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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar goes local with memoir from a member of the Wilmington Ten

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Wilmington Ten Willie: Guilt By Association
By Willie Earl Vereen
2019, 101 pgs.

Amnesty International declared the Wilmington Ten political prisoners held on U.S. soil. The actual arrests and court case centered around the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery on February 6, 1971. In reality, the events surrounding The Wilmington Ten were and are about the history and practice of racial segregation and the distribution of power within Wilmington, NC.

Tried and convicted for arson at Mike’s Grocery were Connie Tindall, Marvin “Chili” Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James “Bun” McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen and William “Joe” Wright, Jr. They were accompanied by Ben Chavis, an organizer from the United Church of Christ, and Ann Shepard, an anti-poverty worker. In the time leading up to the arson, African-American students were boycotting New Hanover County Schools. The movement was gaining attention and Chavis and other boycotters were meeting at Gregory Congregational Church. The Ku Klux Klan openly fired rifles at the church and the people inside. As events escalated, the National Guard put the city under curfew. The 10 convicted maintained their innocence through two trials and an appeals process. Just before she left office in 2012, Governor Perdue officially pardoned the Wilmington Ten. 

Last year Willie Earl Vereen released a memoir, “Wilmington Ten Willie: Guilt by Association.” There are probably 40 different versions of events that transpired at that time. I’m sure Connie Tindall’s and Mr. Vereen’s experiences are not the same in the lead-up to their arrests and the aftermath. Vereen’s story is straightforward. I imagine it’s the same story I would get if I sat down to dinner with him and asked about his life. He doesn’t start the book in high school, or with his arrest or trial. He starts with his first day of elementary school and with his desire to learn to play music.

It’s a theme within the book: a lifelong love affair with music. Vereen wanted to be a drummer from an early age, but at age 10 his father bought him a guitar instead. It’s a moment almost any kid can relate to: “I asked for this, and you got me that. Now, you expect me to be grateful for something I didn’t want?” He takes us through his family’s move to Jervay, the housing project on Dawson Street that same year. It is an interesting look at a world I knew nothing about, specifically how public housing works on a daily basis. 

Vereen recounts two experiences used to foreshadow coming events and indirectly characterize the growing young hero. The first was getting involved with the national boycott of A&P stores for their treatment of black employees. It was a simultaneously eye-opening and disillusioning experience, as many learning opportunities in life are. The second memory involves skipping school with Connie Tindall and two girls to go read a pamphlet at the library on Market Street titled, “The Wilmington Rebellion of 1898.”

The library on Market Street he refers to was the former Wilmington Light Infantry Building—quite a significant location in the events of 1898. The recently installed North Carolina Highway Historical Marker for 1898 is but a few feet away, in fact. So just imagine four African-American teenagers walking in the door in the ’60s and requesting to read a reference-room-only pamphlet about a bloody coup that set in motion many of the events that would come to define Mr. Vereen’s life.

It is chilling.

Vereen takes it all in stride. Though he recounts the day in the library, he doesn’t talk about what the pamphlet said, or how he reacted to it, or if the kids discussed it among themselves. It is just another moment to be witnessed. Music, however, remains the constant—from being in the church choir to forming a band, finally getting to play drums and eventually earning a paycheck from playing music. In addition, there is the discovery of alcohol, drugs and sex, which Vereen admits were of more interest to him than changing the world.

For the first 60 pages, the memoir  is like any standard coming-of-age tale, with a variety of interludes and anecdotes to bring the additional characters to life. Then on page 61 everything changes. In 1971 the boycott of New Hanover County Schools by African-American students begins. Young Vereen finds himself increasingly drawn into a world he doesn’t entirely understand but appears prepared to go along with. He is very much like Alice in Wonderland: He takes everyone he meets at face value, and is prepared to accept every experience, even though they don’t always make sense.

Readers who are looking to go in depth to the sociology, politics, planning and in context surrounding the Wilmington Ten will not find it here. “Wilmington Ten Willie” is a very personal account by one of its members. Vereen surprises frequently with his innocent acceptance of situations, and he seems to mourn decisions he made.

His narrative voice is clear and specific. It rattled around in my head for days after I finished the book. I really felt like he took the time to tell me the story of his life over dinner. That’s how his writing comes across on the page. This slim volume is a powerful personal testimony by a man whose voice has been too-often usurped by others. We all should take the time to sit with Mr. Vereen and learn from his experiences.

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