Welcome to week three (February 19-25) of recognizing the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro Four. Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond decided on February 1, 1960, to host a sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter. The four young students from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State made small purchases at Woolworth in Greensboro before crossing into the diner, taking a seat and asking to be served. The day had come for them to desegregate the lunch counter—where they were allowed to spend their money but not sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. Like all African-Americans, they could only place to-go orders and pick them up at the end of the counter. They could not enjoy a meal with the rest of the patrons.
At the time, they had no idea they were inspiring a movement. Over 70,000 protesters took to lunch counters across the American South. The Greensboro sit-in lasted until July 25, 1960 (176 Days), when, bowing to plummeting sales and public pressure, the store manager finally caved. He asked three African-American employees to change out of their work uniforms and into street clothes, go sit at the counter and order a meal. Even after all that time, he wouldn’t succumb to the protesters being the first served.
Folks who read “Live Local” may remember from my coverage last year that one of the Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, is from Wilmington and is an alum of Williston Senior High School. He went on to have a distinguished career in the U.S. Armed Forces, but he performed a lasting service to our country during his time as a student in Greensboro.
Last year I asked if we as a community, are ready to have a conversation about who we want to honor with monuments and signs across town. I questioned what values we hold dear. At the time I was hearing a lot of back and forth about people’s objections to public art, but not much in the way of positive options or solutions. Nor, frankly, was I hearing much in the way of conversations honoring anyone with a statue who wasn’t white, male and a property owner. Could we contemplate a statue honoring a Native American woman in Wilmington? I’ve asked that question many times, not just in print but also in person. The silence is baffling.
I have spent a lot of time pondering this. I truly would like to see a collection of statues to honor some of our local heroes and heroines throughout downtown Wilmington. First and foremost, I want to see a statue of Joseph McNeill. He is alive, and as his hometown we should collectively honor him while we can share it with him.
The George Davis statue at the intersection of Third and Market streets has gotten a lot of attention as of late, including a paint-bombing last year. Until recently, few people I interacted with on a regular basis had any idea who George Davis was. If I brought up his statue in conversation, I frequently had to add how it was the one of a guy usually holding a beer can in his outstretched hand. Then the recognition would dawn on which statue I was describing. As to who he was and what he accomplished in his lifetime, well, that would pass by as unnecessary information. But I don’t want to look so much at George’s background as I do the efforts around getting a statue for him.
In 1901 the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) decided to start a public monument project for the Confederacy. It was a common occurrence across the country for statues of Civil War-era politicians, soldiers and generals to appear in both the North and South. Many statues were manufactured by the same foundry who merely changed the lettering on the belt buckle, depending upon if they were making a statue to memorialize the Union or Confederate armies.
The date is an important factor here: 1901. It was just on the other side of 1898, as in the 1898 Massacre. The North Carolina General Assembly was in the process of changing our city charter to hold “at large elections” to prevent the possibility of people of color getting elected to city government (let alone holding a majority like pre-1898) through ward-style representation (inclusive governing). Thus, adding public art at a prominent crossroad would reinforce a message of supremacy and control. So the UDC decided to commission a statue of the highest-ranking Confederate cabinet member from our area: George Davis. Between 1904 and 1909, UDC raised about $900. According to S. Morgan Friedman’s inflation calculator, that would be equivalent to $27,986.44 in 2019.
When Ben Steelman wrote about the George Davis Statue in the StarNews in 2012, he pointed out the balance of the statue construction fund was provided by James Sprunt, who leaned on some of his cronies. Ultimately, the budget for the statue was $5,010.34, or $155,801.76 in 2019 money.
In the midst of all this pondering, a series of questions arose:
1. If the George Davis statue was privately funded by a group of citizens, is there any reason, in our current time, a group of citizens couldn’t fundraise toward a statue or statues they feel reflect values we want to honor now?
2. How would that work?
So the more I thought about it, the more I weighed my options. I didn’t want to wander around and ask, “Hey, I want to fundraise a statue for Joseph McNeil; will you donate? When we get to $100,000, we’ll get a statue made.” It seemed like a recipe for disaster, personally and probably spiritually.
Then I thought, Could it be handled like a trust account that lawyers have? I remembered Shakespeare expressed the answer to that sentiment pretty clearly in both “Henry VI” and “Merchant of Venice.”
And then it dawned on me: Isn’t this exactly what the Arts Council of Wilmington and NHC does? Don’t they administer public art funding? Isn’t that basically what the PED Art project is? Could this be as simple as writing a check to the council with a note on the memo line: “Joseph McNeill Statue Fund”?
So I sent off an email to executive director Rhonda Bellamy to ask if the idea was insane or actually probable. After all, she is the macher (Yiddish for a person who makes things happen). Not only does Bellamy oversee the council, she was integral to the 1898 Monument erection on Third Street. She confirmed it would fall into the probable column but would require some focus and tweaking.
Realistic and basic questions then began popping up in my mind on a loop: What would the statue look like? Who would make it? How much money would need to be raised?
Carolina Bronze Sculpture, a bronze foundry located in Seagrove, North Carolina, actually made the sculpture of the Greensboro Four at North Carolina A&T. We contacted them about the possibility of constructing our statue and to get an estimate for a full-sized and fully finished, installed statue of Mr. McNeill. We iterated our vision of him being young, walking out of Woolworth. The price tag: $100,000—admittedly, about what I expected.
Bellamy took it to the council board and they approved the plan. So I sent up a test balloon and wrote a check to the council, with the memo line “statues.” For good measure, I also went to the Arts Council website and clicked on their donate page to make a donation with a memo line “statues.” Both worked like a dream!
Rhonda suggested $19.60 as the contribution to ask people for; it would commemorate the year of the sit-in and is also an attainable number. After a few calculations, she noted it would take over 55,000 individual donations to hit our goal at $19.60 a person.
“That’s about half the area’s population,” I offered.
She nodded and noted there also was no reason someone couldn’t contribute $196 or $1,960 if they wanted.
So far we have raised a little over $250, but as of publication, February 19, 2020, Castle Branch’s cofounder Joe Finley has offered a $5,000 match on donations.
The sit-in movement was a marathon, not a sprint. I hope this statue will be the beginning of an ongoing project to honor those who reflect values that uplift our community. I hope we are starting our own movement to recognize people who made lasting sacrifices and changes for future generations. We have to start somewhere. Let’s start here.
On that note, I ask you to join us. There are two fast and simple ways to make a contribution of $19.60 toward a piece of public art to recognize one of Wilmington’s true hometown heroes:
1. Put a check in the mail with “statue” written on the memo line to: Arts Council of Wilmington and NHC, P.O. Box 1973, Wilmington, NC 28402
2. Visit the website: artscouncilofwilmington.org/donatesupporters. Put “statues” in the memo section.
Major General Joseph McNeil deserves the honor. He has made such an invaluable contribution to our city, state and nation.