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Who were the Wilmington 10, and where are they now?

Ben Steelman

UPDATED: Jan. 2, 2013.

“The Wilmington 10″ — nine black men and one white woman — became the focus of one of the longest and most controversial civil rights cases in Wilmington history. Supporters saw them as political prisoners, framed by a racist and unjust judicial system. After nearly a decade, the 10 had their convictions overturned on a legal technicality in 1980.

Following a year-long petition drive by the North Carolina NAACP and other civil rights groups, Gov. Beverly Perdue formally issued a pardon to the Ten, saying “the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained.”

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 help black students, who had announced a boycott of the New Hanover County public schools the previous months. Racial tensions had worsened 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 local black community.

Soon, black youths were confronting local Klansmen and members of a militant group called Rights of White People. On the night of Feb. 6, 1971, several firebombs were set in downtown Wilmington. Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned business at Sixth and Ann streets, in a predominantly black neighborhood, was burned. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they were reportedly fired upon by snipers from the roof of Gregory Congregational Church, 609 Nun St., Wilmington [Map this], where Chavis and a number of boycotters had barricaded themselves. Two nights of rioting followed; a policeman shot a black teenager, and a middle-aged white man was killed by unknown assailants. On Feb. 8, National Guard troops entered the church, only to find it 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.

The 10 were Chavis, 24 at the time; Ann Shepard (later Ann Shepard Turner), a 35-year-old white social worker; Reginald Epps. 18; Jerry Jacobs. 19; James “Bun” McKoy, 19; Wayne Moore, 19; Marvin “Chili” Patrick, 19; Connie Tindall, 21; William “Joe” Wright Jr., 19; and Willie Earl Vereen, 18. Except for Chavis and Turner, all the defendants were Wilmington residents.

The sentences became controversial, particularly after key prosecution witnesses recanted their their stories. In 1976, 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. Soviet officials, stung by charges of human rights abuses from President Jimmy Carter’s administration, cited the case as an example of American injustice. Pressure intensified on state and federal officials after a 1977 segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes” suggested that much evidence against the 10 was fabricated.

In January 1978, in a statewide telecast, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt refused to pardon the 10, but he substantially reduced their sentences. By then, nine of the 10 were freed on parole. Later in 1978, the U.S. Department of Justice called for the sentences to be reversed; 55 members of Congress signed a “friend of the court” brief seeking the same result. Chavis, the last of the 10 in prison, was paroled in December 1979. Charges against the 10 were finally overturned in December 1980 by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Supporters had long criticized prosecutors’ decision to move the group’s initial trial from Wilmington to Burgaw. In November 2012, at a Raleigh news conference, the NAACP displayed jury selection notes from the trial, which labeled potential jurors as “possibly KKK good” and (in the case of a black potential juror) “Uncle Tom type.” Former prosecutor Jay Stroud acknowledged writing the notes but disputed the NAACP’s interpretation of his comments.

Chavis was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1980 and became executive director of its Commission for Racial Justice in 1985. In 1988, he was elected vice president of the National Council of Churches. In 1993, he was named executive director of the NAACP, but was ousted in August 1994 by the civil rights organization’s board of directors, amid charges that he had used NAACP funds to pay for an out-of-court settlement in a sexual harassment suit. In 1995, he was an organizer for the Million Man March on Washington. In 1997, he joined the Nation of Islam, taking the name Benjamin Chavis Muhammad. Today he serves as a special assistant to Minister Louis Farrakhan in New York. On a 2006 visit to Wilmington, to mark the 35th anniversary of the case, Chavis told the Star-News, “Being part of the Wilmington 10 is a badge of honor.”

Jerry Jacobs died in 1989 of AIDS complications.

Joe Wright died in 1990 of sarcoidosis. Before his death, he had been a producer for a Wilmington radio show. Wright’s brother, Thomas Wright, served on the Wilmington City Council and in the state House of Representatives from 1992 to 2008. In 2008, he was expelled from the House for mishandling loans and campaign and charitable contributions; later, he was convicted in Wake County Superior Court of three counts of fraud and was sentenced to 70 to 95 months in prison.

According to Francine DeCoursey — a Wilmington filmmaker who is preparing a documentary on the case — McCoy, Patrick and Vereen are living quietly in Wilmington. Epps, at last report, was living in Raleigh. while Moore was in Michigan. Moore and Chavis reported that Ann Shephard died in early 2011 in Durham.

UPDATE: Connie Tindall died on Aug. 3, 2012. Here is a story about his passing.


What is the 1898 Wilmington Institute For Education and Research?

What is the history of Williston High School?

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Sam Saunders

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12 Responses to “ Who were the Wilmington 10, and where are they now?”

  1. On February 14, 2010 at 1:35 pm cflpeace wrote:

    I read about this case (and about racial injustice in North Carolina in general) in a book called Nothing Could Be Finer. I just saw the movie Blood Done Sign My Name about the young Ben Chavis, and heard both Chavis and actor Nate Parker interact with audiences – including innercity youth – who had just seen the movie. This man is not only innocent but he is great, and the frame-up is just one more example of evil punishing good for being good.

  2. On February 19, 2010 at 12:29 am dan gore wrote:

    I was attending high school at the time of the Wilmington 10. You ask anybody who was in high school at the time will tell you the presence of Ben Chavis did nothing to bring solidarity but to bring division and how he did! In my estimation Ben Chavis is no more than a common thug……..under his direction he just about burned Wilmington down.

  3. On January 18, 2011 at 8:56 am Jill Conkwright wrote:

    I was assigned to be Ann Shepard Turner’s parole officer upon her release from prison and quite admittedly was terrified to be put on such a high-profile case as I was only 26 or 27 years old….and almost new probation/parole officer….I had almost forgotten this…would love to be able to locate Ann and wonder if she and Lewis are still married….

  4. On June 15, 2011 at 8:07 am judy mack wrote:

    After Anne Sheppard; who went back to her maiden name Anne Gunsalus after her last divorce and her parents passing, we found alot of writings she had done over the years. In one particular typed written paper (she had a horrible handwritting) she described The Wilmington 10 exactly as Dr. Ben Chavis did. A badge of honor and was so proud of all the people involved.

  5. On June 16, 2011 at 9:29 pm judymack wrote:

    To the man who said he thought Rev. Ben Chavis was no more than a thug, who are you? Have you had death threats or bomb threats made against you or your family? When you say ask any body who attended school at the time who are you talking about? Ben Chavis did not give anybody the rights to burn down Wilmington it was the rights of white people. Living in fear because they should do the right thing. Thank you my Wilmington Hereos you will never be forgotten.

  6. On June 19, 2011 at 7:38 pm judy mack wrote:

    I am Judy Mack. Anne Sheppard’s middle daughter. I saw where her former parole officer had a question about her. Can you send her a message for me and my e-mail address ? If not can you let her know thanks for thinking of her, her comment was made only 17 days after my mama’s passing.

  7. On December 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm Barb wrote:

    The comment about Ben Chavis is so off the rocker. I don’t know any thugs with a degree in chemistry and a master’s in divinity. People grow as they age, but that comment shows no growth in mind set.

  8. On December 31, 2012 at 7:34 pm MA Patrick wrote:

    I was a student in high school at the time of the Wilmington race riots. It was a shameful period of time in a small southern city. The historically powerful white establishment tried in every way to divide and conquer the black community by destroying their traditions and imposing theirs….and I’m white. It was terrible time and as a nation we have changed so much. I was tearful and grateful today when Bev Purdue, governor, issued a long overdue pardon for the Wilmington 10, eight of whom were just outside of their childhood and living in an emotionally and racially incendiary time.

  9. On January 3, 2013 at 12:34 am Fory wrote:

    Thought it would be appropriate for you to mention that the Wilmington 10 were pardoned this year by outgoing Governor Purdue.

  10. On January 4, 2013 at 11:22 am Si Cantwell wrote:

    We’ve added that to the question.

  11. On July 29, 2013 at 11:35 pm william P archambo wrote:

    I responded to this artical about a year ago and don’t see my comments. Any explanation? Thank you

  12. On July 30, 2013 at 10:53 am Si Cantwell wrote:

    We had a technical problem with Comments that took weeks to track down, so that may have been why it didn’t appear. We weren’t receiving them.
    Or if it had objectionable material, I would have rejected it. I don’t use comments at insult other readers, contain profanity or are, in my judgment as an editor, are not suitable for inclusion in a StarNews Media website.
    Try submitting the comment again. If I reject, I’ll let you know why.

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