Thursday, October 6, 2022

What we know about Walter L. Parsley, his grandson, and a New Hanover elementary school – which all share a name

A June petition with nine recommendations includes the request to rename Walter L. Parsley Elementary School marks the first effort to rename the public school since it was named in 1999. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
A June petition with nine recommendations includes the request to rename Walter L. Parsley Elementary School marks the first effort to rename the public school since it was named in 1999. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — Walter L. Parsley Elementary School shares the name of a member of the Secret Nine who hosted racist co-conspirators in 1898 at his home to plan the only known coup d’état in American history. For that reason, some would like to rename it — but the story of the school’s namesake is complicated.

There are literally two Walter L. Parsleys — grandfather and grandson — attached to the history, the land, and the naming of the school just twenty years ago.

When it comes to the senior Parsley, the name is clearly problematic, to say the least. Parsley and his fellow white supremacists secretly plotted the attack that killed dozens of Black residents in Wilmington, then regarded as one of the most politically and racially diverse cities in the south. The massacre set back Black advancement in the region for decades. Area leaders failed to recognize the historical significance of the event for much of the 20th century.

Related: A busy night for New Hanover commissioners: Racism, Hugh MacRae, NHRMC, and rezonings

Parsley students likely have never been taught the history of the school’s eponym. Many graduates of the New Hanover County School system have reported in recent years and decades of never learning about the massacre at all.

Along with his brother-in-law, Hugh MacRae, Walter L. Parsley (1856-1941) and seven other members of Wilmington’s elite organized armed militias to overthrow the area’s duly elected leadership in 1898. The group held several meetings to plot the massacre at Parsley’s home on Market Street, according to Harry Hayden’s 1936 pamphlet.

There, the Secret Nine mapped out a citywide campaign in concert with a statewide white supremacy movement, planned to occur Nov. 10, 1898, the day after the statewide elections.

Masonboro

At the time, Parsley also owned and lived in a waterfront home known as the Parsley-Love house, built in 1885. Parsley and his family built and occupied multiple homes off what is now known as Masonboro Sound Road.

Next door to the Parsley-Love house, his Live Oaks property, an Italian Renaissance mansion built in 1913, remains the most architecturally distinctive feature of the Masonboro Sound Historic District, according to the district’s 1992 National Registry for Historic Places application. The property was the second most expensive home sold in New Hanover County in 2018 at $4.9 million — it was designed by Henry Bacon, who also designed the Lincoln Memorial and the monument to Confederate soldiers in downtown Wilmington.

The eldest Parsley’s wealth was derived from his ownership of the Hilton Lumber Company.

Parsley’s name was given to his grandson but, because it skipped a generation, it didn’t come with the ‘II’ or ‘Jr.’ suffix of many family lines.

This complicated the issue, since the school’s name may be dedicated in part to Parley’s grandson.

The sale

In 1999, New Hanover County Schools purchased a 17.2-acre tract on Masoboro Loop Road for $785,000. Walter L. Parsley (the grandson) owned the land with his wife Sarah B. Parsley.

As a condition for purchasing the land, the New Hanover County Board of education requested the school be named Walter L. Parsley Elementary School “because of his generosity in making the land available to the community.” The reference included in the 1999 schedule of conditions may possibly be in reference to the seller, Parsley the grandson.

Schedule of conditions included in the offer to purchase 1999. (Courtesy NHCS)

What isn’t clear is why the sale of property (as opposed to a donation) was perceived as an act of generosity. According to a 1999 tax bill provided by New Hanover County Tax Department, the land’s tax value was $219,400.

Tax values often don’t reflect market value but usually land somewhere in the ballpark of assessed value. This means Parsley sold the land to NHCS at 3.5 times its tax value.

He died the year following the land sale in 2000.

According to the StarNews, the eldest Parsley donated about 2.3 acres of land to New Hanover County in 1913 to be used as a school. Later incorporated into the overall campus, the original foundation for the two-room schoolhouse was still visible as of 2009, the StarNews reported.

Parsley’s grandson inherited the 17.2-acre tract in 1990 after the death of his mother, according to an earlier deed to the property. According to this deed, the property was bordered by the Live Oaks property previously owned by the eldest Walter L. Parsley.

The property may have been incorporated into the greater Parsley estate, which stretched more than a mile from the sound. The stretch of land that stops east of Masonboro Loop Road is incorporated into the official Masonoboro Sound Historic District.

The eldest Walter L. Parsley's estate known as "Live Oaks" stretched more than one mile from the sound to where the elementary school now stands. This stretch of land is included in the official Masonboro Sound Historic District. (Port City Daily screenshot/Courtesty N.C. Department of Cultural and Natural Resources), edited by PCD)
The eldest Walter L. Parsley’s estate known as “Live Oaks” stretched more than one mile from the sound to where the elementary school now stands. This stretch of land is included in the official Masonboro Sound Historic District. The historic Live Oaks and Parsley-Love homes are marked by yellow arrows on the right. (Port City Daily screenshot/Courtesty N.C. Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, edited by PCD)

The change

Last month, Kaleigh Pare started an online petition with nine requests related to the 1898 massacre. It has since garnered more than 2,400 signatures.

Seven of the requests are unfulfilled 2006 recommendations from the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, a state group many people feel was improperly named, as it implies the violence was equally shared rather than a massacre that targeted Black residents.

Identical bills filed by then-State Senator Julia Olson-Boseman in 2008 and 2009 to mandate grade-level-appropriate material to mandate the events into public curriculums went nowhere.

Two recommendations not included in the report but in the petition are to rename Hugh MacRae Park and Walter L. Parsley Elementary School. Monday, New Hanover County Commissioners voted 3-2 to rename the park in a surprise vote earlier this week.

“I’m trying to sort of prioritize what can be done immediately. Things like renaming the park and renaming Walter L. Parsley Elementary School, I mean, that is easy,” Pare said earlier this month.

Pare’s inclusion of renaming the elementary school in her petition appears to be the first known attempt to have the school renamed. Ann Gibson, NHCS spokesperson, said the district does not have any documentation in its archives of any attempt to rename the school.

“They named the school in 2000. So it’s not like it was named in the 60s or something,” Pare said.

After fulfilling a records request with Port City Daily July 6, NHCS included the records in an agenda item to discuss renaming the school for a board meeting the following evening.

Board members discussed the need to determine whether the school was named after the youngest or eldest Parsley before making a decision, according to WECT. A NHCS representative will attempt to reach out to surviving Parsley family members to discuss the possibility of a name change.

NHCS spokesperson Ann Gibson said staff is also consulting with its policy committee to discuss board policy regarding naming school property. “Staff who were present at that time recollected that there was discussion that the school was being named after the grandfather,” Gibson said Wednesday, adding that the original naming was still being researched.

The board is expected to revisit the topic at its upcoming meeting in August.

The parent of a student at Walter L. Parsley Elementary School says the child's service dog was turned away, despite federal law allowing it on campus. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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