Black History: Special Delivery!!

Wilmington Ten
Wilmington Ten

The “Wilmington Ten” consisted of 9 men and one woman that were convicted in 1971 in Wilmington, NC of arson and conspiracy. The 9 males were black and the one woman was white. All served nearly 10 years in jail. The case received international acclaim. Amnesty International took the case on in 1976 and assisted the group in appealing their convictions.  The defendants were:

  • Benjamin Chavis (age 24) – 34 year sentence
  • Connie Tindall (age 21) – 31 year sentence
  • Marvin “Chili” Patrick (age 19) – 29 year sentence
  • Wayne Moore (age 19) – 29 year sentence
  • Reginald Epps (age 18) – 28 year sentence
  • Jerry Jacobs (age 19) – 29 year sentence
  • James “Bun” McKoy (age 19) – 29 year sentence
  • Willie Earl Vereen (age 18) – 29 year sentence
  • William “Joe” Wright, Jr. (age 19) – 29 year sentence
  • Ann Shepard (age 35) – 15 year sentence

The case was controversial from the start. On Feb. 1, 1971, Benjamin Chavis Jr., Southern regional program director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, arrived in Wilmington to support black students, who were boycotting the New Hanover County public schools. Racial tensions were high since the desegregation of the county’s school system in the 1969-70 school year and the closing of Williston High School, a beloved institution in the black community. The unrest led to black youths clashing with local Klansmen and members of a militant group called Rights of White People. On the evening of Feb. 6, 1971, firebombs were set off in downtown Wilmington. Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned business in a mostly black neighborhood, was burned. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they were fired upon by snipers from the roof of Gregory Congregational Church where Chavis and a number of boycotters had barricaded themselves. Two nights of rioting ensued resulting in the shooting a black teenager by a police officer, and a middle-aged white man was killed by unknown assailants. On Feb. 8, National Guard troops entered the church, to discover that it was deserted.

Chavis and nine others were arrested and charged with arson and conspiracy to fire upon firefighters and law enforcement officers. Based largely on the testimony of two African-American witnesses who claimed to have been in Gregory Congregational Church on the night of the firebombing, they were found guilty in Superior Court in 1972 and sentenced to prison terms of between 15 and 34 years — a total of 282 years in all. In 1978, then governor, Jim Hunt, refused to pardon the defendants but did substantially reduce their sentences. By then 9 of the 10 were already out on parole. Benjamin Chavis was the only one still incarcerated.   In 1980, Chavis v. State of North Carolina overturned the convictions on the grounds that the prosecutor and the trial judge both violated the constitutional rights of the defendants.

The sentences were heavily scrutinized, particularly after the key prosecution witnesses recanted their their stories  One witness testified that they were given a minibike in exchange for their testimony. Another witness had a history of mental illness and had to be removed from the courthouse after recanting on the stand under cross examination.. Amnesty International took up the case, claiming the Wilmington 10 were “political prisoners” under the terms of the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.. In May, 2012, Benjamin and six surviving members of the group asked for a pardon and compensation to be paid to the survivors for the years they spent in jail. A pardon of innocence was granted on December 31, 2012 which qualified each of the defendants to $50,000 per year of incarceration. The total compensation granted was $1,113,605 to the group. Four of the ten are now deceased and their families received no compensation.

The case of the Wilmington Ten also gained new attention when the notes of the former prosecutor of the case, Jay Stroud were discovered.  The notes gave strong implication that the prosecutor sed racial profiling and other unethical tactics to eliminate and disqualify black jurors from being selected for the jury in favor of racist jurors who would help to ensure a conviction of the defendants. For example, Stroud made notes regarding prospective jurors using words like, “KKK good,” and next to another juror “sensible; Uncle Tom type.”

As of February 2014, A case is currently pending before the NC Industrial Commission seeking compensation be awarded to the families of the four deceased defendants.

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