My grandfather was just a kid when Walt Whitman arrived in Camden, as an old man in failing health.
Nothing in our family’s oral history mentions any encounter between the young man and the “Good Gray Poet.”
And if there was any such encounter, I am sure the gleam in my grandfather’s young eyes would not have inspired Whitman to pen the words now adorning Camden’s City Hall, “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible.”
These words were inspired years before his Camden days, while Whitman was living in New York City. They were written as part of his heralded work, “Leaves of Grass.”
There is also the fact that Whitman viewed black people such as my grandfather not as the gleaming promise of an urban utopia but as inferior genetic mistakes, whose very existence would one day be corrected by science and history.
Whitman was not an extraordinary racist, his views were in line with popularly expressed notions of black inferiority and white supremacy.
In other words, he was an ordinary racist who voiced the thinking of the popular race theorists of his time, men like Louis Agassiz, Arthur de Gobineau, and William Z. Ripley. These and others like them advanced the pseudo-science of race theory and the presumed supremacy of whites.
Thus, in statements such as “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not,” Whitman reveals his dream of an invincible city that did not include people that looked like my grandfather or like me.
The thought that race has any connection to true science has been by now thoroughly debunked, but in many places, such as Camden, those who held such views continue to occupy places of honor.
The Cooper name is ubiquitous throughout the city and the region, inhabiting space in the hospital where many of us were born, various neighborhoods, a street, a school, and a river.
Only in recent years has the history of this family’s involvement in the trafficking of enslaved humans come to light.
Riding by my childhood home in the city’s Parkside neighborhood, which sits on land formerly owned by Marmaduke Cooper, I am moved to reflect on the lives, toils, and labors wrought by the 14 Black people he enslaved there.
Similarly, any laudable news coming from Camden’s Cooper’s Poynt Family School is blemished by the knowledge that black and brown children are attending a school named in honor of people who sold black and brown children into enslavement, just a few blocks away at a place called Cooper’s Poynt.
I applaud the Camden school district’s decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from one of our high schools. Wilson will live within the historical contradiction of his Nobel Peace Prize, juxtaposed against his re-segregation of the federal government, his praise of the Ku Klux Klan, and his failures to stand against destructive horrors visited on black bodies through lynching.
This, like the removal of the Columbus statue is a good but incomplete start in the work of removing the dishonorable from places of honor, and in shaping a city that symbolizes the principles of liberty and equality.
However, Wilson and Columbus do not share close ties to Camden, as do names such as Whitman, Cooper, Haddon, and Kaighn.
The true indication of Camden’s commitment to shaping a city that honors the higher values of humanity will be seen in its leaders’ work to thoroughly address issues of historic wrongs hanging on any and all street signs, building names and murals.
School district spokesperson Alisha Brown’s statements on school renaming does not provide much confidence in this effort. She says the district has looked to ensure that other Camden school names are not tied to any “history or practices of racism.”
She also stated that, “Woodrow Wilson was the only school the district will look to rename as of now.” These statements lead one to conclude the district does recognize a problem with the Cooper’s Poynt name but seems reticent in addressing it.
And if not now, when? The district’s statements hint at an effort to protect the honor of the Cooper name and legacy, or perhaps they fail to see the trafficking of enslaved black bodies as meeting their threshold of historic racism.
Now is the time for Camden’s leaders to apply swift and decisive action in addressing the symbols of Camden’s dark past.
This past includes the slave auctions run by the Coopers. It includes other slave owning families, such as the Haddons and the Kaighns, and it is also captured in Whitman’s disdain for people like my grandfather and my father, who grew up in a Camden with segregated movie theaters and swimming pools.
George Floyd breathed out a movement from the warm Minneapolis asphalt, from where his body lay limp and expired.
I hope the spirit of this movement resonates within our local leaders and I hope they realized the names of our streets and buildings were assigned at a time when Black Lives did not matter in cities such as Camden.
Whitman’s large muraled image on the walls of Camden City Council Chambers is oddly placed, looking down on black and brown elected officials.
Whitman felt black people possessed the collective intelligence of “baboons,” and thus should not be given the right to vote. Given his racial sentiments, he is certainly not looking down at the city he envisioned in his dream.
Hopefully, there is a vision or a dream within city leaders, in a new and rising Camden where Black Lives do matter, to put to public rest, the image of the tired old poet.
Ojii BaBa Madi, of the Asbury United Methodist Church, is the founder of Watu Moja.