A small creek is all that separates this city under the Walt Whitman Bridge from Camden to the north.
When he was a child growing up in Camden, though, Isaiah M. Conteh was told not to venture into Gloucester City, that whites there don’t like blacks, and so he treated that creek and highway bridges that span it as an invisible wall.
On Sunday afternoon, Conteh stood outside the Gloucester City library with about 400 other people for the culmination of a 90-minute Black Lives Matter protest and march that began at a park on the Delaware River.
“I think it was lit,” Conteh, now a Gloucester City resident, said. “It shows this town is changing.”
Vanessa Lamb, 21, and Tajee Almon, 26, both Gloucester City High School graduates, organized Sunday afternoon’s protest after seeing so many others popping up in small, suburban towns in South Jersey.
“I felt like if we didn’t do this now, what would that say about Gloucester City?” Lamb said.
The protest began at Proprietor’s Park, on the riverfront, and Lamb warned attendees that people might say some nasty things along the route. News of the protest had been met with some derision on Facebook groups, Lamb said.
Gloucester City, according to the Census Bureau, is 78% white, though more diverse today than most of the towns it borders. Camden’s population is 50% Hispanic and Latino, and approximately 40% black.
“A lot of people told me you can’t do this in Gloucester City, that the city will always be racist,” Lamb told the crowd. “Well here we are.”
Police Chief Brian Morrell, who grew up in Gloucester City, took a knee as organizers read off names of black men, women, and teens killed by police or from gun violence. He also marched along with the protesters from the riverfront to the library.
Morrell, 41, said no officer could ever justify what happened to George Floyd, the man who died after a Minneapolis cop knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I’ve told all my officers long before all this that any decision you make could wind up being national news," Morrell said outside the library.
During the march, which moved from the waterfront past brick rowhouses, many residents gathered on front porches and sidewalks. The crowd chanted “No Justice. No Peace. No racist police.” No residents appeared to confront the protesters. Some were simply silent while others were vocal with support. One woman handed out bottles of water. One homeowner allegedly took down a Donald Trump flag at the urging of his neighbors.
“You guys are all on the right side of history today,” Almon said.
Joe Gorman, a retired teacher in Gloucester and resident of the city for 66 years, said he isn’t surprised the fight for change was organized by the younger generation. He said they were simply “following their heart.”
“Gloucester is thriving because it’s more welcoming and supportive of people who in the past may have been viewed as outsiders — black, Hispanic, LGBT and artists,” Gorman said. “Local churches have become grassroots organizers addressing poverty. The schools have been diverse long enough that children from legacy Gloucester families have grown up side by side with children who do not look like them.”
Pastor Joe Marlin, of Epiphany Church, told the crowd racism “is not a political opinion.”
“It’s more like an infection, like a sickness,” he said. “It’s like an addiction that you have to constantly work against. It runs deep.”
Before the protest had started, when only a handful of people had gathered in the waterfront park, Dana Diggs was fishing on a pier that stretched out into the Delaware. Diggs, who is black, attended a rally for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter a day earlier in Delran, another small town unaccustomed to protest. He said he’d come to Gloucester City to get some alone time with his son, Skyler, in troubling times.