609 Nun Street
Long History of Civic Engagement
Gregory Normal Institute, established between the summers of 1865 and 1866 by abolitionist American Missionaries after the close of the Civil War became Wilmington’s first legal school for African Americans. In 1881, benefactor J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts took an interest in African American education and enlarged the school and built a church along with a third building to house teachers. With tuition of one dollar a month, classes were crowded with students traveling from a distance to attend both day and evening lessons. Gregory Normal Institute was active into the 1920s.

Ben Chavis and the Wilmington Ten

The largest racial demonstration following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. took place here at Gregory Congregational Church. Race relations in Wilmington had worsened following the desegregation of the city's white high schools at the beginning of the 1969 school year and the subsequent closing of the all black Williston High School. A rash of violent outbreaks and suspensions at New Hanover and Hoggard high schools marred the following year. The problem came to a head in late January 1971 when Wilmington's African American students announced a boycott of the city schools. Ben Chavis, a twenty-three year old activist from Oxford, North Carolina, arrived in Wilmington to organize the boycott. The boycotters quickly amounted to over 500 students who opened their own school in the church’s basement.

Shortly after Chavis' arrival, two downtown businesses burned, and there was evidence of other arson attempts. The white community blamed African American activists for the incidents, and in turn, white racist groups began to patrol the streets openly armed and hostile. On the night of February 6, 1971, several fires broke out and unknown individuals firebombed a grocery store. Snipers on the roof of the Gregory Congregational Church shot at firemen reporting to the scene where Chavis and a number of the students were barricaded. The ensuing battle killed two people and several more were injured. Ten people, nine African American men and one white woman, were arrested, tried and convicted on charges of arson and conspiracy to fire upon firemen and police officers. The "Wilmington Ten" were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison.


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