A personal look at the lives of the Wilmington Ten
By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA News Service from the Wilmington Journal
Most of the defendants were young, some barely in their 20s, when they were convicted in 1972 of crimes they didn’t commit. Some were still in high school, and living with their parents. At least one, Anne Shepard, was rearing three young children. Most of them had dreams of a bright, hope-filled future.
Their only “crime,” they say, was their willingness to openly and peacefully, challenge the New Hanover County Public School System in the early 1970s when it declined to provide an equal, quality education to Black students.
Because of their individual courage, and commitment to equality, the Wilmington Ten suffered false prosecution, years of imprisonment and great personal hardships for themselves and their families. The impact for all of them has extended decades beyond their release from prison, and well after a federal appellate court overturned their convictions.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the prosecution violated due process rights of the Wilmington Ten by failing to turn over evidence that was favorable to the defense, including information that would have impeached the testimony of its mentally deficient chief witness. The appeals judges noted, “There is also possible knowing use of perjured testimony” to convict the 10 defendants.
All the Wilmington Ten want now is an official pardon to remove the cloud that has hung over their heads for four decades.
After Jerry was released from prison and went back home to Wilmington, he couldn’t find a job, and was shunned by the community. So much so that Jerry felt his life was in danger, prompting him to move to New York City. But Jerry didn’t stay long, his mother, Margaret Jacobs, says. Jerry got mixed up with the wrong crowd and began taking drugs. He returned to Wilmington in bad shape, arm swollen and strung out. Mrs. Jacobs said Jerry later had a stroke. At the hospital, doctors told his mother he had also contracted the AIDS virus because of bad needles. “That’s what killed him,” she says sadly of Jerry’s death in 1989.
William ‘Joe’ Wright, Jr.
William Gibbs remembers his late brother Joe Wright as a “very, very congenial fellow who brought people to common understanding, and very much a young leader.” Gibbs says the conspiracy charges against the Wilmington Ten were “totally out of character” for them. “Joe and a lot of those guys wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Gibbs says. The 17-year-old Wright wanted to grow up to become a lawyer, and was willing to put in the hard work to make that happen.
William “Joe” Wright died in 1991. A week before his death, he was accepted to Campbell Law School. There is no question in William Gibbs’ mind that his brother would have lived to see his dream of practicing law into fruition, had it not been for the Wilmington Ten case.
Willie Earl Vereen
Willie Vereen was a young 17-year-old musician playing in a rhythm and blues band. He told his family he wanted to be lawyer or a doctor. His older sister, Wanda, was the political one, not him. He grew up in Jervay Projects, which meant Willie hung out with the guys late, “drank a little wine,” and basically just had fun.
A Hoggard High student, Vereen found himself in the midst of a Black student boycott one day. That boycott led to him joining other students at Gregory Church. Willie understood what the boycott was about, but he was mainly there “because of the girls,” another testament that the farthest thing on his young mind was shooting or firebombing.
In prison, Vereen survived by joining the Nation of Islam and converting to Islam. There is no question that the Wilmington Ten case changed his life — and not for the better. He says he’s “mostly paranoid now, and mostly stays at home.” His fiancée’ watches out for him now.
James ‘Bun’ McKoy
What has happened to his life because of the Wilmington Ten episode brings tears to the eyes of James McKoy, now 59. At 18, McKoy played bass guitar in bands, particularly on Carolina Beach, where he played with whites at supper clubs. He wanted to play professionally.
The youngest of four, McKoy graduated from Hoggard High School in 1971, amid the strife and Black student protests. McKoy joined the protests, but says, unlike many of the others, he “didn’t think much” of their new leader, Rev. Ben Chavis, primarily because he was preoccupied with music, not activism. So in 1972 when young McKoy was arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the Mike’s Grocery bombing, McKoy didn’t know why.
McKoy says he held out hope that the truth would eventually come out. And it did when has conviction was overturned. After McKoy left prison, he didn‘t have too many problems finding work as a musician. In the interceding years, McKoy has suffered two strokes.
Young Connie Tindall was an all-star high school football player who dreamed of growing up to play in the NFL. But at age 20, the Wilmington Ten episode eliminated that possibility.
Tindall, whose father was a longshoreman, was looking for work while still attending school. Upset at the way Black students were being treated in 1971, he decided to be aspokesman for their cause. He shaped their message and became their face in the press, Even after Rev. Ben Chavis arrived in February of that year, Tindall remained in the forefront of the struggle.
A year after the destruction of Mike’s Grocery, Tindall was yanked out of bed late at night in his parents’ home, arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the grocery store firebombing.
When Tindall finally left prison on early release after almost five years, there was no easy re-entry into his community. It was hard getting a job and when he did land one, it rarely lasted past a week. Because Tindall’s father was a longshoreman, he was able to find work for his son.
Marvin Patrick is 60 years old, has suffered a stroke and struggles to get around on a cane. He says being arrested as part of the Wilmington Ten cost him the opportunity to become a unionized longshoremen like his father. At the age of 20, Patrick had already worked on the docks and served a short stint in the US Army.
In 1971, Patrick got involved in the Black student movement because he deeply believed in a quality education, and that included African Americans learning about their history and culture. That was being taken away from them, and Rev. Ben Chavis, with whom he was close, was leading them in a constructive, yet defiant manner, to reclaim them.
A year after the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery, word circulated that the authorities had arrested various students who were at Gregory Church. Rev. Ben Chavis was also arrested. When Patrick paid Chavis a visit, he too was arrested and charged with conspiracy.
His being stuck with the Wilmington Ten label made keeping a job difficult. After a while, he started telling lies to get a job. Like his fellow defendants, even his fellow church members turned against him.
Judy Mack remembers those days when her mother, Anne Shepard, stood strong against discrimination of any kind, including race, gender or size, Shepard believed that all were equal in God’s sight, and she brought up her three children to believe the same.
That belief made life harder for Shepard, a 34-year-old white woman who, in 1971, stood foursquare with Black students in Wilmington trying to remove the last vestiges ofa rigidly segregated school system. Shepard was a respected community worker known for her work on behalf of poor families in public housing. So working with students at Gregory Church came natural to her.
And when activists were arrested in 1972 in connection with the Mike’s Grocery firebombing, Shepard was not exempted. The authorities had hoped to turn Shepard against Rev. Chavis and the other activists. But Shepard, knowing that none of them had committed any of the crimes they were charged with, refused.
When a federal appeals court overturned the convictions of the Wilmington Ten, Shepard was released from prison for good, reunited with her daughters and moved to Durham, where he graduated from Durham Tech.
If there’s a Wilmington Ten member who prefers to distance himself from those fateful events of 40 years ago, it is Reginald Epps. He does not attend anniversary programs and usually refuses to grant interviews.
Epps was 17, and a student at Hoggard High when he found himself caught in the web of the Wilmington Ten. Feeling trapped by his past, he applied for the lowest level jobs possible so that he can work his way up without detection. The strategy worked for a number of years. His upward journey ended when he had to take care of his mother, who later died.
After Wayne Moore was fin-ally released from prison in 1979, he went back to Wilmington, hoping not only to be accepted into the community again, but to get his young life on track. At 19 years old, he was sentenced to 29 years in prison.
But it soon became clear, after losing job after job, and being shunned by many in the community, that there was no future for Moore in his hometown anymore. So he had to move to Michigan, where he learned a trade as an electrician, and remains gainfully employed.
“The state of North Carolina has never been held accountable for this tragic disruption in my life after allowing one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in the history of America to take place,” Moore has written. “The city of Wilmington has already apologized for this injustice. It is now time for the state of North Carolina to do the same by granting The Wilmington Ten a full pardon of innocence.”
Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis
Without a doubt, the most famous member of the Wilmington Ten is its leader, Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis. He was the convener of the 1995 Million Man March. He led the NAACP as its president/CEO, and today, Chavis heads the Hip-Hop Action Network. Long before becoming was a major figure on the national stage, he committed himself to improving the plight of Blacks in Wilmington.
On Feb. 6, 1971, Mike’s Grocery, a block from Gregory Church, was firebombed. Chavis was immediately blamed. A warrant was issued for his arrest. He was tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, and conspiracy to firebomb the grocery. Chavis was sentenced to 34 years in prison.
Writing about his experience for the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, he said: “I was 24 years old. What I later accomplished in my 30s, 40s and 50s was certainly impacted and shaped by the Wilmington Ten chapter of my life. Today, I am still a ‘freedom fighter.’”
Photo Courtesy of John Davis/Wilmington Journal