It was the opening reception for “Paradigm Shifts of Public Spaces: Wilmington” exhibit on the corner of Market and Front streets, at the pop-up art gallery. Anchorlight Wilmington shimmered with activity and excitement. Curated by Mike Williams, founder of the Black on Black Project, the exhibit features works by Alexandria Clay and Anthony Patterson, who have created an exhibit to explore the cataclysmic impacts of 1898 and The Wilmington Ten.
Alexandria Clay’s fiber work combines reproduced photography from the late 1890’s and fiber collage techniques. “For each of the pieces, they are spaces in Wilmington I have photographed and edited digitally and then physically collaged,” she explains. “The spaces I use are ones that were at one point owned by African-American people, either from before 1898 or along the way.”
The location of The Daily Record is probably the most well-known for modern audiences. Until November of 1898, Alex Manley edited The Wilmington Daily Record, the only daily published African-American newspaper in the country at the time. The newspaper was targeted and fire-bombed during the massacre of the African-American community around the election of 1898. “You go to it now, and it’s literally a patch of grass, mostly dirt used as a parking lot next to the St. Luke’s Church,” Clay noted.
Her piece places the Manley family back in the location with the next generation: Alex and Carrie crib-side, with an infant, looking for all the world like the proudest of parents.
“I wanted to bring forward a grassy, full-of-life space because it’s how I think it would have been: This was a newspaper—the only black newspaper in the city dedicated to putting out facts and knowledge, supporting, uplifting the community. I felt like that full grassy, full-of-life area would represent that.”
Clay indicated vivid greens and textured layers in the foreground of the piece.
“It feels quilted,” I observed.
“Yeah, quilted,” Clay agreed. “It feels like home to me—like reclaiming the space that feels far away.”
Clay discussed her previous work with the Black on Black Project, an exhibition titled “Colored Me” which opened in Raleigh in March. “[It] was about being a black woman in white dominated spaces—and not just dominated spaces but [those that] were literally built and not made for me. Not people of color. Not people of my experience. What does that mean? What does that do for my emotional and mental state? What does that do to not have the majority of the spaces I exist in consider my identity?”
Clay draws a line from the loss of spaces and the “what could have been” to the present and invites the viewer to consider “what could be.” Certainly, we can’t discuss 1898 without acknowledging land, property and power loss that is central to the events. The Manley family reportedly asked that very question, repeatedly, especially when attempting to recover compensation for their lost property. The shock of learning about the events of 1898 is still very present for Clay.
“I was not taught this in school,” she offered. “I grew up in Raleigh; I never heard anything about it. That to me is astounding; this is the only coup d’etat in U.S. history. Never heard a thing about it.”
She nodded her head.
Across the room Anthony Patterson displayed a triptych depicting Gregory Congregational Church during The Wilmington Ten. The Wilmington Ten consisted of 10 young people in 1971 who attempted to organize a series of protests to draw attention to inequities that African-American students were experiencing in the newly desegregated New Hanover County Schools. In a complicated series of events, The Wilmington Ten were arrested and wrongfully convicted of arson.
One of Governor Perdue’s last acts before she left office was to pardon the Ten. It is a highly condensed version of events whose impacts are still felt throughout our community today, especially in our public school system. (Please, if you have a chance, read James Baldwin’s “Open Letter to President Carter” that appeared in The New York Times. The context for the Ten and the corresponding events in Charlotte at the same time are explored with straightforward artistry that is the hallmark of Baldwin’s essays.)
Therefore, Patterson prefers his edges more organic, in order to showcase imperfections. “It goes into the history,” he clarified. “The history isn’t perfect.”
To me, the ragged edges feel like pages ripped from a book, in haste or anger, but either way, fast. He nodded, perhaps acknowledging he could see the interpretation, but maybe not. The National Guard are depicted in the lower right-hand corner, outside the church. The far panel has people by the historic marker for Gregory Normal School. The middle section is layers of text that fly or float between the two panels—thoughts and statements that would literally “be in the air” at the time—and to a large extent now, too. Many are quotes from and about 1898. Patterson noted the line between the two events creates a continuation.
Williams agreed. “It’s about understanding the connection between 1898 and The Wilmington Ten; if you don’t resolve one thing, it turns into another,” she added.
Williams noted how The Wilmington Ten isn’t really a one-of-a-kind situation in our nation. In fact, backlash on desegregation was a dime a dozen.
“I won’t use the word ‘integrate,’” he muses. “Integration would have been smoother if we had the mindset of actually trying to integrate. But when you’re talking about desegregation and all that happened to the last graduating class of Williston in ’68, talk about a public space that has been taken away.”
Indeed, the future of the Williston campus, currently in use as a middle school, has been at the center of discussion again in 2019. The New Hanover County School Board, which is currently looking at the redistricting plan for next school year, suggested changing Williston from a middle school to a magnate arts high school. Roughly 3,700 to 4,000 students are expected to be moved with the school redistricting. Clearly, the issue of school districts and equitable education is timely for this community. Yet, somehow, when initial community partners were selected to work on redistricting, they chose three white people. Not a single person of color in our community was chosen—a community that still remembers The Wilmington Ten and the National Guard occupying the city.
Williams’ work with the Black on Black Project and Clay and Patterson is clearly timely. “Black on Black Project exists because artists of color weren’t being represented through their art work, but they also weren’t represented enough in gallery spaces,” Williams explained.
In 2016 he co-curated “Black on Black,” an exhibition in Raleigh that was created so artists of color would talk about their passions through creating. Williams recalled the programing and exhibition brought home how people who don’t normally do the ”art folks” gallery circuit did not feel like they were allowed in spaces, especially art spaces.
“And it’s interesting because it’s a public space,” he says, “so they should be allowed, but because of the different layers and complexities of our world, people of color may not have felt comfortable.”
When the show ended, Williams noticed more participation in the arts. He associates it with representation. “So I started to just curate more and work with all kinds of spaces across the state,” he tells.
In addition to Clay and Patterson’s art work, reproductions of the Morning Star and The News and Observer from the time are on the walls to show how events were reported. It’s a powerful tool for shining a light on who controls the story. It certainly resonates today.
“Everybody’s voice may not always be heard,” Williams observed. “One of the biggest issues we have in society is we don’t talk to each other. The beauty of art—and I say this over and over—is it allows us to have conversations about things we won’t talk about at our dinner table.”