Crowds of friends, family and leading New Jersey politicians gathered at Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart Saturday to memorialize the life of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver — a trailblazing political leader who became the first Black woman to lead New Jersey’s state Assembly and win statewide office.
More than 1,000 mourners gathered for the standing-room-only ceremony at the cathedral — the fifth-largest in North America — as speaker after speaker testified to Oliver’s legacy and her contributions — from her hometown of East Orange to all corners of the Garden State. The memorial capped off three days of official mourning as Oliver’s coffin lay in state on Thursday at the New Jersey State House in Trenton and on Friday at the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark.
“She did not lead as if she was scared of losing her seat,” said Assemblymember Britnee Timberlake, who currently occupies Oliver’s old seat representing East Orange. “She was the moral compass in a room full of men, many of whom were drunk with power.”
One after another, speakers took to the altar to share their memories of Oliver, who died of an undisclosed illness on Aug. 1.
Oliver, who was born and raised in Newark, began her career in public service in 1994 as a member of the East Orange Board of Education, eventually becoming its president in 1999. She was then elected to the state Assembly in 2003, where she served six terms and was elected unanimously as speaker.
She was announced as Gov. Phil Murphy’s running mate in 2017 and was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2018, before winning a second term in 2021.
As lieutenant governor, Oliver advocated for affordable housing and local government services. And as acting governor, she signed bills into law that created protections for workers and young people. She was polled as a potential candidate in the state’s 2025 gubernatorial election.
The Rev. Al Sharpton described her as a powerful leader who uplifted her constituents.
“Sheila Oliver eulogized her own funeral, because her work speaks for itself,” he said. “Sheila never let a position make her — she made the position.”
Murphy said she fought injustice throughout her political career and dedicated herself to empowering the next generation of Black leaders.
“Each time Sheila made history, she dedicated herself to breaking down barriers for everyone else,” he said. “Especially young women of color who share her story.”
The service featured a video interview with Oliver played on monitors throughout the cathedral.
“I’m absolutely a Jersey girl — and I don’t pump gas,” said Oliver at the start of the video, which was met with cheering and laughter from attendees (New Jersey is the last state in the U.S. with a ban on self-service gas stations).
“As a young person I never thought I would get into politics or government,” she said in the video. “I wanted to be an archaeologist.”
The reflections ended with words from the Oliver family, who spoke on her personal qualities.
Charles Oliver praised his late sister’s honesty.
“She was always a stand-up lady … even when I was 6 and she was 10,” he said. “Her integrity has always been impeccable.”
The four-hour ceremony concluded with a group of state police performing “Amazing Grace” for the congregation.
Oliver will be interred in a private ceremony.