The Poor Have to Help the Poor in Camden

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All of Lolly’s brothers came home from the wars struggling to cope with the violence they had seen or participated in.

“My older brother Gilbert, he was in the Army,” she says. “My second oldest brother, Wilfred, he was in the Army. He used to have a heart trouble, and they sent him home. My youngest brother, one I was next to, Virgil, he was in the Marines. He was in Vietnam twice. He went back. He came out the service. He says, ‘There’s nothing out here [in civilian life],’ and he signed up, and they sent him right back. He drunk himself to death I guess. My older brother, he died too, because of the liver. Mostly all my brothers were drunk.”

On May 13, 1975, Lolly’s 7-year-old daughter complained that her throat hurt and she could not swallow. Lolly rushed her to a hospital, and the child died there.

“I never asked God why, I never asked him why, why my daughter had to die, I never asked him why.”
“I almost lost my mind,” Lolly says. “I would hear her laughing. I would look upstairs. I would see my daughter jump up on the bed. I knew she wasn’t there. You know what I mean? I thought, people gonna say I’m crazy. One night I was laying in bed. I always left the bathroom light on. That toilet would constantly run. Constantly run. I was praying. I was crying. But I never asked God why, I never asked him why, why my daughter had to die, I never asked him why. I heard my father, who had died six months before my daughter, just like I’m talking to you right now. My father said, ‘Didn’t I tell you don’t worry about her? Don’t worry, Tammy’s all right … she’s with me.’ And I believe he’s in heaven. Everything just got all light.”

“What time of the night was that?” I ask.

“Oh,” she says, “that gotta be like 1 or 2 in the morning.”

“I got up like it was a new day,” she says. “Like everything, like the sun just came up, you know, and everything was all right, my nerves calmed on down.”

“I took other people’s kids,” Lolly says. “My house, this is the quiet house I’ve ever had. This house is quiet compared to where I used to live at. Because, I never know, I wake up in the morning and come downstairs I never know who is in my house. I always have family move in, and they weren’t paying no rent. No nothing. I did everything for myself. I used to go junking, and I used to have little yard sales. I raised my brother Robin. … [My sister-in-law] had a daughter, and her daughter had four kids. I raised them from 1993 to going on 1997. Four boys. It was all in my house. I had six at the time. I was a baby sitter to two other kids. The young man that was here, I had him off and on since he was three days old. I raised him and his brother. His grandmother had custody of him. She sent for me and I went to see her. She had cancer. She asked will I raise them, and I said yeah. I rode over in the morning, come home, I would go by the house, get the kids, I would feed her dinner, nobody was there to help her. I would feed her dinner and everything, wash her clothes, do the dishes, all that. I’d take the boys, bring them home, help with the homework, wash their clothes at my house, hang their clothes. Next morning at 5 o’clock I would get them boys up, get them dressed.”

Camden fell into grim decline in the 1960s as industries that had once provided employment … packed up and left. The riots in August 1971 dealt Camden a near-fatal blow.
“I had two white kids,” she says. “Chris and Hope. They were my neighbors on Almond Street. Hope was a girl. Chris was a boy. Hope was older. They were 4 or 5. Their mother and father lived on our street. She started messing with this black guy, and she left. Well anyway, [their father] had to work, he had nobody to take care of the kids. I told him bring the kids on, I’ll take care of the kids. So then they started staying at my house. And finally he took them, he took them back to his parents. Four, five, six, seven, eight kids, nine kids. But I always had kids staying at my house, even the kids in the neighborhood. When they had problems with their parents they’d come to my house, I had to straighten everything out.”

Camden fell into grim decline in the 1960s as industries that had once provided employment, including a shipyard that at its height provided 36,000 jobs, packed up and left. The riots in August 1971 dealt Camden a near-fatal blow. The word spread among African-Americans as the city erupted that they should hang something red in their windows if they wanted their homes spared from arson attacks. Lolly immediately informed her white neighbors to hang red in their windows to save their homes.

“My brother came into the house, and told me, put red in the window because they’re going to firebomb the house,” Lolly says. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness! Oh, my goodness!’ I went across the street and I told my friend Gigi, ‘Look, y’all gotta put some red in the window.’ I said, ‘Y’all can’t tell nobody where you heard from, because they gonna kill me, you know.’ So they put [up a] red Christmas sock. I put my brother’s red underwear. I go tape [it] in my window, tape in my window.”

“Stores moved out” in the aftermath of the riots, Lilly says. “J.C. Penney left. … Five-and-10 closed up downtown. … All the supermarkets, we had Acme, we have an Acme no more.”

“Everything is gone,” she adds. “Camden went downhill.”


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