In spite of the nation’s often flippant stance toward art, it seems to be ever present on UNCW’s campus. From the two galleries on campus to any available wall or display case, art and art-history students are using imagery and objects to educate their peers.
Currently, in the Warwick Center on campus, an exhibition focuses on an historical aspect of southeastern NC’s often tumultuous race relations: The Wilmington Ten. In February of 1971, less than a decade after integration, the South still managed to be full of hostility from racial tensions and unspeakable hate crimes. Almost a decade after Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and the height of the civil rights movement, African American residents living in Wilmington faced a lack of progress in implementing the reforms that were legally achieved by the movement—particularly with school reforms. This resonated greatly with young people.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a rise in demonstration marches took place. One of the largest happened right here in Wilmington.
In January of 1971, African American students began a boycott of Wilmington schools, organized by activist Ben Chavis from Oxford, NC. After Chavis’ arrival, two downtown businesses were burned and other evidence of arson efforts were presented and subsequently blamed on African American activists.
On February 6th, a downtown grocery store was firebombed. First-response firefighters said they were shot at by snipers from the roof of the nearby Gregory Congregational Church—where Chavis and other activists had been meeting earlier in the day. The neighborhood catapulted into a riot and two people died. The governor called in the National Guard, which arrested 10 people: nine men and one woman. Included were Benjamin Chavis, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William “Joe” Wright Jr., and Ann Shepard were sentenced to 282 years in prison. “The Wilmington Ten,” as they came to be known, were convicted of arson, and plotting against firemen and police.
Viewed as political martyrs who were imprisoned for their beliefs rather than their actions, Amnesty International took on their case in 1976, shaming both the Federal and North Carolina governments. After years of fighting, in 1980, the court of appeals threw out the convictions, and cited prosecutorial misconduct and denial of due process. It wasn’t until 2012 when then Governor Beverly Purdue issued a full pardon for members of the Wilmington Ten.
Inspired by local events, UNCW studio art senior Brandon Barfield came up with the idea for an exhibition representing the cultural divide and deep history of Wilmington. Courtney Johnson, photography professor at UNCW, as well as gallery organizer involved with the Wilmington Ten, consulted in making the show happen. “Brandon liked how relevant an entry point to civil rights it was,” Johnson says. Opening the exhibit to other local students, Barfield wanted to see how they would respond to the issue—particularly since the recent pardons. Paired with Black History Month, it seemed an appropriate time for reflection and commemoration.
After being approved last school year for the show, he then sought faculty assistance. Working with Johnson, as well as Todd McFadden, the director of the Upperman African American Center, Barfield opened “Imaging Justice: The Wilmington 10 Story” on February 6th.
“We had meetings with people instrumental in the pardon, including Ms. Thatch of ‘The Wilmington Journal,’” Barfield notes. The journal was founded in 1901 and has served the local African American community since. “[We wanted] to get their feedback, and the submissions were sent to a couple of the Wilmington 10 for jurying,” Barfield continues. Barfield also worked with staff from the Warwick Center.
Fellow students Melvin Morris and Sue Bark created artwork, paintings, mixed media and collage. Some of them are large scale and others are smaller, but they all deal with issues of slavery and racial injustice still relevant in today’s society.
Yet, the most prominent painting is by Barfield, entitled “Wilmington 10.” Though colorful, the original iconic image of the group of activists was a black and white photograph. “I was able to come up with the outfit, colors and patterns,” Barfield states.
In addition to the modern infusion of color, Barfield replaced some of the individual’s eyes with mirrors allowing the viewer to see their image reflected back. “I wanted people to look at the characters and see their reflection and think, It could have been me,” he explains.
Other contributing artists have created works that deal with racial issues that may lie latently below our culture’s surface. Johnson wants the exhibition to inspire other students to take the initiative to pursue their interests toward a societal call, which can speak to the importance of history and culture.
“I hope the exhibit draws attention to the history of Wilmington and opens up a continued dialogue about civil rights,” she says. “As Wilmington grows, I think it’s important that we remember both the distant past and recent [times],” Johnson states.
Imaging Justice: The Wilmington 10 Story
Warwick Center, UNCW
601 S. College Rd.
Through March 14th
Mon. – Thurs., 7 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Fri., 7 a.m. – 1 p.m.