WILMINGTON –– An effort to erect a life-size statue for a hometown, civil rights hero is underway in Wilmington.
Starting earlier this winter on the 61-year anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-Ins, The Arts Council of Wilmington/New Hanover County launched a fundraiser with the goal to collect $100,000 for a monument in honor of Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil, one of the leaders of the nonviolent protests.
A Wilmington native, McNeil graduated from Williston Senior High School in 1959. He went on to assemble with fellow North Carolina A&T State University freshmen Franklin McCain, Jibreel Khazan and David Richmond at the all-white Woolworth lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960, and requested service at a time when Black people were not allowed to dine at the counter. McNeil ordered a coffee.
The act of protest sparked a national sit-in movement with more than 70,000 demonstrators participating from Maryland to Florida, Texas to Missouri. After six months, Woolworth’s changed its policy to grant Black customers’ service, and other eating establishments across the U.S followed suit.
McNeil told Smithsonian Magazine in 2010 he often pictured staging sit-ins while at Williston. “Even in high school, we thought about doing something like that,” he said.
Today McNeil is one of the two surviving members of Greensboro Four. Now 79, he resides in New York.
Gwenyfar Rohler, owner of Old Books on Front, came up with the idea for a sculpture honoring McNeil in his lifetime as she was studying the history of the privately funded George Davis statue in Wilmington for her weekly column in Encore Magazine.
The Davis statue — once located at 3rd and Market streets but after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer was stored in an undisclosed location where it currently remains — was the product of a fundraising campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s.
“I started asking myself if there was any reason that a group of private citizens couldn’t fundraise toward a statue that we felt reflected the values of our community now?” she said.
Rohler shared with Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, her plans for a fundraising drive. The nonprofit agreed to serve as the fiscal agent of the campaign.
At the time, the figure of Davis and the Confederate Memorial downtown were still standing.
Today the Confederate monuments have been replaced with tan tarps. Citing a safety risk, Wilmington police “temporarily” removed the structures in the middle of the night in June 2020 at the height of the multi-week protests, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The City of Wilmington is still awaiting guidance from the city attorney’s office for a “permanent resolution,” a spokesperson said.
Rohler continued writing about the idea of notable leaders she’d like to see honored with statues in Wilmington. McNeil made the list.
“Rather than discuss replacing them or taking them down, could we not discuss who, or what, we would like to honor?” Rohler asked.
The arts council so far has collected $7,500 of the estimated $100,000 to cover the cost of the McNeil statue. The model would come from Carolina Bronze Sculpture in Seagrove, the metal factory that cast the Greensboro Four monument on the North Carolina A&T campus.
“The campaign is ongoing and we hope to secure several corporate donations in addition to the individual contributions we have received,” Bellamy said.
Co-founder of CastleBranch Joe Finley has pledged $5,000 to the project. Since the violent events of 2017 in Charlottesville, Finley has actively opposed the Confederate statues in the city.
“When I saw that the statues weren’t going to go down anytime soon from a legal perspective, I said ‘Alright, we need to have a statue of an African American in this town,'” Finley said.
Finley has advocated for a monument of Abraham Galloway but recently refocused his efforts on McNeil, who is still alive and whose granddaughter lives in the area.
Once funded, the production of the monument is expected to take a year, although that timeline may be prolonged if Covid-19 further disrupts supply chains.
A location for the statue has yet to be determined, though, according to Bellamy, the ideal site is somewhere along Third Street. The stretch from Market Street to Burnett Boulevard was recently designated as Major General Joseph McNeil Commemorative Way. Wilmington City Council passed a resolution in September 2019 calling for signs along the roadway as a tribute to McNeil.
The statue would feature signage highlighting McNeil’s contributions to the civil rights movement, service in the U.S. Air Force and accomplishments in his corporate career.
“He isn’t a long-dead figure from the past. He is still alive, part of the world we are living in. We have an opportunity to honor him, and thank him, in his lifetime,” Rohler said. “I think right now, more than ever, shining a light on positive change and people making the world better, is really needed.”
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