The service was also a homegoing celebration in the Black gospel tradition for one of Newark’s beloved daughters.
In addition to inspirational songs performed by the Rev. Stefanie R. Minatee and the Jubilation Choir, there were open expressions of worship in the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
Close friends and colleagues memorialized Oliver as someone who remembered her roots, spoke up for those who were voiceless, and stood in places where she was often the only Black woman in the room.
“She taught us that you can be pro-Black without being anti-white,” said the Rev. DeForest Soaries, a former N.J. secretary of state who served as master of ceremonies. “She taught us that you can advocate for the poor without hating on the rich. She taught us that you can be a forceful advocate for cities without despising the suburbs or the rural communities.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said “only a rock star like Sheila can headline the fifth-largest cathedral in North America.”
Local, county, and state officials from both sides of the aisle attended the service, including Oliver’s predecessor, Kim Guadano, who was the first ever lieutenant governor of New Jersey.
Also in attendance were Murphy’s predecessors — Tom Kean, Christie Todd Whitman, Jon Corzine, Don DiFrancesco, and Jim McGreevey — along with music legend Dionne Warwick, who said Oliver was very dear to her.
“Sheila was a person who never, ever met a stranger,” she said. “Her heart won’t allow her to know a stranger. She knew everyone intimately, even though they were not intimately known.”
Warwick also noted that “[Oliver] loved to laugh, and she loved a good piece of gossip, too.”
A tribute video that played during the service rendered a snapshot of Oliver’s life, including clips of her being interviewed. The audience applauded as clips of her past speeches appeared on screen.
Oliver was eulogized by the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, though he insisted that she eulogized her own funeral.
“Her works speak for itself,” he said.
The civil rights leader praised Oliver for standing up, as a Black woman, when “big, bold, bad talking Black men did not stand up.”
“Sheila never let a position make her, she made the position,” Sharpton said, commenting on her becoming the first Black woman to become assembly speaker and the first Black lieutenant governor.
“She never backed down, she never sold out; she never turned her back on the people that made her,” he added.
The Oliver family was appreciative of all those who turned out for the funeral.
“It says a lot,” said Charles C. Oliver, her brother, who also shared the reaction of their 95-year-old mother when the family arrived at the church.
“She said, ‘Are all these police officers and people here for Sheila,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, mom, they’re all here for Sheila.’”
Oliver died Aug. 1 at age 71 due to an undisclosed illness. The internment service will be private.
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