Victoria Arter was stunned by the loudspeaker announcement.
"Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers," she recalled hearing the calm male voice begin. "Will all the black people please leave the store. Thank you."
Her shock turned to anger, Arter said, when more than five awkward and frightening minutes elapsed before management at the Wal-Mart in Turnersville came on the public address system.
"We waited and waited. Some people just left their carts in disgust and said they couldn't believe it," said Arter, an African American woman who was shopping at the store on Route 42 when the announcement was made shortly before 7 p.m. Sunday.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is cooperating with the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office and Washington Township police, which are investigating the event as a possible racial-intimidation crime. More than 10 African Americans have signed a complaint with police.
"We're just as appalled by this as anyone," said Ashley Hardie, a spokeswoman for the discount-store chain, "and anyone who did this was wrong."
Law enforcement is examining surveillance tapes inside the store. But the P.A. system can be accessed from 25 telephones in the building, and not all are within camera range, said Bernie Weisenfeld, spokesman for the prosecutor.
The 24-hour superstore has about 700 employees, many of them part-time, and some of the store's phones are accessible to the public, Weisenfeld said.
Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged Sam's Club, which is owned by Wal-Mart, with violating federal law by allowing a work environment hostile to Latino employees. Since the 1990s, the EEOC has filed about 60 additional discrimination actions against Wal-Mart.
"This is despicable," Phil Warner, coordinator of the NAACP's chapters in South Jersey, said of the announcement. "It's 2010, and we're still facing those issues."
Warner said he hoped Wal-Mart would take quick action if the person responsible for the announcement can be identified.
"Whether it was a prank or whether it was serious, the level of insensitivity is apparent and is a reminder there's still a need for people to work toward decency and equality," said James E. Harris, president of the New Jersey NAACP Conference.
Shortly before police arrived at the Wal-Mart, an assistant manager broadcast an apology to customers still in the store.
Arter, an assistant bank manager from Sicklerville who said she has frequently shopped at the Wal-Mart, said she was still upset by Sunday's events and was boycotting the store.
After it happened, said Arter, 29, the whole store fell quiet. Then people got on their cell phones, she said. Soon, customers were asking the management for answers.
The incident could have ended much worse, she said.
"It could have led to violence," Arter said. "It could have triggered someone who was having a bad day. I don't want to be an innocent bystander to something because of someone's not-so-funny joke."