Back in 1971, racial tensions were high as the local schools were court-ordered to integrate. The process of desegregation would be met with resistance as Williston, the all black high school, was shut down. The all white school, New Hanover, remained open.
The black students were divided as some were sent to New Hanover and others to the city’s newest school, Hoggard.
Bertha Todd, the assistant principle of Hoggard High School, remembers well the clashes between black and white students in the halls. These clashes would eventually spill out onto the streets of the city.
“It was a matter of the Hoggard students, who were mostly white, feeling as if these students from Williston had invaded their turf,” said Todd.
Ben Chavis, who was 24 years old at the time, was invited to Wilmington by the pastor at Gregory Congressional Church to help lead black students in a boycott of city schools.
“The students were boycotting because the black students were suspended more often than whites. If a white and black got into a fight the black would be suspended and the white student wasn’t,” recalled Todd.
The rift would result in a battle between black civil rights activists and members of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.
“I know there were armed white vigilantes roaming through Wilmington in pick up trucks shooting up the African-American community,” said Chavis.
There would be rioting as a citywide curfew forced folks into their homes by 7 pm or risk being arrested. Buildings were set on fire, like Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned business. That event would lead to the arrest and conviction of 10 people, nine black men and one white woman.
Puzzling to members of the community was how the police had come up with the 10 suspects and the sentences they were given.
“The sentences they were given, as teenagers, were very much unjust. They didn’t have past records,” said Todd.
Ann Shepard, the oldest and the only white, received a 15-year sentence. The black men were sentenced to at least 29 years. Chavis got the most – 34 years.
“If you add up all our sentences, it came to 282 years in prison for advocating civil rights – everyone knew that was wrong,” said Chavis.
There was never any proof any of the ten were there the night Mike’s grocery burned to the ground. It would take nearly a decade to prove their innocence. The Wilmington 10 would become the first case to be officially declared as political prisoners by Amnesty International. 40 years later, the case is in history books all over the world.
Chavis believes so much progress has been made because of the sacrifices civil rights leaders made – including countless incarcerations.
“The fact that you and I can do this interview about the Wilmington 10 case speaks to the place of the Wilmington 10. The fact that in 2011 we can have an African American in the white house shows just how far we’ve come in 40 years,” he said.