational advocate for women business owners over the years. We were always appreciative of her working with NJBIA in our collective pursuit of advancing women’s leadership in our great state. NJBIA offers our heartfelt condolences to her family, friends and the Murphy administration.”
Murphy on Monday announced the commissioning of Oliver’s official portrait for display in the New Jersey Statehouse along with a portrait of former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the first person to hold that office under former Gov. Chris Christie.
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