Wal-Mart shoppers hear racism over P.A.

Attention, Wal-Mart, there are at least two devoted customers who won't set foot in your store in Washington Township, Gloucester County, again until the person who made racial comments over a public-address system is caught.

"I can't go back in," said Patricia Covington, of nearby Williamstown. "I went to Target instead. I can't bring myself to go back in there."

Covington and her best friend, Sheila Ellington, were standing in the checkout line of the store Sunday night when they heard the public-address system come on.

First came the customary "Attention Wal-Mart customers," the words coming in a clear, official-sounding male voice, Covington said. "All blacks need to leave the store."

A hush went over the store immediately, Covington said, as customers and employees tried to register what they had just heard.

Covington thought it might have been some kind of security issue or terrorist situation, but eventually she and Ellington realized that racism had reared its ugly head in a suburban South Jersey strip mall in 2010.

"You don't know whether you're in danger or whether you actually heard what you thought you heard," she said. Shock quickly turned into anger, and about a dozen customers went to customer service to get some answers.

"The manager seemed confused as well," Covington said.

Washington Township police were called and the store's management eventually made an apology over the P.A. system. Covington said that a store employee told her that there had been a similar breach of the P.A. system earlier in the day.

Ellington, an attorney and member of the Gloucester County Minority Coalition, said that the incident was a clear bias crime.

"This voice was controlled and confident," she said. "It didn't appear to be a prank."

Ellington said that she will not shop at the store until Wal-Mart changes its P.A. system, and a suspect - whether it is an employee or customer - is caught.

"They tout themselves as a company of diversity and ethics," Ellington said. "I hope they are taking the right avenues to address this."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Ashley Hardie said that the company was "appalled" by the incident.

"We are currently reviewing our systems to prevent this from happening in the future," she said.

The Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office confirmed that the incident is being investigated as a possible bias-intimidation crime. Spokesman Bernie Weisenfeld said that the store's P.A. system could be accessed through 25 phones but not all of them were in view of security cameras.

Weisenfeld said that his office's victim-witness unit contacted Wal-Mart to offer counseling services for anyone affected by the announcement. There were several responses, he said.

Covington said that she and Ellington, both 49, are grateful that their children were home at the time, but the remarks will resonate with them for some time.

"I think of it every time I drive by there," Covington said. "I get a sick feeling in my stomach."