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New Hanover County Remembrance Project kicks off second phase, focusing on outreach to African American churches

Last year, the group made it their mission to track down descendants of 1898 ahead of a soil collection ceremony and a service for victims of the massacre
Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 6:53 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The stained glass windows at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington have stood strong for more than a century, and when you look closely you can see each one is dedicated to a family or in memory of a church member.

It’s a testament to the many stories deeply embedded in the church, a pillar of Wilmington’s black community.

“We say we stand on their shoulders,” said St. Mark’s senior church warden Kenneth Chestnut. “The stained glass windows, not only are they beautiful and can’t be duplicated, but certainly it’s an incredible story they tell.”

This year, the New Hanover County Remembrance Project is looking to churches like St. Mark’s for phase two of their research.

Last year, the group made it their mission to track down descendants of 1898 ahead of a soil collection ceremony and a service for victims of the massacre.

Having touched so many lives and collected so many stories, organizers knew the project couldn’t stop there.

Genealogist Tim Pinnick says they’re starting in the 1950′s and looking back in time.

“There’s a lot of room, a lot of area, and a lot of memories to tap to talk about not necessarily what happened in 1898, we’re moving away from that. We want to capture the stories and the memories of the Wilmington community,“ said genealogist Tim Pinnick of the New Hanover County Remembrance Project. “We know they’re willing to do it now, more so since the soil collection project.”

It’s not just churches they plan to study in order to accomplish their mission; they’re reaching out to the community for help collecting funeral programs.

“They can digitize them, they can mail them to us, we can copy them, but we’d like to start to collect those programs because they really give us a good insight into the families,” explained Pinnick.

“My mom would collect funeral programs. It was not unusual back in that time for people to collect funeral programs because that’s the way the history was recorded, relatives were recorded, accomplishments of a person that died,” said Chestnut.

Pinnick explains the documents are a jumping off point. From there, he can generate questions, conduct interviews with surviving family members and fill in the gaps not covered on paper. It’s research Pinnick hopes to plug into a genealogy program so people can track down and meet family members who were forced to scatter.

“It’s sad but it’s true... family ties get broken through the diaspora, not really specific to 1898, but you have those family members that leave, and somehow we miss that connection,” said Pinnick. “I have several people [say] — when they were talking to me they were like — it would be wonderful if we could get back in touch with the descendants of the great uncle or cousin, or whatever, that went to New York. They really lost touch when their mother died or something like that, so we’re doing very important work, I feel, and we really want to move forward and try to make this happen in 2022.”

Rebuilding the ties broken over the years and reminding the community they’re more alike than they think, it’s a mission growing more and more urgent each day. Since the first phase of the project, descendants they’ve worked with have died.

Phase two is just kicking off, yet the importance of preserving the memories of yesterday isn’t lost on church leaders like Chestnut.

“What he is doing is so important to the community and to our history. I’m a big believer that we have to know where history — and too much of it has not been talked too much — is and has not been shared for various reasons. It’s so important to learn our history, to document it and to share it,” said Chestnut.

In addition to using the information to connect family members to their lost relatives, the research could also be recorded for generations to come, thanks to partnerships with UNCW and the New Hanover County Library.

If you’d like to get involved, contact the New Hanover County Remembrance Project here.

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