Leadership Wilmington takes to the streets to learn Port City history, culture
Like a lot of people with deep family roots here, I make the mistake of thinking I know everything there is to know about Wilmington. Our first session as a Leadership Wilmington class proved me wrong.
The all-day class – focused on the history, culture, and arts of our city – started with a gripping presentation from Dr. Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum on Wilmington’s past and present. A particular focus was the lasting scars from the 1898 white supremacist massacre and ensuing decades of de jure and de facto segregation. I generally pride myself on my consciousness of Wilmington’s dark times – a section of the presentation on school integration in the 1970s included an artifact donated to the Museum by my late grandfather, Dr. Heyward C. Bellamy. But Dr. Davidson highlighted history to which I was ignorant, such as racial covenants written into deeds in the city’s oldest neighborhoods and whites-only policies in the early days of our resort beach communities.
The presentation gave our class an inspiring challenge: face this history and understand it, so your work as local leaders can help our city grow beyond it.
Class members then got to walk that very history via a Black History Hike through Wilmington’s Southside from Imam Abdul Rahman Shareef. We visited places like Williston School, once the city’s high-performing Black senior high school that was shuttered during integration, and the lot that was once home to the Daily Record, the Black Wilmington newspaper burned to the ground in 1898.
A tour through the collections at the Cape Fear Museum showed us artifacts of the somber – clippings from the last printings of the Daily Record – and the joyful – Michael Jordan’s Laney High School graduation picture and props from locally filmed movies – moments in the city’s history.
The second half of our day was a tour of Wilmington arts institutions, including the Cameron Art Museum, Thalian Hall, and the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College.
At Cameron, Arts Council of Wilmington & New Hanover County Director Rhonda Bellamy gave the class a preview of exciting arts initiatives coming to the city, including the Wilmington Rail Trail project. Wilmington Film Commission Director Johnny Griffin detailed film’s record-setting year in the Port City as the industry adjusts to COVID-19 safety measures. And Cameron Director Anne Brennan had the class speed-walking for a spirited gallery tour.
Back in downtown Wilmington, Thalian Hall Director Tony Rivenbark and the Wilson Center’s Shane Fernando gave the class behind-the-scenes tours of their stages. Seeing the well-preserved, ornate 19th Century auditorium at Thalian, followed by the state-of-the-art acoustical design at Wilson brought Wilmington’s arts history and its future into focus.
In the coming months, the members of Leadership Wilmington 2022 will learn more about the city’s present and future challenges, from growth and development to local politics and the environment. This first class gave all of us – whether new to the city or native – the historic context for all of that.
Our class is so grateful to all the local experts who took time this month to walk us through that history.