Wilmington 10: A look back 40 years ago

Published: Feb. 3, 2011 at 7:42 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 7, 2011 at 10:38 AM EST
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Posted by Frances Weller – bio |email

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The year was 1971 and racial tensions were high.  New Hanover County Schools had been court-ordered to integrate in 1969.  The transition over the next two years were difficult and met with much resistance.

Williston, Wilmington's all-black high school was closed. African American students were divided between New Hanover High, once Wilmington's all-white high school, and John T. Hoggard, the city's newest high school.  It was a painful adjustment for both black and white students.

"I was in the 9th grade @ Williston," Kim Merritt wrote on Facebook in response to the topic.  "My father owned the White Front on 16th & Market.  He would get bomb threats to the restaurant & @ home. I remember the National Guard being @ school bells ringing a lot. It was a scary, crazy time!"

Sandy Roberts Morris also commented on Facebook saying, "My husband was a senior at NHHS that year. He said that you knew when a bell would ring between certain classes that (chaos) was about to break loose. There were National Guard patrolling the campus. Thankfully for the students, the normal high school activities all carried on - the sports, the dances, etc."

Retired educator, Bertha Todd, an African American, was an assistant principal at Hoggard in 1971.  She remembers the tensions well.

"It was a matter of the Williston students not feeling they were welcomed and it was a matter of the Hoggard students who were mostly white feeling as if these students from Williston had invaded their turf," recalled Todd.

In February of 1971, the Reverend Ben Chavis was sent to Wilmington by the United Church of Christ to lead black students in a boycott of the city's schools.  Reverend Chavis was a young minister from Oxford, North Carolina, and it was thought he could lead a peaceful boycott.  He met with students, and community leaders at Gregory Congregational Church.  What happened after that changed the city's history forever.

Riots broke out.  The streets were filled with violence.  Buildings were set on fire.  A citywide curfew was enforced.

Jerrie Lynn Sutton wrote in response to the curfew on Facebook.  She said:

"I was living in Wilmington during that time. I was 26 years old, married and had a little boy that was born in 1970. We were living off the Carolina Beach Road at that time. It was very weird for it to be so quiet in the evening with no cars going up and down the Carolina Beach Road. My husband worked at a grocery store on Oleander Drive and had to be at work at 5:00 AM on Mondays and was stopped for breaking curfew but was later released to go to work after it was verified. We had curfews and the National Guard was in several locations around town. There was a Winn Dixie grocery store at 5th and Castle and I know the National Guard was there and up and down Castle Street and 4th Street. I remember Lums (sp) restaurant on Oleander Drive being set on fire and burning down. I remember when the people were holding up in a church and shooting at the fireman when they tried to put out a fire. The National Guard brought a tanker in to go up to the church to get the people out and they were gone when then opened the doors. Several stores were burnt. This was a very scary time and not a good place to be in life."

February 6, 1971, Mike's Grocery, a white-owned business was firebombed.  Chavis and several students were reportedly barricaded inside Gregory Congregational Church.  Snipers were reportedly on the roof of the building shooting at firefighters who came to put the flames out at Mike's Grocery.

Chavis and nine other people were eventually arrested, tried, and convicted in the firebombing of Mike's Grocery.  Their sentences ranged from 15 years in prison to 34.

The Wilmington 10, nine black men and one white woman, spent nearly a decade in jail before it was determined they were wrongfully accused.  Amnesty International took the case in 1976 calling the ten political prisoners.  In 1980, their convictions were overturned.

Thursday, several of the Wilmington 10 will be on the campus of UNCW for a special 40th anniversary commemoration.  Three of the members are deceased.  There will  be a panel discussion of the events in 1971.  Panelists will include Ben Chavis, Wayne Moore, a member of the Wilmington Ten, and Bertha Todd.

"My role then and is now an advocate of civil rights," said Chavis, who now lives in Florida.  He says while he believes there is still a need for civil rights activists, he admits that relations between African Americans and whites has vastly improved over the decades.  He also said the country is in a different place.

"The fact that you and I can do this interview about the Wilmington 10 case speaks to the place of the Wilmington 10," said Chavis. "The fact that in 2011 we can have an African American in the White House shows you just how far we've come in 40 years."

Even people who weren't alive during this time are affected by the events.

"I wasn't alive then, but I studied it in college," Earl Jones wrote on Facebook. "It still baffles me that that type of violence took place in such a beautiful city."

The Wilmington 10 commemoration celebration will take place Thursday evening at 6:00 at UNCW.

(Photos courtesy of Wayne Moore and www.triumphantwarriors.com )

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