Notable Black Americans in Rutherford
Updated: Aug 5
By Rod Leith and Jennifer Ersalesi
There are many notable Black Americans who are part of Rutherford’s history. Here are some details and descriptions of many of those important individuals and their accomplishments.
Dr. Ralph J. Bunch, former UN Ambassador, visited Peter Samartino at 140 Ridge Road, the Becton House, after Bunche became the first African-American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. and Mrs. Peter Sammartino were both influential in the founding of Fairleigh Dickinson College in 1942. Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his work as a United Nations mediator during the Palestinian conflict in the 1940s. Bunche called himself "an incurable optimist". He also explained, "The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honorable recourse in the effort to save peace."
Ulysses Franklin “Frank” Grant, a sensational baseball player of the 19th century. He was a second baseman for most of his baseball career. Many refer to Grant as the best black player of the century. Frank Grant played ball at what was Rutherford Field, now Tamblyn Field, as part of a visiting baseball team in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Grant, who is buried at East Ridgelawn Cemetery in the Delawanna section of Clifton, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Cornelia Potter, the black servant of Richard Shugg, who was a founder of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, now Rutherford Baptist Church. When it was established on January 22, 1885, Cornelia was considered a founding member of the church. She was honored on one of nine memorial windows at the church on West Passaic Avenue. These windows were created by Flack Art Glass Works.
Winifred Tolbert, aka “Winnie” Johnson, African-American, became the first female to be elected chair of the Rutherford Recreation Commission in 1964. She served as president of the Board of Recreation for 15 years. She avidly raised funds for the Murray Hodge American Legion Post 453 and was a long-time member and served on the Deaconess Board of Mount Ararat Baptist Church.
Daniel L. Rich, the son of Daniel and Willie Rich of 24 Elm Street, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After he graduated from Rutherford High School, where he had been inducted into the National Honor Society, Rich attended Shaw University for two years and then was accepted as an aviation cadet. After completing aviation training he was assigned to the advanced flight class and he became a pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. He was part of the 332nd Division. He was part of a group of pilots who shot down thirteen enemy planes without losing a single plane during a strafing mission near Linz.
Viola Eleanor Wilson, age about 8 years old, is posed with a pony on Washington Avenue (note the cobblestone surface) around the corner from her home on Wood Street. Viola comes from deep roots in Rutherford's African-American community. Her great aunt was Louisa Price, who was a founder of Mount Ararat Baptist Church when it began holding meetings in her Wheaton Place home. She was married to James Ferguson, who died in 1925 and later married Joseph Walton, brother of carpenter-builder Christopher Walton.
In her early childhood, Viola's father, James Ferguson, was employed at the Union Club at Iviswold Castle when it was managed by William A. Little and James A. Martin, who was the club's secretary. James and Viola Ferguson were residing at 72 Wood Street when their daughter Viola Eleanor was a child. The family of Viola Eleanor Ferguson Wilson's connection with Mount Ararat Baptist Church is symbolized by the fact that their family bible was placed in the cornerstone of the earlier church when it was first dedicated in 1902.