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After tense debate, Wilmington votes 5-2 to remove ‘Black Lives Do Matter’ sign

The 'Black Lives Do Matter' art installation adjacent to Jervay Park.
Benjamin Schactman
The 'Black Lives Do Matter' art installation adjacent to Jervay Park.

After a heated discussion, City of Wilmington council members voted Tuesday to take down the "Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now" sign by December 27. Councilmembers Clifford Barnett and Kevin Spears dissented.

The sign, located in Jervay Memorial Park, was originally approved by the city in 2020. That approval was set to expire one year after the installation, but was extended for another year in 2021.

Council members Spears and Barnett said that the sign was an important reminder of historic and current oppression facing the Black community, and wanted to keep it up for another year.

Spears referenced an incident he’d heard about from a parent, in which a white child at Noble Middle School allegedly called a Black boy the n-word and slapped him. According to Spears, the Black boy was suspended while the white child was not disciplined.

The story was also related by the child’s mother, Montrina Melvin, at Tuesday’s New Hanover County School Board town hall.

Related:NHC school board hosts fall town hall

But other members voiced concern over setting a precedent for government speech, worrying that future groups could use the sign as an example to support messages of their own.

Member Charlie Rivenbark said the council should stick to the original agreement.

“It’s time for that sign to come down," he said.

City attorney John Joye said that in the initial vote on the sign, council agreed to adopt the words “Black lives do matter: end racism now” as government speech. It was not intended to be opened up for other groups, he said.

Councilmembers Neil Anderson, Luke Waddell, and Margaret Haynes said they wanted the sign moved to a permanent location on private property.

Around thirty audience members, including some of the eighteen artists who had worked on the sign, walked out of the meeting after the vote.

After the meeting, Spears said ordinances restricting sign heights will make it difficult to find a place for the sign by the end of December.

“The reality is they don’t want the sign,” said Spears.

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.