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A School Was Named After a Violent White Supremacist. For Years No One Knew Who He Was.

Two days after a tightly contested election in the fall of 1898, a white supremacist mob descended on Wilmington, North Carolina — a Southern oasis of Black prosperity during the Reconstruction era — to take back the city from “Negro rule.”

The rioters razed long-standing Black businesses, burned down the city’s only Black newspaper, and overthrew a mixed-race, democratically elected city council in what is considered the only successful coup in American history.

More than a century after scores of Black residents were killed in the insurrection, Wilmington named an elementary school after one of its ringleaders: Walter L. Parsley.

No one protested when school board members approved Parsley’s name in 1999, and the tribute survived for 21 years. But by summer 2020, local activists had connected the name to one of the coup’s leaders, stirring fury and a petition drive to change it.

When she discovered her former school namesake’s violent past, “the feeling was rage. It was frustration. It was anger,” said Taylor White, who is Black. {snip}


The push to rename Parsley Elementary and other landmarks representing 1898 coup leaders mirrored hundreds of crusades across the country to jettison symbols of historic racism following George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests. The effort sparked local discussion about how 1898 should be memorialized in one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

Schools have become a focal point in these debates. And school name changes have come to symbolize intensifying culture wars nationwide.

Between May 2020 and December 2021, more than 80 schools with controversial namesakes changed their names, a USA TODAY analysis of federal education data found. Schools and monuments honoring prominent Confederate figures — including General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis — were targeted immediately and relentlessly.

But Walter L. Parsley Elementary — now Masonboro Elementary — remained inconspicuous until community members looked deeper. {snip}


Unlike Lee and Davis, Parsley’s name was not peppered all over town squares or featured in history textbooks. Some Wilmington residents discovered Parsley’s significance by accident.

Ryan Chapman, a former high school history teacher in Wilmington, began teaching his class about the atrocities of 1898 years before Floyd’s murder shook the country. One class period, he said, a student pulled up a list of the “Secret Nine,” the conspirators who plotted the massacre, and stopped cold at Parsley’s name: “Isn’t this the Parsley that the elementary school is named after?” he remembers the student asking.


So as Confederate monuments fell like dominoes nationwide, all remained quiet in Wilmington, until a petition in June 2020 to rename the school drew more than 2,500 signatures.

That was the trigger. The following month, an unknown perpetrator vandalized a sign at the entrance to then-Parsley school. In bold red spray paint, the message read: “Rem[em]ber 1898, change the name” on one side, and “BLM” on the other, with a giant “X” through Parsley’s name.

Local civil rights organizations began to rally around name changes — both for the Parsley school and for Hugh MacRae Park, which was named for another architect of the massacre.

“For a young black child to go to a school that was named after someone who imposed a massacre killing black people, that has a psychological effect,” Sonya Patrick-AmenRa, an organizer for Wilmington’s Black Lives Matter chapter, told Port City Daily.


Walter L. Parsley Elementary became Masonboro, a geographic marker in the neighborhood, and a year later the name was emblazoned on a new sign.


But for all of the fervor around name changes in Wilmington, racial tension still pervades the city and the school system. Black residents say they still feel the sting of 1898, which significantly reduced the city’s Black population and wiped out the thriving business class.

New Hanover County Schools remain among the most segregated school districts in the country. What used to be Parsley Elementary is more than 80% white and stands down the street from a row of multi-million dollar houses, while schools only a few miles away educate mostly minority students from lower-income families.