Lonside, Camden County, has a rich African-American history as a prime location for men and women fleeing. Some longtime residents, however, are concerned that history is being postponed.
Several of them staged a protest on a recent cold Saturday along Warwick Avenue. It is a busy road that runs near Lawnside Borough Hall and connects White Horse Pike and I-295.
The protest was led by 96-year-old Ida Conaway, a resident since 1959, who some know as “Mother Lonside”. She said that two more warehouses are planned to be located behind her house.
“There are already two on Oak Avenue,” she said. “They’ll put two more in the industrial park there, right in the back of my house.”
She adds that 45 years ago she fought for the development of the same area when they wanted to put a stop for trucks. “So we just blocked it,” she recalled.
She is joined by Michelle Vickers, another longtime resident, who said her late mother lived “right where they want to place these slain warehouses.”
“What do we make warehouses for?” She asked.
The warehouses are part of an Oak Avenue renovation plan being built by Vineland Construction Company.
The multi-purpose development covers 135 acres, which will include regional operations for New Jersey American Water and the new national headquarters of IBC boiler maker. There is also a new luxury residential complex Station Place. The building is located near Woodcrest PATCO station.
The company did not respond to interview requests. On its website, said development“Fulfills the vision of the late Bernard Brown, owner of Vineland Construction Co., to deliver jobs and economic growth in Lonside and the greater South Jersey region.”
Lonside Mayor Mary Ann Wardlow also did not respond to requests for comment. But when she accepted the Camden County Medal of Freedom in 2019, she reflected on the district’s need to preserve its rich history, making sure it takes place in the future.
“Lunside has this story, and I’m trying to do more,” she said. “But we also need to progress, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
This is a story that many longtime residents believe has been paved for this progress.
“A place of freedom for the oppressed people”
According to the president of the Lounside Historical Society Linda Shockley, back in the 1700s Lonside was home to free black people. She adds that the location and proximity to the Quakers made the area an ideal place for enslaved black people to escape to freedom.
“There was a book by Charles Smiley called The True Story of Lonside, where he refers to wooded areas, and some stories about the freedom of our families tell of people fleeing here,” she said.
The area, first known as Free Harbor and then Snow Hill, was a subway stop. A man named Peter Mott played an important role in helping the slaves escape. He did this from his home and the AME church on Mount Pisga, where he served as head of the Sunday school.
“The oral tradition is that he took the enslaved people in his wagon to the Quakers, who were convinced abolitionists in Hadanfield and Moorestown,” Shockley added.
The Moto House, now owned by the Historical Society, still stands as an underground museum. In 1926, the Lonside District, the only pre-war black community in New Jersey, was registered.
New Jersey is experiencing high demand for warehouses.
Newmark real estate firm says vacancy rates for warehouse space in central and northern Jersey fell below 3% late last year, while construction projects for new warehouses are reported to be millions of square feet.
But some say Lawnside was not created in order to be a major commercial hub.
“The spirit of the city is a home and a place to raise your families, churches, schools and things like that,” said Erwin Mears, who is running for mayor. “It’s never meant to be commercialized like it is today.”
At Station Place some are aware of the Lawnside history while maintaining development concerns.
“He has a lot of history,” said Chris Kasofki, who moved from Cherry Hill. He is preparing to resign from Hedonfield Police Department, where he sometimes works with police officers from the area.
“A great bunch of guys,” he said of his colleagues at Lowside.
Kasofki said that if he understands why the district is interested in developing the tax base, he is still concerned about the volume of construction.
“I think it’s getting too congested,” he said. “It’s just that every little square piece of green grass turns into something.”
New residents of the area are unaware of Lonside’s history. Michael Lee, who moved from Freehold, believes the development is good for the district.
“It’s like close to PATCO, it’s relatively more accessible than some other places in the area,” Lee said. “I think it’s good if you want to introduce more people to the community.”
Shockley of the Historical Society was also among the protesters that Saturday. She said she is not against growth but wants growth that will be beneficial and beneficial to society.
“This should be what our economic development coordinators are talking about and impressing these companies that come here,” she said. “What are you doing for the community?”