If you happened to be walking past Wilmington’s Federal building by the Western entrance of Peter Spencer Plaza on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 7, you would have caught a glimpse of a check-presentation ceremony. We are all familiar with such a scene: a larger-than-life check that will never see the inside of a bank, smiling people, and the feel-good photo opp. And while the smiles may be obscured in these masked days of COVID-19, the goodwill is heightened. We all need a little good news, at this point in 2020, but it is more than that. Look a little closer at this scene and you will see an INtersection of everything the city of Wilmington has to offer—from corporate to non-profit, from history to culture, and from government to religion. All of this is on display on this sunny afternoon to celebrate Black lives and culture and promote social justice reform.
Let’s start with the setting for this scene—Peter Spencer Plaza. Peter Spencer, born a slave in 1782, has been called “America’s first civil rights leader.” Freed by the terms of his owner’s will, he traveled north to Wilmington and, in 1813, founded Union Church of Africans during a time when gatherings of African-Americans were against the law. Educator, businessman and mechanic, Spencer went on to organize 31 churches total, nearly all of them with schools, and is known today as the “Father of the Independent Black Church Movement” in America. The plaza is on the site of that first church which makes it an apt location for the celebration today.
Look up. Above Peter Spencer plaza you will notice a red, black and green flag—new on the Wilmington horizon. This is the pan-African flag, a representation of solidarity and freedom of peoples of African descent. The red band represents the blood of African people, shed for freedom. The black band is an affirmation of the nation (though not nation-state) of black people. And the green band denotes the wealth of natural resources. With ceremony, the City of Wilmington raised this flag to its permanent location above the plaza on August 13, 2020, on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro People of the World by the UNIA. This document is considered one of the first and most comprehensive human rights declarations in US history.
Look down, and you will see an even more recent addition to the scene; a richly patterned swath of sidewalk was added to our tableau in late August. This is the first installment of a community street art program, inspired by The Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington in D.C. The program was organized—and given its own Wilmington flair—by the Local Street Art Group, a non-profit organized by community activist and artist Vanity Constance and managed by City Cultural Affairs Director Tina Betz. Local artist JaQuanne Leroy created the image, entitled “Freedom and Justice,” that now graces the plaza. The completed work features African tribal patterns and symbols. Other sites and installations will be coming soon, but it is fitting that the first is here, in this place of “firsts.”
This brings us to the central event of the afternoon’s scene…Delaware Law Firm, Morris James LLP, proudly donated $10,000 to the Culture Restoration Project, an organization dedicated to developing critical thinking skills and social understanding of youth in Wilmington through culturally appropriate and relevant programming. (IN Wilmington recently did a deep dive into all the good work of this worthy organization.) The donation is an emphatic underscoring of the law firm’s statement on racial injustice issued after the brutal killing of George Floyd with a headline that charges, “We must do better.”
“Morris James is strongly committed to making a difference in the Delaware community, including doing our part to strengthen the principles of inclusion, justice, and equality for the black and brown communities,” said Keith Donovan, Managing Partner of Morris James. “We know that words are not enough, and action is needed. We hope our donation not only invigorates the Culture Restoration Project but also encourages other Delaware businesses to take action.”
AliShah Watson, Executive Director, and Richard Raw, Program Director, both of Culture Restoration Project, Inc. were on hand to accept the donation.
“This donation will help us further our culture-based, socially relevant programming to youth and their families in Wilmington Delaware,” Watson said. “COVID-19 and current national civil unrest have made clear the oppressive systems and inequalities that haunt communities of color across this country. Our programs directly address social issues so that our future leaders can truly understand the world in which they live. We work with them to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to process and deal with the realities of society. This is very important work – and as we can now see, neglecting this type of enrichment and pretending like it is not necessary, will literally tear this country apart.”
The donation was especially meaningful for this grassroots organization because historically speaking, the larger, well-known organizations are the ones who primarily get the donations and funding. “It is pretty ironic since those organizations always come to grassroots [organizations] like us to pay us pennies on the dollar of their funding to carry out their community and youth enrichment programming,” Watson reflects before adding, “we are so happy that this unsustainable and unfair status quo way of philanthropy is now realized, and entities like Morris James are making a positive change for the future.”
Ah, the future! On this note, our eyes come to rest on the statue that is both the centerpiece of the plaza and the resting spot of Peter Spencer and his wife. The statue “Father and Son,” by Charles Parks was erected in honor of Spencer in 1973. More symbolic than representational, the statue of a black father cradling his sleeping son is a symbol of the hope for the future that Spencer inspired. It is this hope that businesses like Morris James and organizations like The Culture Restoration Project and Local Street Art Group are making actionable—an example for us all in 2020.