Feature Photo of Gilbert and Martha Wilson at the Gloucester County NAACP Game Changer Awards in 2019.
BY CLYDE HUGHES | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY — During a reception in November held by the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), Camden County Sheriff Gilbert “Whip” Wilson sat quietly in the back of the room among the bustles of the crowd.
Essentially a legend among minority law enforcement officers in New Jersey, Wilson sought to simply enjoy the moment among fellow officers and other law enforcement officials attending the New Jersey State League of Municipalities conference at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
“What I enjoy the most is trying to make an impact on young people and let them know that this is a good profession, public safety,” Gilbert told Front Runner New Jersey while looking into the crowd of young law enforcement officers with much of their careers still ahead of them.
“I try to encourage them to get involved in public safety. So, my best part is seeing young people come to us and want to be police officers or firefighters or correction officers. That’s the joy in this job is trying to influence those young folks.”
A Vietnam veteran, Wilson attended the event with his Chief of Staff Arlene Evans but missing was his longtime companion and late wife Martha Wilson. Martha Wilson died unexpectedly in April 2020. The Wilsons were a true power couple, with Martha serving as president of the Camden Board of Education.
Married for 40 years, the Wilsons were often together at functions like these, whether Gilbert Wilson was serving in his various roles throughout his career — including lieutenant with the Camden Police Department, Camden city councilman and New Jersey state assemblyman.
On this evening, Martha was not far from Gilbert Wilson’s heart.
“I was so blessed to have her in my life for 46 years,” Wilson said. “That’s why I thank God. She could’ve had anybody else besides me, but God gave her to me and able to do what we did as a couple. It’s hard to be respected and loved like she was throughout Camden City and the state, the school board and all.
“Coming down here is difficult knowing we were together every year together, going to classes together and coming out to events like these. She’s always in my mind. I walk in here and sometimes feel lost without her.”
Wilson said while going through the COVID-19 lockdown was difficult, he said he was blessed with spending all those extra hours and time with Martha before she died, time the busy couple likely would not have had if the lockdown had not forced everyone to be together.
“We were in the house by ourselves, and we were having a great time,” Wilson said with a laugh. “We watched TV starting around seven o’clock. We watched ‘Jeopardy’ until three in the morning. During commercial breaks, I would say to my wife, ‘Girl, you’re so pretty.’ Now understand this, this is during a time period where during COVID, no beauty salons are open.
“She couldn’t get your hair done or nails. I still told her how pretty she was. I’d be kissing on her during commercial breaks and then, the show would come back on and I would say, ‘Okay, that’s enough, the show’s back on.’ For two weeks, we had this. The day that she passed, all I said was thank you, Jesus, for those two weeks being together.”
In one of their last big public events together, Gilbert and Martha Wilson were honored with the “Power Couple” Award at the Gloucester County NAACP Black & White Gala Game Changer Event in Deptford in November 2019.
Martha Wilson died of a heart attack, but Gilbert Wilson said he was not allowed to see her in the hospital because of COVID-19 restrictions. Still, he said the special memories from the final weeks linger on.
“If I am so blessed to get to heaven — and me and heaven are sometimes on shaky ground — I will see my wife sitting there waiting on me.”
Wilson has lived a trailblazing life. He was the first African American from Camden to serve in the New Jersey General Assembly representing the Fifth Legislative District. Wilson was originally appointed and sworn in Jan. 25, 2010, and then elected to his seat on Nov. 2, 2010.
In an effort to combat Camden’s classification as an “urban food desert” while in the Assembly, Wilson introduced the initiative in which city residents can access Jersey fresh produce from a mobile unit. He also sponsored legislation that allows students to eat produce grown in community gardens.
He served as an assistant basketball coach at Camden High School under Coach Clarence Turner as well as an assistant football coach for the Centerville Simbas. He has assisted the Camden Creative Arts High School with their fundraising efforts and has attended various competitions throughout the country to support them.
Wilson served in the U.S. Air Force from 1965-1969, including tours to Thailand and Vietnam where he served in the 821st Combat Security Police Squadron, the Air Force Rangers. He was a member of the Camden Police Department for over 26 years, served as Commander of the Vice Unit and Supervisor of the First Community Policing Unit retiring as a lieutenant.
He received an associate degree from Camden County Community College in Law/Criminal Justice, a bachelor’s degree from Glassboro State (now Rowan University) in Law/Criminal Justice.
Wilson is a member of the NJ State Retired Police and Fire Association, Inc., the NAACP, Hudson-Adam-Carpenter American Legion Post 473, Vietnams Veteran of America, and the NJ Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, Inc. of Holmdel.
In April, the New Jersey School Boards Association announced it would name Camden’s early childhood development center in Martha Wilson’s honor.
“Martha Wilson was a tireless advocate for children and a staunch supporter of public education,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of NJSBA said in a statement then. “We are so pleased to see her being honored – especially by a center committed to what she so strongly believed in – giving children the tools they need to succeed. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of her many contributions to the children of Camden.”
Martha Wilson was active with New Jersey School Boards Association committees, including as a member of the Legislative Committee, Urban Boards Committee, and Resolutions Subcommittee, and as a representative to the NJSBA Delegate Assembly, as well as the National School Boards Association Delegate Assembly. She was also active in the Camden County School Boards Association. She earned the designation of Master Board Member and Certified Board Leader from NJSBA’s Board Member Academy.
A graduate of Camden High School, she attended Camden County College and Rutgers University. After college, she became the first African American to work in the Campbell Soup Co.’s medical department, and later worked for the RCA Corp. in its accounting department.
Through all of his accomplishments, Gilbert Wilson said he will always embrace that of husband to Martha.
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