When Sean Palmer moved his family to Wilmington in 2016 to become the director of UNC Wilmington’s Upperman African American Cultural Center and the pastor of Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church, he did so keenly aware of the city’s haunted past of racial injustice, and knowing that the past continues to affect our community today. He arrived with an inspired vision for how to transform the city into something more for its Black community than just a mausoleum of past tragedies.
As someone who has served as a director of cultural spaces and as an educator at institutions such as Duke University and Paine College prior to his time in Wilmington, Sean is well aware of the impact that education–and inaccessibility to it–can and does have on the disparity of wealth and opportunities between Black and white communities. “We know that prior to the ways modern day student loan debt has crippled people, African Americans found class mobility through education. Traditionally, education is one of the premiere ways that we’ve been able to have a chance at living out a quasi-version of the ‘American Dream.’ Especially if families can be lucky enough to sustain education as part of a generational perspective.”
Sean also believes that while institutions like churches and nonprofits have important roles to play in bridging the gaps in economic opportunity, they can just as easily hurt as much as they help if their leaders aren’t careful. “I think we have to look at nonprofits as an industrial complex that hasn’t raised up the roles of African Americans as much as it thinks it has. [Nonprofits] are traditionally run by white people whose interests in our communities are typically paternalistic. They often understand themselves as doing ‘mission work’ in disenfranchised communities. But if you look at the last 100 years of history, what you often get is poverty voyeurism as a tentacle of white supremacy.”
“The church and Black mutual aid societies, Black Greek organizations–anywhere where Black people get to advance their own wealth generation and their own institution making, have tended to be better about supporting Black folks. The challenge there is that as we progress as a community, and as younger Blacks do not embrace institution making, and as older Blacks find it harder to let go and pass these institutions down to them, there is an intergenerational divide that creates arrested development in Black social and political organizing.”
Sean continues in his analysis of how the Black church has evolved in recent years. “But you see a renewal when you see, for example, Kamala and the resiliency of Black women in the sorority movements supporting her,” he says in reference to Vice President Kamala Harris’ status as a sister of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first historically African American Greek-lettered sorority.
“I also think that in this moment, when many of us see the government as dysfunctional, there’s been a renaissance in mutual aid societies, and in Black liberation theory as primacy to the church moving beyond prosperity gospel. This has been paramount to Black folks disengaging from white supremacy and to thinking of our own institutions as empowering. And the churches have had no choice. Because people want to know how to deal with the suffering when a Trayvon Martin happens, or when a George Floyd or a Breonna Taylor happens.”
When it comes to addressing inequalities in this country that are intertwined with race, Sean believes that our city is in a strong position to model sweeping change. “Wilmington is the easiest test case for reparations in the country, aside from maybe Tulsa. Many of our issues are about poverty and lack of access. Wealth allows for access. Wealth allows for autonomy. Wealth allows for redistribution of resources. It’s more than just saying ‘I’m sorry.'” He added, with a laugh, “If someone doesn’t talk money in a capitalist society, then they’re not talking sense.”
“I also don’t think jobs place a high priority on diversity when they plant here in Wilmington. Where do you see recruitment from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the area to do anything? We say we care about Black students, but we don’t do enough to recruit (UNCW is only 4% Black), or to develop a local Black professional class. Nor do we look at the disparities with unions when it comes to creating high-earning Black blue collar workers. And how are we making this city a tourist attraction for Black people? This means supporting new and existing Black restaurants, banquet halls, caterers, photographers, and more. There’s no commitment there from the city. Most Black people are not movers and shakers in those industries. It’s definitely prevalent if not intentional.”
Ultimately, Sean is confident that Wilmington has the “bones” to make a flourishing Black community work, but at this point, it has none of the “skin, flesh, and veins.” “Wilmington needs Black history thinkers, interpreters, and to make an actual connection with the Gullah Geechee corridor. We could be a center for Black filmmaking and creative writing. We could have Black theater summer projects, and screenwriting competitions about Black southern heritage. We have a skateboarding culture here, but there is no Black skateboarding community.”
“To make this beautiful thing fly, Wilmington has to commit to more than just saying that we have Black relics. I’m over thinking of Wilmington as a cemetery. Most people seem to be content with this city being a cemetery for Black things. Wilmington has to commit to saying that this is a place that is alive, and that it welcomes those who want to live.”