On Saturday, October 8, 2022, I will be participating in Gun Violence Awareness Day in Camden, New Jersey, the city where I work, but also where my family’s story of generational gun violence began.
I have told my family’s story many times. But, I have never told it in the city where it happened. This is new uncharted territory for me, so if I shed some tears, please know I am ok, but feeling very emotional as I stand here today in your city, but you will come to understand that I also consider Camden my city as well. My roots here are very deep, in fact, they go back more than 70 years.
But first let me share that while my past is rooted in Camden, so is my present. I am a Camden City School nurse. My first school was Cooper’s Poynt, where I had the privilege of serving more than 900 students for 12 years. In the past years, I transitioned to become a preschool nurse in East Camden. This school year begins my twenty-second, and while I acknowledge that I may not physically look like the families and students I serve, my dedication to the city and to the Camden community is strong and long-lasting.
My dad was born and raised in East Camden, Cramer Hill to be exact. He lived at the corner of 32nd and River Road, where my grandfather ran a pharmacy. That building, once the home of my father, grandfather, grandmother, and great-grandmother is now a shoe store. For many years, the reminders of what was once the entrance to my father’s home was plastered over, with only a stoop as a relic. My dad described his city block as Sesame Street.
There was the barber
The bread delivery man
The Insurance man
and the Pharmacist, my grandfather…
A tight-knit block living the American Dream when World War 2 was ending in 1949. On September 6, 1949, he was a 12-year-old boy getting ready to start Sharp school. He woke up that morning anticipating going back to school shopping with his mom, Rose. School was starting the next day.
Everything for my father changed at 9:00 in the morning, when the sound of gunfire erupted. His mother hid him in a closet on the second floor of the building. She hid in another closet with his grandmother.
What happened next is often referred to as the “Walk of Death,” 13 people were killed in a matter of 20 minutes. 13 dead and 3 wounded. The familiar faces of Sesame Street were gone in an instant. Of the 13, 3 were my family members, my grandfather, grandmother, and great-grandmother were killed, leaving my father an orphan at age 12. Ten more were also killed. Children were killed too, including a boy getting his haircut and one sitting in a car.
The killer was my father’s neighbor. He had access to weapons and ammunition, he held deep-seated grudges, and was looking for revenge. If we could rewind time, like many mass shootings there were so many clues, so many chances to intervene, and so many points of failure that ultimately led to mass murder.
But what happened after the shooting stopped, the story of survivorship is what mattered most to my father. My dad was not his tragic past. He lived beyond that day, he thrived beyond those moments of horror most of us cannot comprehend. My dad simply created a life out of the ashes of that day. And the life he created with my mom was full and vibrant and a testament that we can move beyond tragedy. While it remained a deep part of who he was as a person, dad was a survivor. He accepted that title, he acknowledged that part of himself that was a survivor, and through his life, he taught us that we must all move on in life and survive the challenges that life will present.
My dad was not a sad and tragic figure. He held that piece inside. He was a complex man who experienced pain and trauma internally. He never had help, there were no bereavement groups in 1949. The family tragedy was a scar that never healed, a forbidden topic not to be shared.
My father was buried on the 60th anniversary of the murders. I remember planning his funeral feeling like that date September 6th sounded familiar, but how is it possible that it could be the same day? Now that I have 12 years of perspective on the death and life of my father, I see how it is possible, actually, it makes perfect sense. He died from complications of the trauma, a massive hemorrhagic stroke that was the end result of 60 years of suffering, until one day his brain literally exploded from the pressure.
Had the stroke not killed him, surely knowing that his youngest granddaughter would also hide in a closet, to escape another mass murderer 70 years later would have. On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, at 2:25 in the afternoon, my sister called and told me that “There is an active shooter at Carly’s school and she was hiding in a closet.” My first thought, after learning my niece was not physically harmed, was my dad. I remember asking him to protect Carly and also thanking God he was not here to live through the terror of knowing what was happening at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, Florida.
I promised my sister and my niece that day that I would do everything in my power as a school nurse to work to solve the public health epidemic of gun violence. Because that is what it is, a public health crisis that has not been properly funded or researched.
But let’s circle back to Camden, as Walt Whitman said a City Invincible. It has seen its share of community gun violence over the years since the tragedy of 1949. My students hear the sounds of gunshots in the streets, and while we have thankfully not had a school shooting, there are slow mass shootings in cities every day that don’t get the same media attention as suburban towns like Parkland. We have been in lockdown due to shootings right outside of school on multiple occasions and tragically, we have lost students to gun violence.
The hard fact is that it is violence that acts like a virus, spreading in communities, and invading the safety of schools, churches, movie theaters, parks, front stoops, and supermarkets. Unlocked and loaded guns, left in homes for children & teens to access have added to the epidemic of gun violence in our city. Violence is the vector, access to weapons makes it lethal. We need to understand the root cause of violence, unravel the anger that builds to a boiling point, why our young people feel so disrespected, whether real or imagined, this is how they feel. Feeling disrespected & powerless can lead to anger, which fuels a propensity for revenge. We now have more weapons than people in our country and gun violence is now the leading cause of death in children & teens, surpassing car accidents for the first time.
We do not have to live this way. We can find common ground in creating safe spaces for our children & teens. We can support candidates that respect gun safety laws. We can be sure that if we choose to own a gun, we know how to store it safely & not make it accessible to children & youth.
Thirty percent of teens and young adults have experienced gun violence personally and another quarter (24%) have a friend or family member who has.
Among Black and Latino young people, more than 60% have personal experience with gun violence or know someone who has.
While school shootings and mass shootings make up a small sliver of the gun violence that devastates communities in America every day, fear of mass and school shootings are top of mind for young people, heightening perceptions that they are unsafe.Black students feel the least safe in school, with just a quarter of them saying school is a place they feel “very safe.” – retrieved from How To Stop Shootings and Gun Violence in Schools A Plan to Keep Students Safe
Most urgently, if we see something concerning in the neighborhood or online that we say something. Safety starts with citizens reporting what they see and hear – but many are reluctant to get involved. Our Camden City police are using an anonymous reporting system that gives city residents the means to report, without having to get involved. It is called STOPit Solutions. I have introduced the concept to our Camden City School District, the school version is called HELPme. But I need your help too! Parents have a big say in what happens in schools! Join me in protecting all of our children and teens. We do not have to live in fear. Let’s work together to end gun violence.