WILMINGTON — The City of Wilmington formally commemorated the Wilmington Ten with a sign on Thursday, Nov. 17, acknowledging a difficult time and honoring those who endured it.
The Wilmington Ten became the international face of racial tensions in the United States during the fraught decade of their incarceration. Nine African American men and an anti-poverty worker were charged with arson and conspiracy after Mike’s Grocery was firebombed on Feb. 6, 1971.
The white-owned business was located in the largely African American community surrounding the Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, located at Nun St. and 6th St. Firefighters responding to the scene reported gunfire coming from the church, aggravating racial tensions already running high in the city.
Within a day, the neighborhood, which had suffered the closing of the prestigious all-black Williston Industrial High School in 1969 and harassment from the Klu Klux Klan, was engulfed in rioting. On Feb. 8, National Guard troops entered the city to quell violence, leaving two dead, six injured and a half-million dollars in property damage.
During their incarceration, the Ten’s case was taken up by Amnesty International. The case was overturned in 1980, citing serious violations of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. In 2012 the members were granted pardons by then-Governor of North Carolina Beverly Purdue.
Karen Clay Beatty, speaking on behalf of the Friends of the Wilmington 10, reminded the crowd that “the Wilmington Ten were recognized by Amnesty International as the first group of political prisoners in the United States.”
Mayor Bill Saffo said, “I for one believe that we should make sure that history – whether good, bad or ugly – is always, always recognized. Because it is a part of our culture, it is part of the historic nature and fabric of our city, but it is also important to the history of this country.”
City Councilman Earl Sheridan acknowledged the tragedy of the Wilmington Ten, but also emphasized the work they had done in their community. He said the issues of 1971 still resonate today:
“There are still issues with law enforcement, issues with segregation of students, issues with concentrations of poverty,” Sheridan said. “So let this memorial rededicate us to strive, as they strove at that time, to making this a better community and a better country.”
Before the unveiling of the sign, Reverend Kojo Nantambu delivered an impassioned speech. Nantambu said the ceremony was necessary but insufficient, pleading for continued vigilance against injustice. He drew direct parallels between the social strife of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the present day.
“We need to be conscientious of the fact that the same ingredients, the same atmosphere, the same behavior and mentality of a lot of people in this country exist right now,” Nantambu said.
“Now we’re in a country where the president-elect has stoke the fires of racism again,” Nantambu continued, indirectly naming Donald Trump, “that’s the kind of attitude that caused the Wilmington Ten to even occur.”
Reverend Leroy Dukes closed the ceremony with calls for healing, but the sentiment of the day reverberated: That continued watchfulness and education about social injustice was necessary. The sign, in front of the Gregory Congregational Church on Nun St. was then unveiled by Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen, two surviving members of the Wilmington Ten, along with Ophelia Dixon, sister of member Connie Tindal, who passed away in 2012.
The other members of the Wilmington Ten were Benjamin Chavis, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, William Wright, Jr. and Ann Shepard.
Watch Natambu’s full speech below: