Kenneth Janken on Bringing the Wilmington Ten to the Public’s Attention
May 10, 2023 | Kristen Chavez
African, African American and diaspora studies professor Kenneth Janken received the 2022 George H. Johnson Prize for Distinguished Achievement by an IAH Fellow. On March 23, 2023, he received the award and delivered a lecture, “Bringing the Wilmington Ten to the Public’s Attention: One Historian’s Experience in Public Humanities.” Before his lecture, he sat down to talk about his research, public reaction to the case, and his Fellowship experiences.
Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and works of fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am your host, Kristen Chavez.
In this episode, I speak with Kenneth Janken, a professor of African, African American and diaspora studies. He is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies and the department’s honors adviser. Professor Janken’s research focuses on 20th century African American history, and he teaches courses on the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, African American intellectual history, and African American autobiography. His 2016 book, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s received the Clarendon Award from the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society.
Janken received the George H. Johnson Prize for Distinguished Achievement by an IAH Fellow. On March 23, he received the award and delivered a lecture, “Bringing the Wilmington Ten to the Public’s Attention: One Historian’s Experience in Public Humanities.”
KC: Welcome to the podcast.
Kenneth Janken: Thank you. Glad to be here.
KC: Before we get more specific about your work and your research on the Wilmington Ten, I wanted to know how you got interested in history and African American history in particular.
KJ: Well, I became interested in history in high school, I guess. And I had a wonderful teacher Ms. Beseri, who opened that up for me, and I enjoyed it. And when I went to college, I thought I would study it. That’s the short and boring story about how I got involved in history.
How I got involved in African American history: when I was growing up, the Civil Rights Movement was among the most covered stories of the day, as was the war in Vietnam and the anti-Vietnam War movement. So there was a personal interest in it.
And when I got to graduate school, and sampled some courses, I was fortunate to take a course with a David Levering Lewis, who was, who is a distinguished historian of African America, among other aspects of history. And I asked him if he would be my adviser, he agreed. And I thought that African American history was an area that I could make a contribution in. And that’s the short answer.
KC: And so your book, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s was published, as I mentioned, in 2016. Can you give a brief overview of a Wilmington Ten? What happened and then its lasting impacts?
KJ: Sure. What’s known as the Wilmington Ten, was a series of events in February of 1971. In Wilmington, North Carolina, African American students at the two high schools in the city had reached kind of a full point where they were, they could not take any more of the second-class treatment that they had been receiving at the schools.
And they formulated a series of demands related to their daily life at school and related to the world around them. So they demanded things like a relevant curriculum, a series of Black Studies lectures, observation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday holiday, an end to discrimination of athletes and cheerleaders on the cheer squad and on the varsity sports.
And then crucially, they demanded also an end to the disparate treatment that they were received in school. So for example, if fights broke out in the hallways, white students were often let off and black students were often suspended. And in addition to that, police were called to campus and the police, the police would arrest African Americans, they would rough them up, things like that. And they presented these demands to the school board, which rejected them out of hand. And so the students called for a boycott of the schools.
That caught the attention of a local white supremacist organization, whose name was the Rights of White People. And they were kind of a break off of the Klan in eastern North Carolina and felt that that the Klan was not was not violent enough, as it were. And the Rights of White People began to drive by the students’ boycott headquarters and shoot at the students. And this sparked a week of violence in Wilmington in which there was shooting in front of the church. There was an arson and other forms of violence. And it culminated with the burning of a grocery store, a mom and pop store about two blocks from the boycott headquarters.
And those are the events. Once the grocery store had burned, the mayor called in the Highway Patrol and had the governor call in the National Guard, who raided the boycott headquarters, which was a church. And they put down the boycott, and they put down this uprising. And then a year later, in March of 1972, 16 people were arrested for the incidents around this uprising, and in particular, around the burning of Mike’s Grocery, which was the name of the grocery store. Ten of those were eventually put on trial, and that’s where the Wilmington Ten comes from.
They were they were tried in a corrupt trial. And they were convicted of arson, conspiracy to commit arson, and conspiracy to shoot at police and firefighters who responded to the arson. And they were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison based largely on testimony that had been made up by the district attorney.
KC: And were those convictions eventually overturned?
KJ: Yes, they were eventually overturned, almost immediately upon their conviction in September of 1972. A movement started to free the Wilmington Ten and it had a dimension in the legal field. So there were all sorts of appeals to file. But then there was a strong sense that even the best legal strategy couldn’t get the Wilmington Ten freed. Several organizations joined together in different combinations to create a movement to free the Wilmington Ten. And that was in North Carolina, in the US South, in the United States as a whole, and internationally as well.
KC: Is this commonly known, do you think in North Carolina or even nationally?
KJ: Well, it’s more known in North Carolina now. But I think it is largely still not known. And so in North Carolina, for example. You know, if I talked about the Wilmington Ten, people will think I’m talking about the 1898 Wilmington riot and coup. And so there’s that confusion.
There are people who are in their 60s and older, who would remember it more clearly. Younger people, not so much. It’s less clear. But in Wilmington, it’s being taught in the public schools in one way or another, as is the Wilmington riot of 1898. And the 1898 massacre has worked its way into the state public schools curriculum. So people do know about it.
KJ: And I and I’m often invited to places to talk about it, which would indicate to me that there is an interest and a knowledge of it, at least among the organizers of those programs at museums and schools and libraries.
KC: Great, good. So what was the research and the writing process for the book like?
KJ: Well, it took longer than I thought. I had to learn a new language — legalese, you know, because so much of the case of the Wilmington 10 was tied up in court. Reading trial transcripts and pleadings and opinions, and you know, all this stuff, it took an effort to learn all the legal terms and figure out how it was going. So that was part of it. So there’s a lot of work in legal documents.
Then another store of documents were the FBI files on the Wilmington 10 case. That included informant reports on the local organizations in Wilmington, and on the major organizations involved in that type of struggle in eastern North Carolina, in particular, the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ. The FBI had informants and spied on all these organizations. It was hard to get at them. I eventually did. But it took, I don’t know, three years of waiting for them to be made available at the National Archives. So there was that.
KJ: There were also lots of people to talk to. I think I talked to more than three dozen people who were either involved in the events or were close observers of them. And that included some members of the Wilmington 10 who would talk to me. It included educators who were in Wilmington, during, you know, in the schools. It included attorneys for the 10, attorneys for the prosecution, personal friends of the Wilmington 10, relatives of the Wilmington 10. You know, a lot of things like that. So it was a lot of work. It took longer than I had anticipated.
KC: But fulfilling I feel like in the same way.
KJ: Yeah, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
KC: Yeah, hard work, but worth it in the end.
KJ: Well, yeah. But that’s the way that’s one of the reasons why I do this, because it’s rewarding. It’s, you know, it’s fun. It’s not a chore.
KC: I like that. Can you share about that work in bringing the Wilmington 10 to the public’s attention?
KJ: Sure. Most of the way that I did it was by lectures and panel discussions. And typically, I would be invited to a library or on a radio show or a community center. And I would talk about the Wilmington 10. And I’ve done that, I think over the course of you know, the last six years, seven years. I’ve spoken at probably four dozen places, mostly in North Carolina, but also in other parts of the country.
KJ: And the people who come to these events have expressed to me is that they didn’t know about the Wilmington 10 or they had no clear idea, so that was one thing. So you know, one of the things about bringing something to the public is making them aware of it. They are largely dismayed about what happened. I’ll just talk about some of the most egregious things here.
The Wilmington 10 were arrested beginning in March of 1972. It took several – well, it took until May for the prosecutor to decide who he was going to prosecute. He made these arrests based on one person’s story. And this person, his name was Allen Hall, he was facing time in prison for some other for some other unrelated crime.
And Allen Hall was on the periphery of this protest movement in Wilmington. You know, really on the periphery; he was not a regular participant, and he certainly wasn’t a leader of the movement or of any of the activity. He was on the edges. And when he was arrested in — trying to I think, it was probably May of 1971. So he was arrested soon after on these unrelated charges. He went and he hit a teacher over the head with a bottle something like that.
KJ: He called on one of the leaders of the Wilmington 10, Ben Chavis, who was in his 20s at the time, he wasn’t a high school student. And he was a minister in the United Church of Christ. And so he had access to different networks and probably different funding sources. And he asked Ben Chavis to get him out of prison, get him out of jail. And Chavis and others who around him said, we don’t have the money, we can barely keep ourselves out of jail, we can’t really, you know, help you here.
And that’s when Allen Hall turned against them. And so he told the district attorney a story. He made up a story about who burned Mike’s and how it was done and things like this. And he was kind of an erratic person, Allen Hall was. So the case was built on something that was made up.
KJ: And then to bolster that, the district attorney, and an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is, which is a federal agency, concocted the full story and coached Allen Hall on what to say.
And in exchange for that testimony, Allen Hall was given a reduced sentence — not too surprising. But he was also given all sorts of other special treatments, like they brought his girlfriend from Asheville all the way across the state to eastern North Carolina for conjugal visits. He was allowed out of jail to visit his mother at home. As he prepared his testimony with the district attorney and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, he was put up in a beach house on I think it was Carolina Beach. Put up in a beach house, where they were able to – where he and his minders, were able to drink alcohol, and go fishing and things like this. None of these emoluments were ever made known to the jury. The judge refused to let the defense talk about these things in the trial.
More than that, there was a controversy over this guy’s statement, Allen Hall statement. He was caught in cross examination, saying things that weren’t in his statement and saying things that contradicted what he said in his statement. And when he was pressed on those inconsistencies, he said, “Well, I made the statement, and then I made corrections to it verbally, and they were written down on my statement by the district attorney.”
Well, the defense attorneys said ‘we want to see that statement, we want to see your statement with all the handwriting on it,’ and the judge wouldn’t let that go out. And so that, plus a variety of other things.
When people hear about this in my talks, they are — well, some are surprised. Some are angered, and others are dismayed that this could happen and that they didn’t know about it. So bringing, you know, bringing the Wilmington 10 to the public also involves that.
And audiences have an opportunity to ask me questions afterward and we engage in some type of discussion or discussions about judicial misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct. Why the government was so intent on convicting these people, you know, things like that. So that’s been, you know, my experience is that the talk includes — there’s a revelatory aspect for the audience. But then there is a period where people want to ask questions about you know, and want more detail about what they were accused of, and want more detail about the corruption in Wilmington and in the court system.
KC: Thank you for sharing all of that. The Johnson Prize, of which you are the 2022 recipient, recognizes outstanding achievement by an IAH fellow. And you were a Faculty Fellow in 1994 and in 2001. How did you use those fellowship periods?
KJ: Well, in 1994, I worked on an article that was eventually published about the Harlem Renaissance and African American writers and some musicians, their interactions with their French counterparts. So it was about the Harlem Renaissance in Paris, basically. And that grew out of, of a larger project that I ended up not pursuing, which was a biography of a man named Mercer Cook, who was the son of one of the pioneers of jazz, Will Marion Cook, and Will Marion Cook’s wife, Abbie Mitchell, who was a prominent singer and in vaudeville, as well. And Mercer Cook had a distinguished career as a diplomat, and a college professor.
And so I learned a lesson in all of this is that you should only pursue projects that can maintain your interest over a long period of time, and I realized that Mercer Cook wouldn’t do that for me. He did it for other people who have done a good job on him, but it wasn’t for me. And so I narrowed the project down and took the small piece of it that was related to Mercer Cook, of African American and Francophone intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance era.
That was an important research lesson, you know, that it’s important to rule something out, not just rule everything in. And that, as I said, resulted in an article.
KJ: And then in 2001, I used that fellowship time to — I was writing a biography of the head of the NAACP in the 1930-40s. And until he died in the 19…died in 1955. Walter White, and that was published in 2003: White: The biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP. And that’s how I used it.
And then, you know, at the weekly lunches, which used to be over in West House, which is no longer there. I got to know a number of the fellows and had formed you know, I think, pretty good professional friendships with them, including Lloyd Kramer, and Terry Rhodes. And Jerma Jackson, my colleague from graduate school, who we met again, and she’s in the history department here. And that’s what I did and so the IAH was just a wonderful place to work and, you know, for the fellows to share what they were doing, and trying to find connections. And if you couldn’t find connections, you would at least learn something. And it was a wonderful time.
KC: That’s great. I love that you mentioned West House, too. I forgot. I mean, we just marked our 20th anniversary here in Hyde Hall. I didn’t make the connection then, I was like, oh right, before 2002 when the building opened, you would have been meeting in West House.
KJ: Yeah. And I liked West House a lot. It was crowded. It was hard to get around. I think in in my 1994 semester there, I broke my leg. And so I couldn’t–
KC: Oh no.
KJ: I didn’t break it there. I didn’t break it there.
KC: Still, not great.
KJ: But I remember it was hard to get around the table to go find the seat. But it was nice. It was historic. And I can’t say I’m sorry it’s gone. This is a much nicer building.
KC: You did get to enjoy Hyde Hall in your next fellowship in 2014, you were an Academic Leadership Program fellow. So how is that different from the other fellowships? And maybe not just the building?
KJ: Yeah. Well, the subjects under discussion were a lot different. You know, in West House, the discussions were what’s your research? What are you doing, how you’re presenting it? Everybody every semester had to present something about their work to the Fellows around the table. And I actually found that kind of intimidating, but that was that.
The Academic Leadership Program was for faculty members who wanted to learn more about university leadership. Perhaps people who were thinking about a taking up a different post, or taking up some more responsibility for the College. And I guess being, you know, part-time administrators.
And I had thought about that. And so I went to that. And then at the same time that I was doing that, I became the director at the Center for the Study of the American South.
I learned a lot. I learned a lot about leadership. I learned a lot about myself, in my temperament, in those administrative roles.
I don’t know, it was a fun bunch. But it was fun in a different way. And it gave me an opportunity to flex those administrative skills that I hadn’t had a chance to do previously. And it gave me a better idea of the types of administrative work I’m comfortable in doing and the kinds that I’m not. And that was valuable to me as well.
KC: Yeah, important to learn, I think, like you said, not just about yourself, but the types of work you are comfortable with or less comfortable with.
KC: Great. Is there anything else that you want to add or mention before we start to wrap up?
KJ: I’m grateful for the IAH. It’s one of the one of the places on campus that you can count on for a sympathetic ear. You don’t always get what you want. But you can always come here, pitch an idea, ask for assistance in other ways. And the people who work here are really responsive and interested in the humanities and interested in what people are in what people are doing and want to help them. So, I like the IAH a lot.
KC: And we love working with faculty and I love learning from faculty with these podcasts, too. It’s a great way I think, not just to broaden my own horizons and serve the Institute, but really, you know, learning for myself as well. So thank you, this has been fantastic. As we wrap up, I do want to ask one last question that we ask all of our guests: what is a book that has changed your life?
KJ: A book that has changed my life.
KC: I could also even broaden this, if you want to think beyond a book or any creative piece?
KJ: No, I’m thinking about a book….
KC: It’s a big question.
KJ: It really is a big question. And, you know, I hate to channel Barbara Bush, right, who said that her favorite book was the book she was reading. Well, let me give two books.
KJ: I’m sorry. When I’m writing a book, I try and make sure that I read something meaty. And so one book that I read, when I was writing my first book, I read War and Peace, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And the things I learned from that, about war and the chaos of it.
And then also the attitude of one of the generals in the war. General — oh, I’m going to bowdlerized name General Kutuzov — who when Napoleon was invading Russia, he just wouldn’t do anything. He was sitting around, he said “no, the time’s not right, the time’s not right.” And everybody’s losing their head around him. And they’re running around saying, we have to act, we have to mount the counter offensive, we have to do this, we have to do that. And he was very calm, and just said, “The time is not right.”
And then, when he determined that the time was right, he stopped Napoleon from his invasion. So, I’ve always kind of kept that in mind. As it relates to the Academic Leadership Program. You can always choose to do nothing. I mean, you can always choose just to wait and see. You don’t have to act immediately. You know, there’s something there’s a value of watchful waiting, sizing up.
KJ: And then I read, when I was working on the Wilmington 10, I read a book titled A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles. It takes place in 1898. It’s a novel that is in part about the Wilmington massacre and coup in 1898. But also the Spanish American War in the Philippines, and also the Spanish American War in Cuba, and also the discovery of gold in the Yukon, and the last push of Indian removal in end of the 19th and 20th century.
And it was just a very broad history, you know, fictionalized history of the United States and the United States’ place in the world. And, you know, it’s like 900 pages. I loved it.
KC: Both of those sound quite meaty, as you said.
KC: Great. Well, thank you for sharing those books. Thank you for sharing everything about your research. This has been a fantastic talk. Thank you.
KJ: Thank you for having me on the podcast. I appreciate it.
KC: Thank you for listening to the Institute Podcast. Listen to other and upcoming episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Visit our website, iah.unc.edu, to find past episodes and transcripts. You can also learn more about our upcoming events, programs, grants and leadership opportunities for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, and read stories that feature our arts and humanities fellows. Thank you for joining us.
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