Portrait project highlights Wilmington’s Black-centric world, pre-1898

From left to right: Portrait of Alexander Manley, Thomas Miller and Armond Wendell Scott commissioned for Initiative 1897’s “Continuum of Change,” now on exhibit at Expo 216. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — What would Wilmington have looked like had 1898 never happened?

It’s a question that tends to be on the minds of many after learning about the only successful coup d’état in American history. It will be addressed on Saturday at the former gallery Expo 216, located downtown on Front Street as part of the exhibit “Continuum of Change,” presented by Initiative 1897 and curated by the Black on Black Project.

Initiative founder and local business owner John Monteith of Monteith Construction found himself pondering life in Wilmington before 1898, while reading Dave Zucchino’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Wilmington’s Lie.” Monteith was captivated by ideas of how Wilmington life could have been very different for a population of Black individuals today had the gruesome massacre never befallen the city. 


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The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 took place Nov. 10, as 2,000 white supremacists torched the city’s only Black-owned newspaper, The Daily Record, as well as killed Black community members and ran out of town many others to overthrow a progressive, partially Black-led government. Books, reports and articles about the massacre have discussed ways in which it inevitably changed the culture and path of business, economics and society in Wilmington — moving the mark further away from being inclusive and equitable, the antithesis of what the post-Reconstruction era hoped to be. 

Monteith said that history had him considering whether, over a century later, his own company was doing enough to move the needle toward equity and inclusion. 

“Before 2020, we [Monteith Construction] were scoring ourselves really high in a lot of areas of diversity, equity, inclusion,” Monteith told Port City Daily Thursday. “Then we took a different look at ourselves in 2020” — amid the resurgence of civil rights protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder. 

“We realized we were not doing either as well as we thought — or in some cases well at all. And we knew we could do so much better,” Monteith added. 

“Say What’s Real,” a portrait of Alexander L. Manly painted by William Paul Thomas and commissioned by Atlantic Packaging. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Initiative

Monteith Construction currently employs over 100 people. While the company’s diversity numbers are twice the industry average on gender equity, according to the owner, and above industry average when it comes to race — which is around 6.2% of African-Americans working in construction, according to 2018’s Bureau of Labor Statistics — Monteith said more could be done.

So he decided to tackle the issue head on. 

Not only did he want to make headway in his own corporation but he also sought progress within other local industries. In 2019 he founded the think tank ThoughtBox with Susie Sewell, and decided last year to launch Initiative 1897, its first public project. Seven local businesses joined, including Sewell’s Camp Schreiber Foundation, as well as Live Oak Bank, nCino, LS3P Associates Ltd., Novant Health, Atlantic Packaging, and Zimmer Development Co.

Aside from assessing ways to further diversify local companies, Monteith hoped a community project would show a joint commitment in the private sector to further engage the community-at-large to weigh their own actions toward social betterment.  As he began brainstorming ideas with local filmmaker and director Jonas Pate (“Outer Banks”) about ways to drive, steer and inspire conversations surrounding race and resilience, Pate suggested an art exhibit: portraits of Black individuals who impacted Wilmington, “remembering their contributions before that period of Reconstruction, before 1898.”

“It’s one of those ideas, as soon as I heard it, I just knew it was great, and a way to bring the project to life, so to speak, through art and stories,” Monteith recalled.

Mutual friends then connected Monteith to Michael Williams — founder of the Black on Black Project (BOBP). Williams launched BOBP to produce art exhibits, short films, events and programs that educate, inform and create dialog in regards to social justice but more so to achieve equity over equality. 

Williams serves on the board of DREAMS of Wilmington and hosts exhibits statewide, even local ones that have included ​​”Paradigm Shifts of Public Spaces: Wilmington” and “Bricks Need Mortar.” A consummate history buff, Williams said he starts a new curation process by turning to his favorite books that touch on the subject matter he’s featuring in the exhibit. For Initiative 1897, he looked at “The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901” by Helen G. Edmonds and the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report, among others (full reading list at bottom of article).

“But to understand 1898, you really have to look at what was happening before then,” Williams told Port City Daily.

Post-Reconstruction, Wilmington was a booming city –– the largest in North Carolina –– with both Black and white business owners co-existing, even holding political seats. They governed as Fusionists — as it was known then — a united front, not a merger, from both the Populist and Republican parties (the latter being the liberal party of the time). There were Black individuals not just surviving in a previous race-torn Southern city but flourishing.

Through research, Williams decided upon nine Black professionals in Wilmington who seemingly rose to success in spite of adversity pre-1898. He then chose all-Black artists, most from North Carolina, to create the portraits. He paired each with one of the initiative’s businesses that in turn commissioned the art for the exhibit, with the artists getting paid for their works. 

Williams said he started the process by first holding “empathy interviews” with each business owner to assess where they were, and find out what they desired to gain from the project and how it would affect the companies moving forward. They discussed events of 2020, such as protests after George Floyd’s murder, analyzed reactions to it, as well as talked about issues the Black community faces today, and how the past affected and cascades into their industries.

“Because the biggest thing in life, we have to figure out, is where we all are, which gets us to a continuum of change,” Williams said. “Some people might be at level four, and some people might be at level seven. It’s our job to meet them there.”

The phrase “continuum of change” is a concept that revealed itself to Williams on the pages of a 2012 book, “Across That Bridge,” written by the late U.S. Representative John Lewis. It has imprinted itself upon Williams in almost every action he takes to effect social justice.

“One of the chapters is called ‘Study,’” he said. “You don’t know what to do unless you look at the past, and study the past and what it was like before your time — [that] is the context of what he was saying: Look at what we were doing in the late ‘50s, in the ‘60s, to figure out the best pathways forward.”

“Star-Spangled & Strapped,” a portrait of Abraham Galloway painted by Sloane Siobhan and commissioned by Camp Schreiber Foundation. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Art

Williams chose “Continuum of Change” as the exhibit’s name, which features the portraits of financier Thomas C. Miller, politician and journalist John C. Dancy, physician Dr. Lucy Hughes Brown, journalist and editor Alexander Manly, physician Dr. James Francis Shober, U.S. Senator and abolitionist Abraham Galloway, educator Mary Washington Howe, slave and Civil War veteran William B. Gould, and lawyer and judge Armond Wendell Scott. 

For many of these individuals, it’s the first time they’ve been visually captured in color and displayed prominently for the community to understand their importance. Few over/under-exposed photos remain of their existence. Artist William Paul Thomas said he worked from the only picture he could find of Dr. James Francis Shober in the portrait “Healing Alone.”  

Shober was the first Black physician with a medical degree to practice in North Carolina. He lived and worked in Wilmington and died in 1889. His final resting place is in Pine Forest Cemetery, an official Black burial ground at N. 16th and Rankin streets. 

Warm yet vibrant colors bring to life the portrait, but also include medical illustrations from the 19th century — an aorta, an inner ear, a brain. “They serve as symbols for the deliberate acts of medical professionals that include listening, processing information, and providing care for patients,” Thomas explained. 

“Will has this ability to take subject matter — in this case, human beings — and bring out not only what they accomplished but the humanity in them,” Williams said.

For Williams, Shober is a face of fortitude. The son of a slave, he lived in unprecedented circumstances and was accomplished.

“That’s important during a time when Black people didn’t have equitable healthcare — we didn’t have access,” Williams said. “He was somebody who we could [trust], and so the stress that he must have been under then — I think for anybody to see him practicing in a generation post-Emancipation, for young people to see that example is incredible.”

More so, Shober’s inclusion in the show, Williams said, reflects modern-day issues that continue to affect Black communities — health inequities being front and center. It also draws upon the fact that African American physicians make up only 5% of the industry as of 2018, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

“Think about the statistics, about how Black newborn babies in the U.S. are more likely to survive childbirth if they’re cared for by Black doctors,” Williams said, “and that they’re three times more likely than white babies to die when looked after by white doctors. That study was released by George Mason in 2020.”

Artist Thomas said he approached the doctor’s portrait with a sense of curiosity, just the same as he did for Wilmington’s most well-known 1898 player, Alexander Manly. It was the editor’s “unflinching insistence on setting the record straight regarding relationships between African American men and white women” that drove the painting, Thomas said.

Manly penned an editorial in the white-owned News & Observer balking over the stereotypes of Black men being rapists of white women in 1898; it essentially was the matchstick that lit the massacre. Thomas’ piece, called “Say What’s Real,” features Manly with The Daily Record’s front page in the background. Also embedded is a “washed-out rendition of an illustration of the mob that burned it down.”

Less-known figures appear in the exhibit, too, such as John C. Dancy, by artist Clarence Heyward, and Jermaine Powell’s portrait of Thomas Miller — a financier that lent money to both white and Black people pre-1898. Powell created a mixed-media piece with acrylic, paper (to represent money) and epoxy resin. There’s only a shadow of Miller’s face since no clear picture of him is available, according to Monteith, who commissioned the work.

“I hope viewers can get a sense of who these figures were as people, who once proudly walked Wilmington’s streets,” artist Sloane Siobhan explained.

Her piece “Star Spangled & Strapped” features Abraham Galloway, an escaped slave, abolitionist and Republican state senator. Siobhan wanted to display Galloway’s “fearless resiliency,” and incorporated maps into it to represent his travels. She also created her own “interpretation of 1800 CIA files to allude to his spy work for the Union Army.” 

A second piece, “A Liberated Mind,” features Mary Washington Howe, who lived from 1853-1900, and was the principal of Williston School for 20 years. Siobhan focused on Howe’s grace and intellect.

“She didn’t just teach minds, she nurtured the spirit and built up their characters,” Siobhan said. “With only one image, I visualized her as a beacon of wisdom amidst pillars of books, with pencils that allow us to write our own stories and paper airplanes to let our imagination/spirit guide us.”

In the work, Siobhan also paid tribute to Howe’s father — Alfred Augustus Howe, known as one of Wilmington’s leading architects who also had ties to the church. The portrait includes religious text of Psalms to help build layers on the canvas.

Local architect firm LS3P Associates Ltd. commissioned the piece. The company has performed upgrades to Williston throughout the years, so the fit seemed natural, according to Williams.

“Also, let’s look at the percentage of Black architects in the United States,” Williams said.

According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 2% are African Americans. Williams said the rating will remain low until the number rises for accredited Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBUC).

“To me, it’s a direct correlation in work that I believe LS3P is trying to do to help in that area: Let’s work toward increasing the number of Black architects,” Williams said. “Art is just the starting point on how we can have these discussions about education, equity in education, and equity in licensed professions.”

“Healing Alone,” a portrait of Dr. James Francis Shober painted by William Paul Thomas and commissioned by Novant Health.(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Action

While deepening the footprint of diversity is the desired outcome for businesses involved in launching Initiative 1897, both Williams and Monteith agree the effect will truly show itself in the long-run. 

“It’s not going to change in two months, or even one year,” Monteith said. “The big thing is keeping this as a priority that doesn’t wane over time. There’s no finish line; this is a human endeavor.”

Yet, he said the energy has been invigorating and the learning opportunity vast. When Monteith interviewed with Williams a year ago as Initiative 1897 began formulating, his company already decided to hire more diverse employees; however, when those applicants from BIPOC didn’t come in, he couldn’t quite understand why or, better yet, didn’t know how to fix it. 

After working with Williams, he said he learned change comes from more than mere intent; it also needs follow-through. Today, questions arise like: “Have I built proper connections with HBUCs or linked with diverse job boards and community organizations? Have I built trust with a community that’s been overlooked in my profession for years?”

“We are so much more aware of what the challenges are that prevent the progress we want,” he said. 

“And that awareness is integral to action,” Williams said.

As to whether Initiative 1897 will host more community projects like “Continuum of Change” remains undetermined. Monteith said some ideas have been tossed around behind the curtain, but nothing is finalized. The next step is really doing the heavy lifting and hard work within the actual businesses, whether it’s implementing better human resource programs, donating to more community organizations, partnering with various colleges and universities — the options are endless.

“For me, it’s been such an education throughout this whole process,” Monteith said, “because as you learn more, you appreciate the challenges and they don’t frustrate you, like they would have in the past, because you now understand the details of why and why the challenge exists — which makes you more thoughtful about fixing it versus getting frustrated that it’s there.” 

Williams said turning that thoughtfulness internally also makes a difference — ensuring those who work at the companies already also feel seen and heard. Staff from participating companies of Initiative 1897 were treated to a private opening of the exhibit. They also were given the same personal discussions Williams had with their bosses and top-tier executives. Williams said he watched them open up when hard-to-discuss topics were broached. And that, he said, was a necessary step to show and create value and open space for everyone.

Once “Continuum of Change” wraps, all of the 48-by-60-inch portraits will move to their permanent home at the businesses. The art and stories behind them will be a permanent nudge to employees and company executives to choose actions that are of greater benefit to society on a daily basis.

“Employees who see these works every day, they get to have conversations with other team members about them,” Williams said. “It serves as a reminder, so when the folks at Live Oak Bank see the portrait of William Benjamin Gould, they’ll think about resilience and inspiration — because they can unpack William Benjamin Gould’s story now and see how on a rainy night in September of 1862, he and seven other enslaved laborers escaped from the Cape Fear River to the USS Cambridge to the Union. And they’ll understand how he ended up in Dedham, Massachusetts, using skills he acquired while being in Wilmington to create a great life for himself and his eight children.”

On Saturday “Continuum of Change” will host a free artist and curator talk at 216 N. Front St., 2 p.m. Three artists will be on hand to discuss works on display, and the meaning behind their subject matter’s importance to Wilmington history. Masks are required in the venue. The exhibit will continue through the end of August, with an official closing reception on Aug. 27, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. Gallery hours are Thursdays and Fridays, 3 p.m. – 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.; the exhibit is free.

Click to view the pictures in the gallery or scroll down.

“A Living History: Thomas C. Miller,” a portrait of Thomas C. Miller painted by Jermaine Powell and commissioned by Monteith Construction Corp. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
“Chess Over Checkers,” a portrait of John C. Dancy painted by Clarence Heyward and commissioned by nCino.(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
“A Liberated Mind,” a portrait of Mary Washington Howe painted by Sloane Siobhan and commissioned by LS3P. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
“Within the Institution of Care,” a portrait of Dr. Lucy Hughes Brown painted by Dare Coulter and commissioned by Novant Health. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
“Two Fronts,” a portrait of Armond Wendell Scott painted by Clarence Heyward and commissioned by Zimmer Development. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
“A Living History: William B. Gould,” a portrait of William B. Gould painted by Jermaine Powell and commissioned by Live Oak Bank. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Micheal Williams’ reading list while curating Initiative 1897’s “Continuum of Change”:

  • “We Have Taken a City,” H. Leon Prather
  • 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report
  • “The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901,” Helen G. Edmonds
  • “Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition,” Katherine Franke 
  • “Across That Bridge,” John Lewis
  • “Before the Mayflower,” Lerone Bennett Jr.
  • “Forgotten Legacy: William McKinley, George Henry White, and the Struggle for Black Equality,” Benjamin Justesen
  • “The Betrayal Of The Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes To Woodrow Wilson,” Rayford W. Logan
  • “The True Story Behind The Wilmington Ten,” Larry Reni Thomas

Have arts news? Email shea@localdailymedia.com

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