Monday, December 4, 2023

Area civil rights landmarks in consideration for state marker submission

Williston Middle School was once home to an all-Black high school before it closed and students were forced to integrate into the area’s white high schools in 1968. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two Wilmington locations could become stops along the  North Carolina Civil Rights Trail this fall.

READ MORE: Just a regular school closing? Williston legacy graduation to take place for classes ‘69, ‘70

New Hanover County documents obtained by Port City Daily show the New Hanover County Commission on African American History, Heritage and Culture is considering two locations for the designation — Williston Middle School and Gregory Congregational Church.

The commission consists of faith leaders, business owners, civil rights advocates and members-at-large appointed by the New Hanover County commissioners. NHC Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Linda Thompson, also liaison to the commission, confirmed the commission has not reached a decision on the final submission. The submission deadline is Sept. 29.

Port City Daily reached out to several members of the commission, who all deferred to commission chair J’vanete Skiba; the chair did not respond by press.

The Civil Rights Trail is a product of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. Between 2021 and 2023, the commission plans to place 50 markers at significant sites of civil rights events, including protests, birthplaces and residences of important figures, churches and spaces where people organized, places where civil rights icons visited, educational institutions, and legal buildings or courthouses. 

One marker already exists in the Cape Fear Region; Dr. Hubert A. Eaton Sr., a state tennis champion and activist, initiated a series of lawsuits in the ‘50s and ‘60s to end discrimination in New Hanover schools and sports along with a 10-year battle to end discriminatory practices in health care. A marker in his honor at the New Hanover County Courthouse was unveiled in May.

Other markers across the state include the Ocean City beach community in North Topsail Beach, an enclave for Black beachgoers once excluded from other nearby beaches in the mid-20th century. The 1963 Fayetteville Protests over educational segregation and the 1960 Kinston sit-ins also are featured.

Soon Williston Middle and Gregory Congregational Church, two locations whose histories overlap, could be among the trail’s ranks. County documents shared by Equity and Diversity Specialist Travis Corpening and created by Janet Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science demonstrate the significance of the locations. 

The Williston campus was once home to New Hanover County Schools’ all-Black high school. Despite the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation unconstitutional, many schools found ways to circumvent the decision. New Hanover County operated under a “freedom of choice” plan in the mid-’60s; individuals could petition for their child to attend any school, though it did little to accomplish integration.

Despite being denied the same resources as other schools, Williston graduated students that went on to succeed in varying professions — athletes like Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson, Major League Baseball player Sam Bowens, jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath and architect Robert Robinson Taylor, who helped build Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. 

In an effort to further comply with the Supreme Court case, NHCS decided to close Williston during summer break in 1968; its 900 students were reassigned to New Hanover and Hoggard high schools. The classes of ‘69 and ‘70, while getting their diplomas, did not get to graduate from their alma mater, a treasured tradition for Black Wilmingtonians. 

It wasn’t until this year that those graduates, now in their 70s, were formally recognized in a legacy graduation ceremony on Williston’s campus. 

County commissioners passed a resolution in support of the graduation acknowledging “the decision to close Williston exacerbated tensions within the county.” Embroiled in legal battles, the school district would not reach full integration until 1971. 

Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ on Nun Street. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

That same year, hundreds of students led a boycott of the high schools. Eugene Templeton, a white pastor, offered his integrated church, Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, as a gathering place and school alternative. 

The national United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice also sent the young Rev. Benjamin Chavis to Wilmington to help organization efforts. Chavis — who went on to become an African-American civil rights leader and journalist — delivered fiery speeches denouncing segregation and demanding social justice. 

But it wasn’t long until anti-protesters showed up, in this case the KKK-affiliate The Rights of White People, demanding a citywide curfew.

On February 6, 1971, Mike’s Grocery, a convenience store a few hundred yards from Gregory Congregational, was firebombed. In the subsequent firefight, an armed African American teenager, 17-year-old Steven Corbett, was killed. 

The next day a white man with a pistol, Harvey Cumber, was killed in his truck near the church. County documents state five fires were set, engulfing the L. Schwartz Furniture on N. Fourth Street and Gore’s Grocery at 11th and Castle streets. 

The mayor requested assistance from the National Guard and eventually, a curfew was installed. 

Almost a year later, 10 people — Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Willie Earl Vereen, William “Joe” Wright II, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Anne Sheppard, and Benjamin Chavis — were charged with felonies. The men, all Black, were charged with conspiracy to assault emergency personnel and burning down Mike’s Grocery. Shepard, a white social worker, was charged with being an accessory to the arson.

The 10 were convicted to a combined 280-plus-year prison sentence. All but two of the 10 were high school students.

Due to public demands to release the “Wilmington 10,” North Carolina Gov. James Hunt commuted their sentences in 1978 and they were released the next year. 

After several witnesses rescinded their testimonies and media called attention to the case’s inconsistencies, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their convictions in 1980 due to an unfair trial. However, the charges were never dropped, even though the case was not retried. They were pardoned in 2012 after living members of the Wilmington 10 campaigned for their innocence.

If the historical markers are approved, their costs will be covered by the state.

Thompson said the application could take several months before a decision is made — Eaton’s took nearly six months she said, but the state commission’s website explains applicants will be notified of their application “status” in October.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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