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Oral History Interview with Kojo Nantambu, May 15, 1978. Interview B-0059. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    In May 1978, Kojo Nantambu—who was originally named Roderick Kirby but who adopted his new name in 1972—sat down with Larry Thomas, a historian, jazz disc jockey and Wilmington native. During the interview, Nantambu describes what he remembers of the Wilmington racial violence of 1971, the inequities present in the trial of the Wilmington Ten, and the aftermath of the conflict. Because the tapes start midway through the interview and Nantambu frequently jumps between topics, additional information about the racial situation in Wilmington is provided here. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, racial tensions in Wilmington, North Carolina, ran high, and the greatest disagreements were over high school desegregation. Beginning in 1967, buses took volunteer African American students to the two white suburban high schools, but when the students arrived, they found themselves surrounded by hostility and resentment. Many of these youths—including Kojo Nantambu—became the leaders of the 1971 turmoil. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, young African American mourners marched through town, and when white authorities attempted to stop them, the youths rioted, causing over two hundred thousand dollars in damage. Though the violence ended on April 10, conflict continued.

    In the fall of 1968, white authorities announced that they would close the black Williston Senior High School and send all African American adolescents to the suburban institutions. Students of both races complained and fights between white and black pupils became commonplace. In May 1970, black high school students marched to protest student government election results; white teenagers responded and eventually the sheriff intervened. By the following fall, African American youths had organized the Black Youth Builders of the Black Community (BYBBC). On January 15, 1971, fifteen black high school students staged a sit-in because the school board prohibited a memorial service on King's birthday. On January 22, a large-scale fight erupted between white and black students, and one black female was injured. The next week, racial conflict continued. Police officers patrolled the schools, and school authorities suspended a large number of black students. The suspended pupils and the BYBBC established an alternative school at Gregory Congregational Church. When he learned of the school, Reverend Leon White, the director of the North Carolina-Virginia Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, sent Benjamin Chavis Jr. to help. Shortly after Chavis's arrival, membership in the school reached five hundred, and arson attacks against white businesses began. Meanwhile, a local white supremacist group called the Rights of White People (ROWP) harassed African Americans, particularly targeting Wilmington's black neighborhood around the Gregory Congregational Church. These are the events described in the Nantambu interview.

    Nantambu begins his narrative by describing the class conflicts within the white community and explaining to Thomas how that contributed to the 1971 violence. Working class whites, Nantambu says, reacted violently to integration because race gave them access to power they otherwise would not have had. Nantambu remembers Friday, February 5, 1971, as an important turning point. That night, several young black men were shot, and fear had so gripped the black community that the African American students at the Gregory Congregation Church established a makeshift medical clinic to deal with the injured rather than send them to the hospital. Guards were sent to the border of the black community, and barricades were erected to keep whites out. The next morning, a white sniper targeted the black neighborhood. Nantambu remembers carloads of whites roaming the city, attacking any blacks they encountered. That night, arsonists torched Mike's Grocery, a white-owned store in the black neighborhood. Chavis, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Anne Shepard, Marvin "Chili" Patrick, Connie Tindall, Willie Earl Vereen, and William "Joe" Wright Jr.—nine black male youths and one white female social worker—were arrested, charged and convicted of the arson. These became known as the Wilmington Ten. Nantambu maintains that Chavis, McKoy, Patrick, Tindall, and Wright were among the contingent guarding the border of the black community, giving them an alibi for the arson attack. Nantambu hypothesizes on the motives for the arson and then reflects on the murder of Stevenson Gibb Mitchell, which happened concurrently. Nantambu remembers that Mitchell's death made the black teenagers realize that whites would not negotiate for peace. The next morning, cars full of whites broke through the barricades and wreaked further havoc in the neighborhood. On Monday, the National Guard took control of the area and searched the church for weapons. Nantambu claims that the dynamite and other weapons found there were planted to discredit the students. When asked to define the conflict, Nantambu says that the black neighborhood staged an insurrection rather than a rebellion because all they demanded were their rights. When the trial started, Nantambu and others picketed it, but neither this nor any of the injunctions filed by the Ten's lawyers halted the proceedings. Witnesses Allen Hall and Jerome Mitchell later recanted their testimonies against the Ten, and Nantambu closes the interview by reflecting on why they might have first spoken against the Ten.

    Excerpts
  • Wealth and power in Wilmington, North Carolina
  • Intersection of class and race in Wilmington's racial violence
  • Friday, February 5, 1971: fear of white violence spreads through black community
  • Alibis for some of the Wilmington Ten
  • The way the students organized and prepared
  • Distrust of local police confirmed when they fail to arrest a white sniper
  • Mixed support for the students in the wider African American community
  • Reverend Vaughan is shot, and more young black men to take to the streets
  • Nantambu's memory of the bombing of Mike's Grocery
  • Steve Mitchell's murder and its effect on the conflict
  • Sunday, February 7, 1971: situation escalates as whites breach the barricade
  • Nantambu defines the events of 1971
  • Dr. Frinks splits the community further still
  • Police tactics split the African American community
  • Steve Mitchell's funeral
  • Frinks mishandled money and manpower
  • Reasons for Hall's testimony against the Wilmington Ten
  • The trial of the Wilmington Ten
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • North Carolina--Race relations
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.