While growing up in Clinton, Gwendolyn Faison attended a school that educated students with shabby books.
“We had books with the pages torn out,” she said. “We had the type of parents who told us that you have to take your lemons and make lemonade. I was used to sacrifices and having to work hard.”
But segregation and the hardships of growing up in the Jim Crow era did not stop her from achieving and making history as the first elected female mayor of Camden, N.J.
After graduating from high school in 1942, she returned to Clinton after 72 years. The 89-year-old was honored Friday by the Sampson County History Museum during an appreciation reception.
“I feel like the American Idol going back to their home town,” Gwendolyn said with a smile.
Museum curator Ruth Pope said the facility has a picture and her biography on file, but will add more about her accomplishments.
“We’re very proud and happy that Mrs. Faison’s artifacts are in our museum,” Pope said. “We think this is a great occasion.”
Her church in New Jersey, Tenth Street Baptist Church, and current Camden Mayor Dana Redd also honored Fasion for her success with proclamations.
Members of the Sampson High School Alumni Association (SHSAA) were present to congratulate Faison for her achievements.
During the reception, attendees observed several clips and pictures with well-known political leaders. One featured her holding a broom.
“The city was in bad shape,” she said of Camden. “It was dirty, abandoned and had a lot drugs.”
When she was sworn in a mayor, she handed out little brooms as a symbol.
“You have the brooms, not only to sweep the street,” Fasion said, “but we’re going to sweep out the crime and the bad things and replace them with the good things.”
Remarks from city, county and state representatives were also read during the reception.
Clinton Board of Education member E.R. Mason said Faison was not a newcomer to being a trail blazer in certain areas.
“We can get 10 or more years out of her and have her run for a national office,” he said while pointing at a table full of newspaper articles.
She grew up as the child of a sharecropper and helped her family make money by working in the tobacco field and picking cotton.
For 16 years, she was a member of Camden’s City Council. Several of those years were served as council president.
In 2000, Faison was selected to fill the unexpired term of the mayor and was elected to the position May 2001.
She won a second term in 2005 after receiving public insults about her age. After winning the election, she handed out little shovels to represent redevelopment.
Before her mayoral work, Faison studied at Shaw University under the National Youth Administration program which allowed people to receive work and education.
While attending Shaw, she learned how to build radios. It landed her a job at RCA in Camden. The company sent her to Rutgers University for more training.
Next, she met her late husband, James Faison Jr. and together they had three children. Her daughter Deitrich is now a retired Philadelphia teacher; James III, a retired administrative law judge; and Christy, vice president with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Her family and friends made remarks during the special occasion Friday.
“This is something she’s going to cherish,” her daughter Christy said about the Friday celebration.
As a parent, Faison became involved in her community by sponsoring little league teams and joining PTAs.
“I always had an interest in service,” she said. “I was just busy.”
One day she organized a neighborhood clean-up event and was approached by the mayor while working. He indicated that her influence could be useful in the political arena.
That’s how she got involved in politics in the early 1970s.
“I always took risk,” Gwendolyn said.
After her predecessor was found guilty of political corruption, she became the acting mayor and filled the expired term of Milton Milan.
After the scandal, she wanted to bring the city hope and bring people together. It was going to be a challenge, but her education and upbringing provided her a strong foundation.
“I knew everything was not going to be a flower bed,” she said.
One challenge involved New Jersey state officials controlling the city’s finance department, because of actions from the mayor before her.
“I felt like I was always on trial,” Gwendolyn said. “But I was blessed to succeed.”
She enjoyed getting the residents of Camden involved in the political process by asking what their needs were.
“It’s all about human nature and service,” she said. “You can’t go in there like a big shot.”
For Faison, being a mayor is like any other job which requires service.
“You have to give service and you must have compassion for people,” she said. “You can’t go in, being that rough and ready person. You can’t get away from the word ‘love.’”
In Camden, she developed the Department of Code Enforcement to deter abandoned homes, a youth council and ministerial outreach.
Her work in politics resulted in many awards and recognitions. She has been involved in many organizations such as her high school alumni association.
“She always been about doing things for other people,” SHSAA Historian Jessee Williams said. “That’s what she’s all about.”