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The public weighs in on "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You"

The crowd at the New Hanover County School Board on August 1, 2023
James Watson
The crowd at the New Hanover County School Board on August 1, 2023

Ahead of Tuesday’s New Hanover County school board meeting, protestors gathered outside to decry the banning of the book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Once the meeting started, more speakers addressed the issue — some in support, some opposed.

In front of a packed room, board members heard from 35 members of the community during the ‘Call the Audience’. They were selected through a random lottery process; however, over 100 people had originally signed up to speak at the meeting.

In sum, there were 20 speakers who were against removing the book and 10 speakers who wanted it gone. Almost all the Black participants said they wanted the book to stay.

Over the last several months, a lone parent, Katie Gates, has been pushing to ban the book — and now, after her request was denied in two different appeals, the board is deciding the book’s fate.

Some people who want the book to remain in the classroom said they valued the author’s diverse perspective and trusted the educator who teaches the course. Others said the book is anti-American and promotes reverse racism.

Below: The 'Call to the Audience' section of Tuesday's meeting, which begins at the 21:58 mark.

The actual public hearing where the board will decide Stamped’s fate looks like it will be on September 1, although that hasn’t been officially confirmed.

Each side will have 20 minutes to present their arguments. Gates will argue for removing it. A district representative will argue in defense of the two school committees.

It’s not yet clear to what extent the book could be banned. The board has not been clear about the stakes for its removal — ultimately, they do have the discretion to say whether it’s removed from the one school library, just teacher Kelli Kidwell’s AP classroom, or districtwide.

The Rally: “Let Freedom Read”

Hundreds gathered outside the Board of Education building on Tuesday night ahead of the extended 'Call to the Audience'.

Snapshot of rally on August 1, 2023.
James Watson
Snapshot of rally on August 1, 2023.

The rally was organized in part by New Hanover County Democratic party chair Jill Hopman and local minister Kelley Finch. Other ministries represented included St. John A.M.E Zion, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Wilmington, Mosaic Church, and Church of the Servant.

One attendee, Jay Gartrell, said of the rally while holding up a sign for the UU Church, “This is pretty calm, collected, and very gray. I suspect most of the people here can remember protesting the Vietnam War.”

Jay Gartrell (on the right) holding UU sign.

The crowd held signs brandishing messages like “Cowards ban books,” “What are you afraid of?” and “Freedom”.

Hopman, one of the first rally speakers, told the crowd, “If you really care about children, you don't ban books. If you really care about constitutional rights, then you don't infringe upon the separation of church and state and support censorship.”

Mahlaynee Cooper, founder of “Speak Ya Peace,” North Carolina reminded the crowd that while showing up on Tuesday was important, the action couldn't stop there.

“We speak to the issues that need to be spoken to, specifically, in the Black community because often our voices are not heard at all. We are still living during the time of the Civil Rights Movement; it never stopped. That's why we're all here today, and especially our issues are usually buried under the ground, that's why you don't see too many of us [Black residents] out here because a lot of people have lost hope," she said.

After Cooper spoke, Love Our Children representative and local Unitarian Universalist member Peter Rawistch, who has performed original songs at previous board meetings, led the crowd in singing,

“Let freedom read, let freedom read...”

Before additional speakers (Lily Nicole of Sokoto House, former Board Member Judy Justice, education activist Barbara Anderson, and NY Times best-selling author Wiley Cash) could start, a thunderstorm formed north of the rally which quickly turned into a full-blown downpour. The crowd hustled onto the steps of the board building, waiting to be let in.

Two members of the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys briefly attended the ‘Call to the Audience’ later in the evening, but there was no counterprotest presence during the rally itself.

Some spoke to keep "Stamped" in school

Many of the arguments focused on the fact that Katie Gates’ daughter, who was in Ashley High’s Kelli Kidwell’s AP Language and Composition class, received an alternate assignment fairly quickly after she complained about the book’s content — so the issue is not about the impact on Gates' daughter directly (others have also noted that Gates' daughter finished the course in June).

Supporters also pointed to the decision of two school committees, composed mostly of district educators, that concluded Stamped could stay in her course; others said they supported Kidwell’s autonomy in deciding how best to teach.

Lewis Bernstein, a parent of a former student in Kidwell's class, referenced the College Board’s stance on allowing for discussion and reading of controversial texts — and noted that ultimately taking an AP course is a choice.

Supporters of keeping the book also rejected the notion that the book is disrespectful to the Bible and American values. Additionally, some noted to take lessons from world history in that when there’s an authoritarian government or dictatorship, censorship vastly increases and diverse viewpoints are shut down. In this historical context, dissidents are often jailed or murdered — points made by speakers George Vlastis and Barbara Bakowycz.

Speaker Annamarie Atwood also highlighted Wilmington’s history of suppressing the knowledge of the 1898 coup d’etat.

Ashley High School AP Literature teacher Lisa Williams voiced her support for Kidwell, her colleague. Williams was a member of the MTAC committee that initially reviewed Gates’ request, and noted she had a 92% pass rate in her AP class this year.

“In my department, no student is forced to read a book; there are always alternatives. Banning books and restricting access removes First Amendment rights for students, parents, and teachers, and I will not support it,” Williams concluded.

Reverend Donald Mapson, a Black former educator who taught in New Hanover County Schools for 20 years, also spoke during the meeting.

“When I was in elementary or junior high, I did not have the opportunity to have books like this. And I think that it's important that these kids get exposed to as much as they can because as a minority I needed to know more about myself and know about my community. And I couldn't find too many books in the library that would challenge me. And so I think books like this for all kids are very important because they do need to know about racism. They need to be challenged; they need to have an understanding that everybody is somebody. And everybody needs to be loved by everybody,” Mapson said.

Reverend Donald Mapson at the "Let Freedom Read" rally.
James Watson
Reverend Donald Mapson at the "Let Freedom Read" rally.

Only one current NHCS student, 10th grader Hazel Eyles, spoke Tuesday evening.

“We gain knowledge and learn how to defend our opinions. If you are upset about a book that discusses racism, then you should ask yourself, why? This book does not scare me. It challenges me and allows me to think; please do not deny me and my classmates a quality education because someone is afraid of a book,” Eyles said.

Some were critical of the book and want it removed

Opponents of the book claimed that listening to people like Ibram X. Kendi is dangerous for students and for society as a whole; Kendi has been frequently criticized by the right. None of the speakers mentioned the actual author of the book, Jason Reynolds. While this book is based on Kendi’s work, this version — Stamped: Antiracism, Racism, and You — is written by Reynolds.

On Tuesday, critics of Stamped said it teaches white guilt and is a threat to the American government.

Two members of the New Hanover County GOP, Secretary Aubrey Tuell, and Second Vice Chair Stephanie Fortunato were the first to speak.

Tuell claimed NHCS students were victims of “indoctrination” and “viewpoint discrimination”.

“My reason for speaking today is not solely on this one specific book but yet on the course curriculum as a whole. The pieces of literature mandated by the curriculum are all influenced by individuals who do not recognize the gift it is of being an American,” Tuell said.

Aubrey Tuell, secretary for NHC GOP
NHCS YouTube
Aubrey Tuell, secretary for NHC GOP

During her time, Fortunato criticized Kendi, saying his “core thesis is that racism is a single self-evident cause of racial differences in everything from school grades to incarceration rates to income reiterates critical race theory’s basic concepts.”

Frank Fortunato, a Wilmington city traffic investigator, who’s related to Stephanie Fortunato, said that the discussion is not really about banning books, but about being “highly selective of the material and curriculum that is used to educate the children of New Hanover County.”

“This book comes from a worldview that blames whiteness for all of America's problems. On the first page of the introduction, it states racist and anti-racist ideas have existed in the human mind for nearly 600 years. [...] This is an absurd and ridiculous proposition,” Fortunato said.

Frank Fortunato speaking at Call to Audience
NHCS YouTube
Frank Fortunato speaking at Call to Audience

Karen Clark delivered a faith-based rebuke of the book.

“Judgment is waiting for those who mock truth. Be careful that you not corrupt one of these little ones. ‘It would be better for him to have a heavy boulder tied around his neck and be hurled into the deepest sea than to face the punishment he deserves.’ Books proposing to indoctrinate our children have no place in our schools. Common sense is no longer common. I pray in Jesus's name,” Clark said, quoting Matthew 18:6, the same passage cited during the evening's invocation by pastor William Urena from Global River Church.

Clark’s remarks caused jeering from the audience, causing Board Chair Pete Wildeboer to gavel the audience back into order.

This was not the last of the board’s interjections. Vice-Chair Pat Bradford sternly warned the crowd at one point, “I’m going to caution you to have respect for the people who are speaking. They gave you respect; now you respect them. Knock it off.”

Board Member Stephanie Kraybill immediately called a point of order, glancing at Wildeboer saying, “I think you’re the one who gets to make those calls.”

List of speakers (in order) featured in the audio-version montage:

  • Jay Gartrell, rally attendee, sign holder for the UU Church
  • Mahlaynee Cooper, Founder of Speak Ya Peace, NC
  • Jill Hopman, NHC Democratic Chair, one of the organizers of the rally
  • Peter Rawitsch, Love Our Children, UU Church
  • Aubrey Tuell, Secretary of New Hanover County GOP
  • Stephanie Fortunato, 2nd Vice Chair of the New Hanover County GOP
  • Karen Clark, Call to Audience speaker
  • Wendy Steele, Call to Audience speaker
  • Donald Mapson, Call to Audience speaker, former NHCS educator
  • Frank Fortunato, Call to Audience speaker


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR
James has lived in Wilmington since he was two years old and graduated from Eugene Ashley High School in 2022. He has long-held a passion for the city’s many goings-on, politics, and history. James is an avid film buff, reader, Tweeter, and amateur photographer, and you’ll likely see him in downtown Wilmington if you stand outside of Bespoke Coffee long enough. He is currently receiving his undergraduate education from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and intends to major in Politics and International affairs.