In 2014 the Wilmington chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) was started on the heels of four fatalities over 90 days. One of the deaths was Brandon Smith—accused of shooting a police officer in the Creekwood neighborhood before being shot 27 times three days later by New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputies and an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Sonya Patrick—who oversees the local BLM chapter and its 501(c)(3) affiliation through its sponsor, New Hanover County’s Chapter of Black Leadership Caucus, of which Patrick is the regional director—has provided resources to local families facing such atrocities. She advocates in local government and legislature, and has access to lawyers and therapists who support the cause by helping families cope and seek justice for people they have lost to police brutality.
One example of this activism came in 2019. Thirty-seven miles up the road in Shallotte, an unarmed 28-year-old named Brandon Webster was pulled over at a traffic stop and shot. He then drove home to his parents, who rushed him to the hospital where he died. The state trooper who shot him claims Webster was operating his truck like a weapon, threatening to hit the officer. The family maintains, even after seeing released video footage from two cameras, he was not so much a threat to have been killed.
“What was worse, [officers] put the parents in the back of the police car while they were at the hospital for their son,” Patrick says. “So I went down to [Brunswick County district attorney] Jon David’s office and asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he began to say any time it’s an open investigation, they have a right to. But come on: You’re gonna put the parents in the car that just lost a child and they weren’t even at the scene?”
David recused himself from the case, as Webster’s stepmother worked in his office. It was passed to Cumberland County, which couldn’t staff it appropriately, and so up to NC attorney general Josh Stein’s office it went. Stein cleared the state trooper of any wrongdoing.
“When I saw the press conference they did with George Floyd, I thought, This sounds familiar. It sounded just like Josh Stein’s insane staff when we went up there and talked to them about Brandon Webster’s case,” Patrick recalls. “I asked them, ‘What am I supposed to tell the black community when I go back?’ They said, ‘Tell them we are working on justice in the criminal system and working on it getting better.’ I told them, ‘But this is the chance you can do it now. This is a chance for North Carolina to set a standard because no officer has been convicted for senselessly killing a black person.’”
Stein maintains State Trooper Scott Collins didn’t use excessive force—despite the fact Webster was unarmed and hadn’t committed a major crime. It’s become an all-too-familiar situation in America, which is why Patrick says the call to action must reach beyond black people now; it has to affect the majority of white people to see and act for incremental change, for equity and justice for black Americans.
“People ask me often: What’s it like to live in an institutionalized racist system being black?” Patrick says. “I can describe it in one word: hell. That’s what it’s like. You can do all the right things and still may not come home. They can film it, and it still may not matter. You can go to college, live in the right neighborhoods, get a good job, have a family, but you’ll still run into racism as a black person in America. It’s immoral, inhumane, and it doesn’t benefit anybody. We have to be better.”
Patrick was affected by the power of activism as a child born in 1963 right before the height of civil rights. She read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and watched the impact Dr. King had across the nation. Still, the harassment she endured for trying to play with white neighbors as a 7-year-old never trailed far from her thoughts.
“My family on my dad’s side lived at Wrightsville Sound,” she remembers. “That’s where they kept black folk to keep us off Wrightsville Beach. If you go over, you’ll see the black churches are still there. It used to be all black in the ‘70s. My family used to own a lot of property, and my grandmother had a house where the hardware store is. There was a little road beside my grandmother’s house that she’d always tell us never to go down. But we were little kids; we didn’t pay attention. So we went down the road, and two little white kids came out, and we thought they would want to play or something. I’ll never forget, they were mad we were on their property. We had never heard the ‘n word’ before then. Me and my brother looked at each other, and we knew something with it was wrong, but we didn’t know what.”
Around the same time in 1971, the Wilmington Ten were wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy. Patrick’s father coached baseball and oversaw a local Boy Scout troop, which included many of the young men accused of burning down a white-owned grocery store. Even the pastor of their family church was shot in the leg while checking in at the scene to see if one of his parishioner’s children was involved in the incident. “To this day when he talks about it, he says he feels traumatized—like he was in battle,” Patrick says.
The incident also affected Patrick firsthand. The thought of it brings her to tears, with a pause for reflection. “My daddy was a very strong person,” she manages to say, “but that’s the only time I remember seeing him worry. Because it could’ve been my brother. When it happens to one, it happens to all.”
It took 40 years for the Wilmington Ten to be cleared of charges and released from prison. It came back full circle for Patrick, who worked on their pardon of innocence project. In 2012 former Governor Beverly Purdue passed and granted each of the nine men and one woman $50,000 for each year they were imprisoned.
“I really get emotional when I hear some of the stories they went through,” Patrick says of the convicted. “It’s a shame to live in a city that takes 40 years to see their innocence—or that it even had to happen. It took so much out of their lives. They had promising careers: one could have been the next Arthur Ashe, one a professional football player, one was an entertainer/artist. Some came out OK, but others were very scarred and never came back.”
Patrick’s older brother carried the injustices of their early years into protests with the Black Panthers in the mid-to-late ‘70s. When Patrick’s son reached Roland Grise Middle School in the ‘90s, he wanted to do a project on his uncle’s involvement in the organization. It was the same school his mother attended in the ’70s. Unfortunately, it also was a place where both mother and child felt the pains of racism. “I was bullied all the time,” Patrick admits of her attendance, “and nothing would happen to any of the white kids doing it. It didn’t get better when my son went there either. It was worse for him, even.”
Patrick remembers being called to the school’s office numerous times, once because her son looked at the teacher in a funny but non-threatening way. Another time she was called for something inconspicuous. It turned out to be a problem the administration had with her son’s project on the Black Panthers.
“It focused on positive things they did—free lunch programs and protecting black neighborhoods—because no one else was [doing that] during that era, and how they had white allies,” Patrick remembers. “I asked the school staff, ‘Well, what’s wrong?’”
Looking back she wonders if the administrators associated her son’s project with the Black Panthers’ violence rather than looking at how it actually portrayed them. “But black people don’t have a history of violently killing white people,” Patrick clarifies. “They have a history of being killed, number one—for 600 years, actually. And people aren’t gonna sit back and let you kill them without self-defense.”
Nothing happened to her son, though she pulled him out of New Hanover County schools and put him in Brunswick County. While he thrived there, it wasn’t without its own hardships. Once a campus officer told her son he would amount to nothing and end up behind bars. It thrilled Patrick to confront the officer years later and inform him of her son’s success as a graduate from NC A&T.
“My son also had very strong father figures,” Patrick says. The family’s reinforcement was another priority that prevented him from becoming a statistic in the school-to-prison pipeline. “We can’t keep sending our kids through a system that fails them,” Patrick adds. “And if we don’t take extreme steps, what will happen? People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. That’s reality.”
As a result, Patrick—who has attended more school board meetings in the last year than she can count—has become an advocate for more black teachers, especially black males, hired to fairly represent diversity in the school system. She also says there should be cultural competency training for teachers to understand how to work with and for students of color. Most importantly, the curriculum needs to change in order to highlight the foundation from which true racial disparities arise in our nation.
“They don’t really teach about the Civil War and slavery appropriately,” she says. “I know; I went through the public school system. I had a teacher at Roland Grise look at me after making us watch ‘Roots’—which is a fairytale about slavery, by the way—and say, ‘The slave owners were very good to black people.’ They need to add real education for the development of our children. Tell me how America got its name; it wasn’t from Christopher Columbus. It’s time to stop teaching myths.”
This also includes teaching about race riots that have taken place across our nation, including the Wilmington 1898 Massacre. Most Wilmingtonians didn’t even know about the event until the ’90s. How and why it was covered up for so long can be traced back to deep money that runs through the city. Case in point: the naming of Hugh MacRae Park. It’s a prickly point for Patrick, who has refused to patronize the park since she was a child.
“My family’s history traces back to the late 1800s in Wilmington,” she says. “When we were growing up in the ‘70s, we didn’t go to Hugh MacRae. We didn’t know anything about the massacre of 1898 at that time, but there were rumors Klan meetings were held there. . . . We took pride in not going because we had a choice, so we went to Greenfield Lake, which used to be an amusement park in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with games and rides.”
Once stories began to circulate about the massacre, Hugh MacRae was revealed as a coconspirator of the vigilante group that murdered black Americans and pushed them out of local government on November 10, 1898. The MacRaes were entrepreneurs across the state, and Hugh was revered locally for engineering and development, as well as creating agricultural efforts and becoming a stealth businessman for local power and mill companies.
“Out of all the things I’ve ever advocated against in this city,” Patrick says, “I got more backlash about wanting to change the name of Hugh MacRae Park. It is unbelievable. . . . and the county is giving them a quarter-million dollars [to upkeep the park] but not one dime to descendants of the massacre.”
Patrick continues to work with the Black Leadership Caucus to get the few remaining 1898 descendants in Wilmington reparations, and she started a hard-copy petition for the removal of the park’s name years ago. (To make it onto a ballot, petitions must be handwritten, not electronic). She only needed 25 percent of signatures from folks who voted. But in the middle of her attempt to get the signatures, a bill passed called HB1083, requiring 25 percent of all registered voters to sign, not just ones who voted. “That would equate nearly 25,000 hand signatures,” Patrick says with exasperation. “The mayor didn’t even need 25,000 votes to get elected.”
It still hasn’t stopped her, though; a new petition currently is circulating with 14,000 signatures to date. Patrick, with the the help of ally Beth Kline-Markesino, posted a video on June 15 to reveal Kline-Markesino spoke with Hugh MacRae III about their cause. He has come forward in support of the park’s name change; though, Kline-Markesino makes it clear he doesn’t speak for the whole family. The two women are now in contact with the county attorney to keep the ball rolling and hopefully see a victory that highlights Wilmington in a more inclusive light.
Naturally, the next progression would be removing Confederate monuments from our city’s public spaces; though a law was passed by the state in 2015 prohibiting their permanent removal. ”Maybe the city and county officials have a hotline to the general assembly to change that,” Patrick says, adding that tax-payers shouldn’t have to pay for any structure that legitimizes the oppression of black Americans. “I know it won’t change the heart of people,” Patrick admits, “but my tax dollars won’t have to take care of a park that’s named after a white supremacist. Black people pay taxes, too. I don’t want to see my taxes pay for ‘Bellamy House of Horrors’ either, which is just preserving slavery. I guess I’m very sensitive, but I’m a great-granddaughter of former slave captives, and that trauma runs deep.”
It all comes back to the George Floyd video, one she admits she can’t watch. Patrick can’t bear hearing the grown man ask to breathe or call for his mother or be held down by a white man to his brutal death. It reminds her of what her ancestors must have watched. It reminds her there’s a bill that still hasn’t made lynching illegal in our country. Yet, if the Justice in Policing Act 2020 passes, racial profiling, no-knock warrants, lynching and chokeholds will be made illegal. Those will be victories worth celebrating. “It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a start,” Patrick says. “Folks should be calling their representatives, Rouzer, Tillis and Burr in NC, and demanding support.”
Locally, Patrick wants to see the call answered for a citizen’s review board with subpoena power, in order to hold the local police department and sheriff’s office accountable and offer full transparency. Ideally, the committee would feature a wide representation of passionate black voices and include people well-versed in areas of law, policy and the political process. More so, she would like to see the committee voted on by the public rather than chosen by county commissioners. “It will build confidence between citizens and law enforcement,” Patrick says. So too would requiring New Hanover County officers to turn on body cameras at all times. “It’s required in Brunswick County,” Patrick tells. “We need to do things on a local level in case [the Justice of Policing Act] doesn’t pass federally.” This includes officers undergoing implicit bias training, psychiatric evaluations and facing automatic charges if they open fire on unarmed citizens.
Patrick is steering Black Lives Matter Wilmington into the continual fight for as long as it takes. She welcomes folks interested in joining the cause to sit in on their Zoom town halls every Monday at 3 p.m. and also encourages support for the downtown protesters, led by the new young group, lowercase leaders, who are at City Hall every night until 9 p.m.
“The peaceful young kids protesting is impressive,” she says. “I hope these tragedies wake people up. We have to speak truth to power; people before me did and gave their life for us. I hope this becomes the final chapter in our fight.”