The Wilmington Ten: 40 years of loss and struggle
Editor’s note: There is no question that the false prosecution forty years of the nine young black men and one white woman who would become widely known as the “Wilmington Ten,” dramatically impacted their lives, as well as those of their families and loved ones. Most of the defendants were young, some barely in their twenties, when they were convicted in 1972 of crimes they didn’t commit. Some were still in high school, and living with their parents. At least one, Anne Sheppard, was raising three young children at the time. Most of them had dreams of bright, hope-filled futures. Some wanted to practice law. Some wanted to play professional sports. And some were already musicians, looking for their first really big break. Their only collective “crime,”they each individually say, was their willingness to openly, but peacefully, challenge the New Hanover County Public School System in the early 1970s when it declined to provide an equal, quality education to black students. Because of their individual courage, and commitment to equality, the Wilmington Ten suffered false prosecution, years of imprisonment and great personal hardships for themselves and their families. The collective impact for all of them has extended decades beyond their release from prison, and well after a federal appellate court overturned their convictions. Three of the Wilmington Ten – Jerry Jacobs, William Joseph Wright and Anne Sheppard – have died, their dreams unfulfilled, according to their bereaved families. In all, the lives of the Wilmington Ten have been marked by struggle, hardship and indignities they otherwise would not have experienced if the state of North Carolina, forty years ago, had not sought to punish them for their political activism, and willingness to demand social change. Today, forty years later, the Wilmington Ten and their families seek individual pardons of innocence from the State of North Carolina for crimes they didn’t commit. But even pardons cannot erase the pain and struggle they’ve all endured. In Part 1 of this three-part series, we look at the lives of Jerry Jacobs, William “Joe” Wright, Jr. and Willie “Earl” Vereen.
The lives of Jacobs, Wright and Vereen
According to his mother, Mrs. Margaret Jacobs of Wilmington, Jerry, age 19 at the time of his arrest in the Wilmington Ten case, was a happy, “real lovable” person who got along with everyone, and never got into trouble. He was a good student at Williston High – the all-black school that was closed in 1968 amid protests – and had dreams of becoming a professional tennis player, and a doctor. “My phone would ring off the hook with doctors looking to play tennis with him,” Ms. Jacobs recalls. When Williston was closed, Jerry was, as were many other black students, “very upset,” his mother recalls. He joined the protests. Jerry never got into trouble (“I was very strict on that”), and didn’t believe in violence. So when he was arrested at home (“The police came and got him out of bed,” Ms. Jacobs recalls when her son was arrested in front of her) and accused in the Wilmington Ten case, Ms. Jacobs, knowing that he was innocent, was “very worried.” So worried, in fact, that she became ill (“It tore me apart), which became a heavy burden on Jerry. Mrs. Jacobs was increasingly upset when she attended the trial, saw the majority white jury, and heard the later recanted testimony of Allen Hall and other state’s witnesses. The whole experience was very troubling, she said, not only for herself, but for Jerry’s siblings as well. “It affected them real bad,” she said. “Jerry had never been in trouble.” Jerry Jacobs was sentenced to 29 years in prison. The Wilmington Ten experience interrupted his education. “It turned his world upside down when he couldn’t graduate,” Mrs. Jacobs said. “I have seven children, and he’s the only one who didn’t graduate from high school because of the Wilmington Ten situation. Jerry’s love for tennis disappeared as well.” “His whole world just came tumbling down,” she says. During his time in prison, Jerry would write his mother letters, and when he could, call her on the telephone. It was difficult for Mrs. Jacobs to travel the many miles to see her son because with six other children to raise on her own, she was working three jobs to survive. But when she did make it to see Jerry, he was very happy. “Oh, he would grab me and wouldn’t let go,” she recalls. “And we both just cried and cried.” After Jerry was early released from prison and went back home to Wilmington, he couldn’t find a job, and was shunned by the community, so much so that he felt his life was in danger. He left to live in New York City. But Jerry didn’t stay long, his mother says. Jerry got mixed up with the wrong crowd, began taking drugs. He came back to Wilmington in bad shape, arm swollen and strung out. Mrs. Jacobs said Jerry later had a stroke. At the hospital, doctors told his mother he had also contracted the AIDS virus because of bad needles. “That’s what killed him,” she says sadly of Jerry’s death in 1989. “That’s what destroyed him.” If Margaret Jacobs could speak to Gov. Beverly Perdue face-to-face, and tell her why her son, Jerry Jacobs, deserves a pardon of innocence posthumously from the state of North Carolina, she would say, “I don’t think he was guilty.” Mrs. Jacobs would tell the governor of the hardships Jerry went through, and that when he died, he was a “hurt man, never the same,” and the false prosecution by the state changed Jerry’s life forever. “Yes it did,” Mrs. Jacobs laments. “Yes it did. He probably would have been living today.”
William Gibbs remembers his late brother, Joe Wright, as a “very, very congenial fellow who brought people to common understanding, and very much a young leader.” Gibbs says the conspiracy charges leveled against Joe and the other members of the Wilmington Ten were “totally out of character” for them. “Joe and a lot of those guys wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Gibbs says. The 17 year-old Wright wanted to grow up to become a lawyer, and was willing to put in the hard work to make that happen. Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ was right in the neighborhood, so it was nothing for Joe, his friends and family to frequent there from time to time. And when it became the center of black student activism against the heavy-handed ways of the New Hanover Board of Education and the city of Wilmington, Joe was right there, learning how to protest and demonstrate forcefully, but peacefully. And he looked up to Rev. Ben Chavis when he arrived. Joe had nothing to do with the events of Feb. 6, 1971, William Gibb maintains, but a year later, when authorities began arresting people and charging them with the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery, Joe was not surprised, because of his activism, that he was among them. But his family was surprised, and worried. They knew Joe didn’t even know how to fire a gun, Gibbs said, let alone burn down a building. Joe was arrested “because he was listed as a leader,” his brother says. When the case went to trial, Gibbs says it was very clear that all of the Wilmington Ten were being set up. “We knew what was coming down the pike,” Gibbs said, having attended the trial. The family was distraught, knowing that it wouldn’t end well, and Joe would be sent to prison. He was sentenced to 29 years. And when Joe got to prison in Northhampton County, Gibbs is amazed how he was able to survive, but Joe did so by “keeping his head up, knowing that one day, the truth will be shown, and one day, they would all get out.” The family made the long trek from Wilmington to Northhampton County as much as they could. Joe was always pleased to see them, and assured them that they would be all together again back home. The ordeal took a toll on their mother, Gibbs said. Even though she was a strong woman raising five children, the worry about Joe was heavy. Joe’s time in prison “definitely cost him,” Gibbs says. But Joe also used that time to be productive, taking classes to prepare for the day when he would leave, and work toward getting his law degree. “You never heard him cry,” Gibbs says. When Joe Wright was finally released early in 1978, unlike several other members of the Wilmington Ten, he was relatively accepted back. He was able to return to school, find work, and even get a job with a United States congressman in Washington, D.C.. Joe was working diligently toward his goal of going to law school, when suddenly, he became ill. He had contracted a debilitating disease that attached itself to his lungs while he was in prison. As Joe got older, the disease got worse. William “Joe” Wright died in 1991. A week before his death, Joe was accepted to Campbell Law School. There is no question in William Gibbs’ mind that his brother would have lived to see his dream of practicing law into fruition, had it not been for the Wilmington Ten case. The death was a tremendous shock to the family, Gibbs agrees. After all he had been through, Joe Wright still had promise, and was still willing to make a positive contribution. If William Gibbs could speak to Gov. Perdue about why his late brother deserves a pardon of innocence from the state of North Carolina, beyond the fact that Joe Wright was innocent, Gibbs would say, ” I believe you [Gov. Perdue] to be a fair and just citizen of this state. And if this had happened to a member of your family, especially a close member, a brother…and he was wrongly accused and had gone through what [Joe] had gone through, to the point of something that led to his death, you would want this for [him].” Gibbs added, “It would be the right thing to do.”
Willie Vereen was a young 17-year-old musician, playing in a rhythm & blues band. He told his family he wanted to be lawyer or a doctor. His older sister was the political one, not him. He grew up in Jervay Projects in Wilmington, which meant Willie hung out with his friends late, “drank a little wine,” and basically just had fun. So how did Willie Vereen not only get involved with the black student movement, but ultimately fingered as a co-conspirator in a serious crime that he did not commit? A student of Hoggard High – one of the integrated schools where African-American students wer being mistreated after all-black Williston High was closed – Vereen found himself in the midst of a black student boycott one day. That boycott led to him joining other students who met and strategized at Gregory Church. Willie understood what the boycott was about, but he was mainly there “because of the girls,” testament that the farthest thing on his young mind was shooting or firebombing. Indeed, when the authorities came looking for a “W. Vereen,” Willie believes they were looking for his activist sister, Wanda, instead of him. Thus, the shock upon shock when authorities arrested him a year after the Mike’s Grocery fire, and charged him as a conspirator. In fact, Vereen was so far removed from the student activists, that when police arrested him and asked about Ben Chavis, Vereen couldn’t tell them much. He didn’t know Chavis well at all. Vereen’s father was stunned by the arrest. His mother couldn’t understand what was going on. Both were very hurt, but believed Willie when he told them he was innocent of the charges. And when the trial began, his sister Wanda “cried real hard,” because she knew he wasn’t politically active. Vereen was tried and convicted, partly because tainted witness Allen Hall fingered him, and partly because Vereen refused to lie about Ben Chavis as the police wanted him to do. Watching the trial, while Vereen could see the deck was being stacked against him by the prosecutors, Willie still held out hope that all he had been taught about trusting authority figures, and trusting government, would save him and fellow Wilmington Ten defendant James McKoy in the end. Why McKoy? Because on the night that Mike’s Grocery had been firebombed, both teens were at the same club, at the same time, outside of Wilmington, performing in a band. When they were all convicted, Vereen says he immediately lost that faith in government, because authorities, he saw, didn’t even bother to seek the truth. Vereen was sentenced to a total of 29 years. ” I felt like something was taken out of me,” Vereen remembers now. “I felt like I was lost. Like a man without a country.” His family screamed in the courtroom. “They were infuriated,” Vereen recalls. The ordeal changed the course of history for young Willie. Dreams of his grandmother paying his way through college so he could become a doctor or lawyer were now dust. He had to figure out how to survive incarceration for the next thirty years. In prison, Vereen joined the Nation of Islam after converting to Islam. “It took a lot of anger away from me,” he recalls. Thanks to mounting pressure on then Gov. Jim Hunt to reduce the sentences of the Wilmington Ten, Vereen spent a total of five years in prison before he was released early, but he was not received very well when he went back home. When it came to applying for jobs, Vereen would get the work, only to have someone recognize him as a member of the Ten, and get him fired. Old friends wanted nothing to do with him. The church he attended felt that Vereen was guilty, he says. Vereen did go to school for journalism, and was able to do well in that environment, but it was a rare oasis amid everything else he faced. There is no question that the Wilmington Ten case turned his life around for the bad, Vereen says. He’s “mostly paranoid now, and mostly stays at home.” His fiancée’, Gail, watches out for him now. Willie Earl Vereen says if given the opportunity to speak with Gov. Perdue face-to-face, and tell her why he deserves a pardon of innocence from the state of North Carolina, he would tell her, ” I deserve a pardon because my life was conspired against. I was charged, tried, convicted for crimes that I did not commit. Read the transcript, and you will see.” “Out of all love, and respect, I feel that we deserve a pardon, and compensation,” says Vereen.
The lives of Tindall, Patrick and McKoy
Young Connie Tindall was an all-star high school football champion in Wilmington who dreamed of growing up to play Sunday afternoons in the NFL one day. At age 20, Tindall had the skill, the talent and the ambition. All he needed was the chance to prove himself. But the Wilmington Ten episode changed all of that. Tindall, whose father was a longshoreman, was looking for work while still attending school. The unjust way he saw black students being treated in the New Hanover county Public School System after it closed all-black Williston High in 1968, compelled Tindall to get involved with the movement for educational equality 1971. It wasn’t long before Connie became a fiery spokesman for the black student cause headquartered at Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, located in Wilmington’s black community. Tindall shaped the black student message, and became their face in the media. Even after UCC Rev. Benjamin Chavis took over leadership in February 1971, Tindall continued to help lead and speak out amid the building racial tensions that saw violence in the streets, and police reluctance to do anything about it. Apparently the authorities made note of Tindall, however, because a year after the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery near Gregory Church, Tindall was yanked out of bed late at night in his parents’ home, arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the grocery store incident. “We have a warrant for your son’s arrest,” Tindall recalls the police telling his shocked parents, remembering how they had the house surrounded. The young man was taken from the house to the street, and handcuffed, as his bewildered parents watch. Tindall knew the arrest and charges were bogus, because on the night of the fire, he was across town in a club called the Ponderosa, celebrating his birthday with several friends. Tindall admits that before the Wilmington Ten episode, he had a “few scraps” with the law – things that teenagers normally got in trouble for. But nothing of the magnitude of what he was being charged with now – conspiracy in connection with the firebombing and the sniper fire aimed at firefighters. When the first trial in June 1972 was cut short and declared a mistrial, Tindall says there was no question in his mind that he and the other members of the Wilmington Ten would be hung out to dry. There were ten blacks and two whites on the first jury. When the case began again on Sept. 11, 1972, the new jury was now ten whites and two blacks. Tindall said the prosecutor, Jay Stroud, was “deranged,” especially in how he “wined and dined” witnesses like Allen Hall to lie on the stand. Tindall’s family attended the trial, distraught at what they were seeing. But they also supportive of their son, telling him, “We believe in you.” Tindall was convicted and sentenced to 31 years in prison. It hit him and his family hard, he says, but they remained supportive during his incarceration. “Prison was just another way of life,” he recalls. “Same things went on in the streets, went on there.” Tindall kept the faith that even if it took ten or twenty years, the truth would come out. He said that the whole ordeal was meant to destroy him, but he refused to allow that to happen, and held his head up high. His family came to see him often in prison, and encouraged Tindall to stay strong. When Tindall finally left prison on early release after almost five years, his return to Wilmington was met with no job (or least no job he could keep past one week). Fortunately, because Tindall’s father is a longshoreman, he’s able to work with him. But beyond that, some people in the community continued to shun Tindall, black people, and he admits that it hurt. It took several years before living in Wilmington became “bearable,” primarily because many believed that he was guilty. Tindall’s future prospects for personal success were dim as long as he stayed in Wilmington. He says had the Wilmington Ten never happened, he “would have been a beast” as an NFL defensive back. Tindall refused to leave Wilmington, despite the difficulty and heartache, because the port city was his home. In recent years, Tindall has faced health challenges, but he continues to strive toward the day that Gov. Perdue declares he and the other nine members of the Wilmington Ten receive pardons of actual innocence. Tindall still harbors some anger for how his life was ruined, how his dreams were destroyed, all because of a false persecution, and prosecution by the state of North Carolina. “If you want to do something for me, then pay me for those 4 ½ to five years I sat up in that penitentiary for nothing,” he demands. “Vindicate me.” Tindall concluded by asking, “Why us?”
At 60 years of age, Marvin Patrick has suffered a stroke and struggles to get around on a cane. Looking back over the past 40 years, Patrick says being arrested as part of the Wilmington Ten lost him the opportunity of being unionized with the longshoremen, like his father. At the age of 20, Patrick had already worked on the docks, and even served a short stint in the US Army. In 1971, Patrick got involved in the black student movement at Gregory Church because he deeply believed in a quality education, and that included African-Americans learning about their history and culture. That was being taken away from them, and Rev. Ben Chavis, who Patrick was close with, was leading them in a constructive, yet defiant manner, to get the gains that they lost, back in the aftermath of the closing of Williston High School. In an ironic twist a year after the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery, word gets out that the authorities are arresting various students who were at Gregory Church. Rev. Ben Chavis, the movement leader, has also been arrested, and is being held. When Patrick goes down to see his friend, he is arrested too, and charged with conspiracy. When the trials came, Patrick didn’t want his mother to attend. He knew how heavy a burden the whole ordeal had been for her and his father, and he wanted to spare them as much as possible. “I didn’t want to put no pressure on her,” he says. “She knew in her heart that her son was innocent. Patrick was convicted along with the rest of the Wilmington Ten at age 21, and sentenced to prison for 29 years. He credits the Lord with helping him to survive Odom Farms Prison in Northhampton County. The fact that several of the ten were sent to prison together meant they were able to be supportive of one another. Because of the distance from Wilmington, the visits from family were fewer than Patrick had hoped for, but when they did come, they lifted his spirits. Thanks to the case beginning to fall apart in the mid-1970’s, Patrick leaves prison early, and comes back to Wilmington. But when he did, “even black folks acted funny.” Patrick’s association with the Wilmington Ten makes keeping a job difficult. After a while, he’s forced to lie to get, and keep a job. He’s treated badly even in church, where members believe that the Wilmington Ten were guilty. Through the years, Patrick worked as long as he could, until he had a stroke over a year ago. As for what he would say to the governor regarding why he feels that he is deserving of a pardon of innocence,” Patrick said, “Ma’am, my name is Marvin Patrick, and I plead innocent to these charges.”
James “Bun” McKoy
What has happened to his life because of the Wilmington Ten episode brings tears to the eyes of James “Bun” McKoy, age 59. At 18, McKoy played bass guitar in bands, particularly on Carolina Beach, where he played with whites at supper clubs. He wanted to play professionally. “I just wanted to be the entertainer.” The youngest of four, McKoy graduated from Hoggard High School in 1971, amid the strife and black student protests. McKoy joined the protests, but says, unlike many of the others, he “didn’t think much” of their new leader, Rev. Ben Chavis, primarily because music, not activism, was his preoccupation. So in 1972 when young McKoy was arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the Mike’s Grocery bombing, McKoy couldn’t fathom why, or how. He and Willie Earl Vereen, a fellow musician, were playing a gig together out of town the night that Mike’s Grocery burned. That means they had plenty of witnesses. But it didn’t matter. Police arrested McKoy at home at 2:30 in the morning, while his stunned mother watched helplessly. McKoy figured the only reason why he was being arrested is because he lived in the neighborhood of Gregory Church. As the case headed to trial, McKoy’s parents urged him to “Hang in there,” telling the young man to stay strong despite what was very much looking like a stacked deck by prosecutors. “Why they picked us out is the question,” McKoy says. He knew the trial would be a farce given what happened during the preliminary hearing when the state’s star witness, Allen Hall, angrily jump off the stand at defense attorney James Ferguson. McKoy’s family attended the trial, praying and hoping that the jury will see through the prosecutor’s tricks. But in the end, McKoy and the others are convicted. McKoy was sentenced to 29 years. He was sent to Odom prison, but knowing that his parents and siblings were praying for him, and with him in spirit, helped McKoy cope. “One thing [my mother] would say is, “We’re still with you,” he recalls. McKoy also copes by playing his music, and cutting up. Since several of the other W-Ten defendants were sent to the same prison, they all stick together. The family comes the long way to visit when they can. McKoy says though he held out hope that the truth would eventually come out, he is angered by the North Carolina Appellate Courts, which voted to uphold the Wilmington Ten’s convictions. He feels that the rulings by the NC courts were to, “satisfy some people.” McKoy has more appreciation for the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately overturned the Ten’s convictions. After McKoy left prison on early release, he didn’t have too many problems finding work when it came to music. In the interceding years, McKoy has sustained two strokes. So why does James McKoy believe that he deserves a pardon of innocence from Gov. Perdue? “Because I’m innocent,” he says. “Now read the record!”
THE LIVES OF SHEPPARD, EPPS, MOORE, AND CHAVIS
Ms. Judy Mack remembers those days when her mother, Anne Sheppard, stood strong against discrimination of any kind. Whether it be race, gender or size, Sheppard believed that all were equal in GOD’s sight, and she raised her three children to believe the same. That belief made life harder for Sheppard, a 34-year-old white woman who, in 1971, stood foursquare with black students in Wilmington against what Sheppard believed to be the racial treatment of them by the powers that be. A community worker who helped poor families in the projects, Sheppard was well-known and well-respected. So working with students at Gregory Church was a natural part of what she did best. So when the arrests began in 1972 in connection with the Mike’s Grocery Store destruction a year earlier, Sheppard, a single parent, was swept up. Even though she knew that she was being targeted, Sheppard refused to leave despite being warned to do so. The authorities had hoped to turn Sheppard against Rev. Ben Chavis and the other activists, but Sheppard, knowing that none of them had committed any crime in association with Mike’s, refused. She explained to her three children, Ms. Mack recalls, that she was standing on principle for the black students, and was willing to deal with whatever authorities threw at her. Thus, Sheppard would stand strong against the false allegations. Mack was eleven at the time, and didn’t understand fully what was going on. But she knew that her mother needed support, so she and one of Sheppard’s two other children were in court constantly (an older sister ran away), hoping that it would be all over, and that she could come back home. “She truly believed in what she was doing,” Ms. Mack said. “And she raised us, as young women, and we, too were young women and could make a difference.” After she was convicted, Sheppard received the lowest sentence of all of the Wilmington Ten. But being sent away for a total of 15 years was a blow to Sheppard’s children. “It was hard being separated from my mother, ” Ms. Mack says. She recalls a relative having to make the daylong travel to the prison to see their mother, and then staying over in a motel to make it back home safely. The visits were very emotionally. Sheppard was “never a complainer, never a whiner. She was string for us, for other people,” says Mack. In order to partially survive prison, Sheppard learned how to crochet to keep her mind and hands busy. “My mother wasn’t a knitting kind of person, but she wanted to make sure that we had Christmas presents from her,” Mack recalls. She made hats, sweaters and scarves. Sheppard also spent plenty of time in the prison law library, loving to read and write. At one point, she helped organize a boycott in women’s prison, protesting what she felt were violations of inmates’ right. Though her freedom was restricted, Sheppard lived to help people, and that’s what kept her going. When she was released early while the case was on appeal, Anne Sheppard was eventually reunited with her daughters, moved to Raleigh, and continued improving herself. After a few years when the appeals to the North Carolina courts failed, she had to turn herself in, this separating from her daughters again. Sheppard was finally released from prison again, and eventually moved to Durham regaining custody of her daughters after a few months. She continued to improve herself through courses and other work, graduated from Durham Tech in the end. Mack said Sheppard was always being questioned by other white people about why she would sacrifice herself for blacks, which she didn’t appreciate. And on one fateful evening, while walking home, Sheppard walked over to a car when she heard the occupant call out to her, and ended up being seriously beaten. In 2011, Anne Sheppard, residing in Durham, died. If Judy Mack could asked Gov. Perdue to issue a pardon of innocence for her mother, Anne Sheppard, what would she say? “The evidence should show that there was misconduct, and that [the Wilmington Ten] are innocent,” Mack says. “To be in prison is one thing, but to be in prison away from your children, your family…I can’t imagine…’
If there’s one Wilmington Ten member who insists on leaving the whole sordid way he was treated behind, it is Reginald Epps. He does not attend anniversary programs, nor do interviews. Epps works very hard not to think about how, at a very young age, the Wilmington Ten experience forced him to struggle to survive. “As you go through life, you’ve got this thing over you…this cloud over your mind,” he says. You realize that you don’t have access to things that you ordinarily think you would be able to get access to – jobs…being able to fill out a resume and present myself at an interview. I knew those things were probably closed off to me, or at least I felt that way. I had to backdoor my way into a normalcy or a life [after leaving prison], as opposed to the more traditional graduate high school, then go to college and get a job.” Epps didn’t pass his high school courses, nor get a diploma, until he was serving time in prison. And yet, Epps, one of nine children, credits the experience for, in a sense, changing his life. He readily admits being a young man who stayed in trouble, heading down a path in life that assured worst things to come. He was a hustler, with no dreams Epps was 17, and a student at Hoggard High when he found himself caught in the Wilmington Ten web. He visited the Gregory Church often because it was the only experience he had of being with other black students who were engaged in positive pursuits to build self-esteem, pride and knowledge of self. It was 1972 when two school resource officers walked up to Reggie Epps in the school hallway and said, “Come with us.” Epps had no idea why, but when he found out that he was being charged as a conspirator in the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery, neither he nor his parents could believe it. “I had no clue,” Epps says. He was also puzzled when he saw other friends of his who ultimately comprised the Wilmington Ten. He knew them all, and knew that the police had the wrong people. Epps says the families that had resources were able to get their children out of the trouble. The teens who were left behind, like himself, were the most vulnerable because their parents couldn’t fight back. His mother scolded Epps for even being involved with the black student movement at Gregory Church, feeling that because it was radical, it would only lead to trouble, no matter what the cause. Epps goes on trial with Ben Chavis and nine others, and he knew that convictions were certain from watching the prosecutor challenge black jurors in the second trial, while ‘redneckish” white jurors were getting on with little problem. When the trial was over, Epps is sentenced to a combined 28 years in prison. The relevance of it didn’t hit Epps right away, he says. His family did not attend the trial, and were not there during the sentencing. Odom Farms was the prison Epps was assigned to. Because of the distance, his parent can’t visit. Epps writes letters, particularly with his sister. Epps survived prison by sticking close to Willie Vereen and other Ten members. “You had those up days and down days,” he recalls. While he was in prison, Epps stepfather was killed. When Epps was finally early released in the late 1970’s, he was glad, especially since the case against the Wilmington Ten was unraveling before the world. Epps knew not to come back to Wilmington. He moved to Raleigh to start his life fresh. Epps knows that his Wilmington Ten background will sink opportunities, so he takes the lowest level jobs possible so that he can work his way up without detection. The strategy worked for a number of years, allowing Epps to work his way up the corporate ladder. He had to leave in order to take care of his mother, who later passed. After that trauma in his life, Epps started all over again, finding low level work to “back door” his way up the ladder again. So why does Reginald Epps feel that he deserves a pardon of innocence from the state of North Carolina? Epps said the pardon should have been rendered years ago when Gov. Jim Hunt was still in office. “Second, it’s the right thing to do. I had nothing to do with that [Mike’s Grocery] mess. Your system screwed up,” Epps said. “You can fix it.”
After Wayne Moore was finally released from prison in 1979 after spending several years as a member of the Wilmington Ten, he went back to Wilmington, hoping not only to be reaccepted into the community, but to get his young life on track after being falsely convicted of crimes he did not do. Moore was originally sentenced to 29 years in prison at age 19. But it soon became clear, after losing job after job, and being shunned by many in the community, that there was no future for Moore in his hometown anymore. So he had to move to Michigan, where he learned a trade as an electrician, and is gainfully employed. But Moore had to leave his home, friends and family in North Carolina to have any positive future at all. It is a sacrifice and indignity Moore had to suffer, on top of being tried, convicted, and serving in prison. All because as a student in Wilmington in 1971, he stood up and demanded equal education for black students in New Hanover County schools. Moore wrote the following, a while back, about how he saw his struggles: Although I can only imagine what it was like to be a slave chained to the bowels of a slave ship, my experience with the Wilmington 10 allowed me to somewhat sample physical bondage with no ability for self-reliance, or self-determination. Once freed from physical bondage one may either become careless and carefree, mean and desensitized, or fragile and unable to cope. Or one may become courageous warrior triumphant in many of their endeavors. Seldom does one exit unaffected. Although I am determined to somehow triumph, I have struggled tremendously over the years to overcome the psychological and social effects of being imprisoned for crimes I never committed. My self-confidence and self-esteem were shattered. After long separations from my family and friends, I found it difficult to deal effectively with the responsibilities of everyday life, including fatherhood. My young children resented the time I spent away from them and our relationships have never been quite the same. Repairing those wounded relationships has been my most difficult challenged to date. The State of North Carolina has never been held accountable for this tragic disruption in my life after allowing one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in the history of America to take place. The city of Wilmington has already apologized for this injustice. It is now time for the state of North Carolina to do the same by granting The Wilmington Ten a full pardon of innocence
Without a doubt, the most famous member of the Wilmington Ten is its leader, Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis. He was the convener of the 1995 Million Man March. He led the NAACP as its president/CEO, and today, Chavis heads the Hip-Hop Action Network. Long before becoming was a major figure on the national stage, he committed himself to improving the plight of Blacks in Wilmington. Almost as soon as Chavis was sent by the United Church of Christ to Wilmington to help lead the Black student protest in February 1971, he was branded an outsider by public officials, warned to leave town, and his life was threatened. Indeed, White supremacists were allowed by local police to open fire on Gregory Church, where Rev. Chavis, 24, was working with Black students, training them how to peacefully, but forcefully, demonstrate for justice in the public schools. Chavis tells of having a bullet fired at him, piercing his leather jacket. “I was shot at a number of times,” he recalls, adding that people were wounded as a result. But police refused to investigate, or call a curfew to prevent further violence, in hopes that Rev. Chavis or some of his “radical” followers would get hurt, or even killed. “We were building a growing movement, and that was threatening to the power structure of Wilmington,” Chavis recalls. On February 6, 1971, Mike’s Grocery, a block from Gregory Church, was firebombed. Chavis was immediately blamed. A warrant was issued for his arrest. He was tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, and conspiracy to firebomb the grocery. Chavis was sentenced to 34 years in prison. Writing about his experience for the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, he said: Life in the five different North Carolina maximum, medium and later minimum security prisons where I was imprisoned in 1972, 1976, 1977, 1978, and throughout 1979 were the years that I personally experienced what millions on prisoners in the United States are made to endure. I was not a “celebrity” inmate. I got the same dehumanizing and degrading treatment that the average prisoner received. I learned to stay focus on not just my individual rights or to focus only on the Wilmington Ten case, but just as importantly, I spent most of my prison time advocating for the rights of prisoners in US and in particular the rights of all US political prisoners. I have several motivations. First, the members of the Wilmington Ten were innocent of the unjust charges. Secondly, my faith in God, family and the freedom struggle kept me going in a positive state of mind even though I was in the midst of death threats and plots while in prison. Thirdly, I was motivated by the courage and determination of my young co-defendants who also stayed strong, even though at times the prison officials kept us in separate state prisons. The Wilmington Ten case, struggle and eventual victory had a tremendous impact in helping to shape who I am today. I was 23 years old when the incident in Wilmington happened, but by that age, I was already an eleven-year veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. We were imprisoned when I was 24 years-old. What I later accomplished in my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s was certainly impacted and shaped by the Wilmington Ten chapter of my life. Today, I am still a “freedom fighter.”
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