It took a long time to hear the story. As a native of Wilmington, I spent my childhood walking our historic streets and learning North Carolina’s history—from plantations to tobacco fields, from uncertain possibilities to trailblazing progress. Whether in a fourth grade classroom or a high school government course, my classmates and I were taught the stories that tell of our state’s greatest triumphs, and even those of many of its darkest days. One story was missing—the story of the Wilmington Ten.
My coastal city is the home of the Wilmington Ten, a group of individuals known around the state and country for their wrongful prosecution and for their arguably unconstitutional imprisonment for nearly a decade.
In 1972, the nine black men and one white woman were convicted for firebombing a local store. Despite claims of innocence and powerful arguments that the ten were victims of racially biased prosecution, the ten served lengthy prison sentences and received international attention for a status considered by Amnesty International to be that of political prisoners.
In 1980, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions for the prosecution’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. Until this week, no pardons had been granted. On Monday, Governor Beverly Perdue issued a pardon of innocence to the Wilmington Ten. While the story has received attention from across the nation, including a December 22, 2012 editorial by the New York Times, the story still does not find its way into the classrooms of North Carolina.
While an occasional teacher may choose to mention the night of February 6, 1971, the Ten remain largely untouched in the classrooms that sit only feet from the streets once filled with riots and fear. While I was fortunate to hear the story at home, why was it that only in moving away for college did I read and talk and wonder about our local history in a classroom?
It is time to invigorate the morality of our public schools by placing the story of the Wilmington Ten into our collective memory. Collective memory, or historical memory, refers to the way that a group or community understands and represents the past. Historian John Gillis has argued in “Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship” that our collective memories teach us where we have been and where we are going. As we educate thousands of young citizens across the state, what will we tell them? Perhaps we will draw them into the story of their grandparents and neighbors. Perhaps we could tell them of the fear that paralyzed a community, of the idea that racial tensions were present in our schools, our churches, and in our streets. As we tell the story of the Wilmington Ten, we may also teach lessons of character. That is, that perhaps we can be less certain to place blame, less afraid to tell the truth, and more willing to listen.
Will we bring the story of the Wilmington Ten into our collective consciousness? Will we invigorate the moral agency of our schools by encouraging the teaching of a painful memory? Or will we continue to ignore it? Will we educate another generation of students through the lens of a fearful forgetting or will we uncover our eyes even as the tears continue to fall?
Andrew Barnhill is a graduate student and instructor at Duke University and Chairman of Young Democrats for the 7th Congressional District of North Carolina. He is the convener of the 2012 Ethically Formed Symposium at Duke University and a Fellow of the Fund for Theological Education. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.