WILMINGTON — Activists and community members have been shining a spotlight on Wilmington’s history this summer, forcing the city and county to reckon with a series of community concerns that have been simmering for decades, but until now haven’t garnered enough momentum to compel local officials to act.
The New Hanover County School Board’s decision to strip the Parsley name from Walter L. Parsley Elementary was the most recent attempt by local leaders to distance the city and its culture from the events of 1898 — when the city’s elected bi-racial leadership was violently toppled by white supremacists — the only successful coup d’état in American history.
“When something like the murder of George Floyd makes people more aware of systemic racism, institutional racism and the truth about our history, I think that provides momentum,” School Board member Nelson Beaulieu said.
Walter L. Parsley was an architect of the massacre, hosting meetings at his Market Street home in which a group of co-conspirators planned the government takeover.
Parsley’s identically-named grandson sold a portion of his inherited estate to NHCS in 1999 for 3.5 times its tax value. This would become the site of the elementary school.
“In the lobby of the school, there is the history of Walter L. Parsley,” School Board Chair Lisa Estep said, “The person who was a part of the 1898 massacre. So I don’t think you can separate the school from that individual.”
A difficult history
Sonya Patrick-AmenRa is an organizer for Wilmington’s Black Lives Matter Chapter. The decision to rename Parsley Elementary represents Wilmington’s willingness to reckon with a difficult history, said Patrick-AmenRa, who is a descendant of U.S. Colored Troops soldiers, who fought for the Union Army in the Civil War.
“For a young black child to go to a school that was named after someone who imposed a massacre killing black people, that has a psychological effect,” she said.
Estep said that up until one or two years ago, she hadn’t been made aware of any widespread concern regarding problems with the Parsley name. When she received an email that mentioned problems associated with the Parsley name, she bought it to the NHCS superintendent and deputy superintendent — Tim Markley and Rick Holliday, respectively — who told her “that the school had been named after the grandson,” she said.
She tasked an NHCS employee with digging into the history, then came to the conclusion that the school did indeed honor the Walter Parsley that participated in the 1898 coup.
Patrick-AmenRa was ecstatic after the name was changed, and said the decision represents a valuable step forward in modern Wilmington’s efforts to condemn and distance itself from a sometimes-dark history.
“I feel like people are paying attention who have never payed attention before,” she said.
Increased public pressure
New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple said discussions involving changing names of structures and buildings with racist histories didn’t originate with elected officials. Instead, he said, officials have been acting in response to a flood of public pleas, which indicates an unprecedented level of interest among community members on the topic of renaming areas that until recently have gone mostly unchallenged.
Following a name change in July, Hugh MacRae Park, named for one of Parsley’s co-conspirators in the 1898 coup, is now Long Leaf Park — a decision made by the New Hanover County Commission — the culmination of a series of demonstrations and protests that called for the removal of the MacRae name. Public calls to change the name have come before, but the most recent efforts rode a nation-wide wave of pressure to reevaluate historical markers, monuments, and memorials.
“Not just here locally, but nationally, there’s been a reevaluation of a lot of named structures and statues,” Zapple said. “With the very strong sentiment within our population, we made the move, which was clearly within our power, to rename the Park.”
Hugh MacRae Park was avoided by Black residents in the mid-twentieth century, Patrick-AmenRa said.
“In the fifties, sixties and seventies, a true Wilmingtonian, if you were Black in Wilmington, N.C., did not go to Hugh MacRae Park,” she said. “Why you didn’t go was because it was rumored that there were Klan meetings and unexplained deaths.”
When details about the 1898 coup became more widely understood in the 1990s, the Black community’s fears were validated and a boycott of the park began, Patrick-AmenRa said.
When Black Lives Matter started operations in 2014, the Wilmington chapter vowed to continue the “generational boycott,” until the name was changed.
Wilmington resident Diamond Bentley organized a sit-in at the park in July, which sought to raise awareness of Wilmington’s history and bring attention to the problems associated with the MacRae name.
“This was a Black-owned city and was stolen, snatched, and then turned into a racist town where we praised for many years these men who did poor innocent humans wrong,” she said. “It’s the biggest park and it’s in the middle of the city. After finding out the history, changing the name became the priority.”
Zapple said the local government will consider these concerns when necessary, but that he doesn’t want to take it too far.
“I hesitate in saying there’s a blanket policy of changing every name. That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
But talks are ongoing.
“There’s some street names that have come into question. So far I have not heard a great demand on those, but I know that it’s a part of the overall conversation,” he said.
According to NHCS Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaChawn Smith, the events of 1898 are included in the curriculums of every eighth grade Social Studies class in the county. Field trips that teach students about the massacre have been part of the third grade curriculum for ten years, and high school history teachers are encouraged, but not required, to teach the topic.
NHCS’s next step will be to conduct an inventory of all named buildings and structures throughout the county, in an attempt to locate any additional names that might prove to be problematic.
Board Chairwoman Estep said it will not be a quick process, but that the comprehensive review will inform the school system’s plans moving forward.
“Right now everyone’s focus really needs to be on getting the kids back into school. That’s of paramount importance,” she said. “This will go along beside it, but we need to take our time and make sure we’re doing it right.”
Contact the reporter: Preston@localdailymedia.com