BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Panel discusses struggles African Americans in Wilmington area still face in 2020

Updated: Feb. 27, 2020 at 11:50 AM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - While African Americans play an integral role in the Wilmington area, the population remains challenged.

Since 1898, when more than 50 percent of Wilmington was black, there’s been a steady decline in the demographics. Today, only 17.83 percent of the population is African American.

Tracy Newkirk, co-chair of the African American Business Council for the Chamber of Commerce, says the 1898 massacre forced people of color to leave and still mars the city today.

“The impact of the people who are left behind after you watch all your intellectual black property and leadership lined up at gunpoint, put on a train and told to never come back and the people who are left are the people who experienced that and saw that happen,” Newkirk said. “How do you get past that to raise up to a place at this point where you feel like you can be leaders — you can be owners — you can go back and build up your communities? And some of the residuals — a lot of the residuals — are still there. People want to deny it, but that genetic coding doesn’t go away.”

Newkirk is one of four prominent African Americans in Wilmington who talked with WECT’s Frances Weller about the struggles people of color still face in the city today.

Other panelists include Joe Conway, Director of Health Equity and Human Experience at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. He also co-chairs the African American Business Council with Newkirk.

Also, Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith, diversity and inclusion consultant, and Jonathan Barfield, Sr., real estate developer, former New Hanover County Commissioner, first black chairman of the board and father of New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Jr.

The group identified four of the African American community’s greatest challenges.

Long before Joe Conway was promoted to a top management position at NHRMC, he challenged the hospital’s recruitment process to get more African Americans in top management positions.

"I said, ‘what ponds are you fishing in because if you keep fishing in the same ponds, you’re going to get the same kind of fish,’” Conway explained. “And even when we were recruiting physicians, we hadn’t been to any HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).”

African Americans make up about 15 percent of the staff at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. That’s not far from Wilmington’s nearly 18 percent black population. Yet, it’s the lack of diversity in the top paying jobs that creates an issue for New Hanover County’s largest employer.

“The moment I get to nursing, it’s predominately white. The moment I get to a physician, it’s overwhelmingly at 93 percent white. When I get to phlebotomist and labs techs — so the further down the economic salary chain you go, the more and more color works its way in and we end up with an organization where a lot of our minorities are in a lower-paying position," Conway said.

Conway makes a point of saying the hospital has high-ranking African Americans on staff including the Chief Operating Officer and says the hospital, within the past two years, has recruited five minority physicians. Still, he says there’s a need for higher paying jobs for African Americans at NHRMC.

McLaughlin-Smith believes some white employers rely on the excuse that qualified minorities don’t apply, when in reality they’re not looking for them.

"One of the phrases that I live by is, ‘we find what we are looking for and we are blind to that which we refuse to see,’ because truly it is not a needle in a haystack action to find qualified minorities if we really want them,” McLaughlin-Smith said.

Newkirk believes sometimes it’s a matter of white employers or managers wanting to surround themselves with people who think and act like they do.

During Hurricane Florence in 2018, Newkirk evacuated to stay with family in Prince George’s County — one of the richest African American communities in America. She said her stay was an eye-opening experience.

“I went to Costco — I went to Target — and everywhere I went, people looked like me to the point where I took pictures to show people, ’look there are no white people in here — everybody in here is black.’ I mean it wasn’t like there were any other kind of people — they were all black. So like the first two or three days, I thought it was weird and I was like ‘why does everybody in here look like me’ but by day 10, I didn’t want to come back to Wilmington. It’s so much easier to be around people who are just like me so let’s leave it that way so I came back and I was like — that’s it," Newkirk said.

Conway concludes that in 2020, the search for African Americans in top ranking, high paying positions still has to be intentional.

“Now, if you do all of that good work and you’re walking out and it’s still looking mighty majority or its still white, your organization has a totally different kind of problem," Conway said.

"The way to stop gentrification — if you want to stop gentrification of an all-black neighborhood — you’ve got to get middle income class African Americans to move back into those neighborhoods, repair the property, build it back up or at least buy it and do the same thing and keep the rent or whatever you’re going to do with that property at the level that the people can afford,” Conway said.

It’s a trend happening across the nation, and certainly in the Wilmington area. Historically black neighborhoods are taken over by developers who replace the existing homes with newer, pricier ones, in many cases forcing longtime residents out because of soaring property values.

McLaughlin-Smith says maintaining the character of those neighborhoods is difficult as many of the homes are passed on to generations that want to leave.

“As it relates to success, often times we as people of color tend to move out of these areas so we leave spaces and gaps sometimes when we relate success to leaving where we are from,” she said.

Newkirk, who is on a mission as co-chair of the African American Business Council to build a stronger African American middle class in Wilmington, says people of color need to, at the very least, spend money in these communities.

“We can get a circle of economics in black neighborhoods where we have our groceries, clothing stores, hat stores,” Newkirk said. “I hunt down hat stores. I hunt down black-owned businesses in Wilmington. When we find those black businesses, I support them because those are the people living in the neighborhoods we say we want to build up. But when we have a chance to do it from an economic perspective, we go shop at Belks or we go shop at Dillards. I know that if me buying a shirt from you helps you pay your light bill, I’m more likely to come buy that shirt from you and think we have to think more that way. We can see some of the gentrification turn around. We can start businesses right in our store block.”

“A man can sit on the side of my house or the field at 9th and Rankin and smoke a blunt and the police can pass by,” Barfield said. “Two people — three people were fighting in the middle of the street. The police went around them.”

Barfield, a real estate developer, owns several rental properties in the inner city. He believes those areas are neglected by police. He says he can go on any given day to check on his property and see evidence of police neglect.

“A young white guy came up the other day. I was sitting on my porch on Campbell Street. He got out the car. His mother put him out. He went on the vacant porch and went in the alley. He came out the other end of the alley and shot up that heroin. I called 911. It took them 45 minutes to get there. I said Jesus died in less time than that," Barfield said.

Barfield is hopeful things will change as the city of Wilmington recently named an African American, Donnie Williams, as the interim police chief. But he maintains that for decades, the inner city has not been a priority for black communities.

Barfield says it’s a different look in areas where gentrification is happening.

“You got young whites moving into the inner city so as they move in, law enforcement — more prominent things step up and fall in place,” he said. “So, all the white neighborhoods — you basically got coverage. You don’t see people standing on the street. You don’t see people violating other people’s property. When you come up Red Cross Street then you start noticing that and the presence of law enforcement is not that prevalent."

The panelists addressed an issue they say continues to plague the African American community — a divide within the community. Attacks on each other such as criticism for living in predominately white neighborhoods.

"I think sometimes we spend so much time tearing each other apart that we don’t celebrate what we all bring to the community. Where you live is your choice,” Newkirk said.

“You take a guy like me from old school,” Barfield explained. “I’m a guy that helped people do all these things, but see blacks will put you on a pedestal that you didn’t build and then once they put you up there, they start calling you names and trying to destroy the hierarchy."

Barfield, McLaughlin-Smith, Conway and Newkirk all agree that as Africans Americans keep a close eye on injustices that come to people of color, as a race with a history of many painful struggles, black people should reexamine how they look at each other.

“We are not a monolith so we get to be very different and diverse in our makeups,” McLaughlin-Smith said. “When people talk about the black experience, I kind of recoil and rebuff that because truly there is no black experience. Your experience is going to be different than mine and all of ours is going to be very diverse and that is as it should be. And so as we police ourselves in the black community, I would like to raise that as an issue because I certainly have been policed quite a bit in my life just in terms of where I hang out, where my business happens, who my friends are. It’s not even to me an ‘us and them’ all the time. We have to deal with us and how we treat each other.”

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