Interview conducted by Zach Beauchemin & Peter Castagno of Dub City Heartbeat. Photos provided by Rob O’Conner.
We sat down with Kevin Spears at Port City Java on Market Street Monday night. Spears holds many titles including: former school board democratic candidate, President of Peace for the Port, Chairman of the MLK Recreation Association, Port City native, UNCW & CFCC Alum, local activist, and father of two. We talked Wilmington schools, race relations, poverty, and about some of the biggest challenges facing the Port City today.
When did you become interested in New Hanover County Schools?
My oldest son is 16. I was raising him myself and when he was starting middle school there were some policies that came up on the radar that I didn’t like. When I questioned administrators, I was told that these issues were school board policy.
Specifically, what were the policy issues that affected your son?
He was trying out for the middle school football team and the coach said that he didn’t make it. My son is a very talented football player, so I was a little surprised. When I questioned why he didn’t make the team, the coach said that he had gotten a ‘D’ in one of his classes the previous year. Therefore, it was New Hanover County School Board policy that he couldn’t play. This kind of took me back for a minute. I questioned why you wouldn’t want students like my son to be engaged in after school sports? I understand if they were failing all of their classes, but getting one ‘D?’ That just didn’t make sense.
Yeah, I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t they want your son to learn about teamwork, discipline, and get exercise?
Exactly, I could understand if they wanted to keep him out of the games, maybe give him something to work for until his grades were satisfactory, but not letting him practice? That didn’t make any sense.
So that’s what led you to the school board?
Not exactly, but that’s when I started to really get more involved in his education, in and outside of the classroom. Some kids don’t have anyone to advocate for them. I wanted to be able to advocate for all kids in New Hanover County. I’ve advocated for my son his whole life, and I plan to do so until my demise. Additionally, being from Wilmington, growing up in the city as a black youth, you can see first hand how policy impacts you.
What was your initial impression of the New Hanover County School Board?
Same impression I remember getting as a kid.
Was the school board like… a bunch of old white people?
(laughs) yeah, well if you look at the school board right now, you could say that.
It seems to me like the same people keep getting elected over and over again..
Definitely. This could be a shot at either party, but when you have the same officials elected repeatedly, you don’t get any new ideas. They like to elect the same type of candidate every election.
That’s got to make things difficult for someone running for the first time. How did that affect your campaign?
When I ran there was a lot of critiquing. They asked about my hair, my style, and the fact that I was younger than most people currently on the board.
Are there are progressive members currently on the school board that you know of?
It’s a little too early to tell. There’s one new member right now that I had talked to a lot during the race. I just stopped by a meeting a couple of weeks ago. He said if I had any ideas to reach out. I’m not saying that the entire board is a detriment to the school system, but sometimes it seems that way.
I recently read an article in Star News that stated 7 of the 10 New Hanover County public schools are showing signs of resegregation. What do you think this is doing for the school system and how can the school board combat this issue?
That was a major part of my platform when I ran for school board in the fall. You got to call a spade a spade. Right now you have all 6 inner city schools failing and there’s not much parental involvement. These inner city schools also don’t have all the same resources as the suburban schools.
Is more money allocated to New Hanover County suburban schools?
The money follows the student. Regardless of where a student goes, a certain amount of money follows them to that particular school. Rachel Friedman, for example, is considered an impoverished school. At least 80% of the students that attend that school receive free lunch.
So are you saying that that school is poor?
The children are poor, their parents are poor, it’s a poor school. It’s supposed to be a magnet school.
As a magnet school, wouldn’t parents from the suburbs want to send their kids there?
Not necessarily. When they hear “impoverished school”, many suburban families are turned off. There’s stigma about poor people. They’d much rather send their student somewhere like Hogard, where kids tend to be a bit more affluent. Call it a magnet if you want but the magnet isn’t working.
How do you combat an issue like that?
You could create policy that would send students to different schools around town. I’m not saying bus kids long distances, such as from Rachel Friedman to Carolina Beach, but there are definitely enough schools in the district to mix things up a bit and alleviate some of those socioeconomic and segregation issues.
Kevin, I recently herd about this JC Rowe Center that we have in town, a school for long-term suspended students. According to USA today, Nationally, black kids are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as their white piers. Is this a problem that we are facing here in the Port City?
Suspension rates are out of this world right now. We’re talking about a suspension center that starts in the first grade and goes all the way to twelfth grade… I don’t know if you guys have kids or not, but twelfth graders and first graders should not be in the same school. The other question is: why is someone in first grade long-term suspended? Why is a second-grader long-term suspended? Why is a third-grader long-term suspended?
Damnnn. I didn’t even know you could get suspended that young! That’s ludicrous.
Welcome to New Hanover County.
Yeah that’s nuts dude. Switching gears here a little bit Kevin, Beauch and I have been looking into the Coup d e’tat of 1898 recently. The only successful Coup d e’tat ever carried out on American Soil. White supremacists violently overthrew the biracial government at the time, killing an unknown number of African Americans and running the majority of the black population out of town. Would you say that the aftermath and effects from that coup d e’tat still factor into the way things are set up today in the port city?
Definitely, prior to 1898 the city was 50-60% African American. We had black lawyers, black doctors, black business owners. The economy was flourishing. It was possibly the only place like this in the country. Wilmington was the biggest, richest city in North Carolina. Starting that day in 1898, they ran people out of town, stuffed the ballot boxes, and unrightfully seized black landowners land. Everything illegal thing they could do, they did. Check out the white person’s constitution of North Carolina. It still hasn’t been repealed to this day.
The crazy part is man. I’ve lived here for over a decade and am a product of New Hanover County Schools, and am just learning about the the Coup d e’tat of 1898 now. We have all these symbols of white supremacy all around us. For example, we have a park named after Hugh MacRae, a brutal white supremacist.
Yeah man right now if you go to 3rd and Market, we have that big Sisters of the confederacy statue.
Kevin, I’m about to get abstract on you here. My whole life I’ve felt like there is a sort of malaise in this city, a certain void if you will. The city seems as though it has potential, but there is something missing. It lacks cohesiveness, a heartbeat. It’s anti-intellectual, not promoting the arts.
I would say in some instances that isn’t always true. However, you could say the city does still have that ‘good ol boy’ mentality. If you’re in you’re in and if you’re not then you’re not.
We’ve herd Wilmington described as like two different cities almost. You got the midtown area and Wrightsville beach and then you got downtown. Would you describe Wilmington as two different cities?
Really man it’s probably like a bunch of different cities. You got the people at UNCW, whom don’t really consider themselves citizens of Wilmington. They just go to UNCW and hang around the areas close to campus. They go downtown to party on the weekends, and then come back to campus. Then you have ‘the hood’. They do what they do. Everyone frequents the mall and Mayfair. Then you have Landfall, Wrightsville Beach, and Porter’s Neck, & Monkey Junction, & Carolina beach. Like you said earlier, there’s not really cohesiveness to a major extent here. But I would say there is a little. ”
Definitely, there’s a semblance of cohesiveness here, but it could be much better. If that Coup d e’tat hadn’t happened, the Port City could be magical.
Oh man, it would still be the largest city in the state.
If only we could harness that energy. The pulse is still here, but we need a heartbeat.
Man the answer is the money! You have people here that don’t have any opportunity, who are check to check. Some people without checks, just doing what they need to do to survive.
How do we get the people with the money to give a shit?
laughs “hell if i know man”
I’m actually about to move to the south side of downtown. I’m stoked to get some more diversity in my life.
That’s the craziest thing man. The Black community has always been so welcoming to outsiders. They don’t say things like “hey boy, we don’t want ya here.” But say, if I were to move to Landfall and the neighbors didn’t know I was moving in. I could come home one night and be out on the front porch with my kid. How many cops you think would show up and assume I was breaking in?
It’s sad to say man, But in Landfall? They’d probably send the swat team.
So it definitely seems like there is still this palpable concealed racism here in the Port City.
Definitely , we still have these wounds here that have never been fully addressed.
I feel that. These type of wounds just don’t heal themselves over night by everyone keeping them a secret. All of the people in the UNCW crowd that I have told about this Coupe d e’tat this past week have been completely shocked. They had no idea that it had happened. It seems like nobody knows about this.
Let me tell you something man. UNCW is worse! I went to that school. In some instances it seems as though everyone is getting along. However, people do section off really fast. I mean, they have the young Republican Party, the people who brought Trump to campus. When Trump came to UNCW, I was part of the protest. You had people across the street from one another yelling all sorts of stuff like “Go to work!” “You don’t have a job” “Why don’t you have a job!” and here we were on the other side like “You’re here too bro, why aren’t you at work?”
We told them we were there for the same reason they were, just on the other side of the street. Meanwhile, they were over their yelling obscenities to minorities and black people.
I feel you on that man. I remember when I went to UNCW, a student organization on campus did some BLM chalking after another young black man died at the hands of a police officer. The student organization chalked things like “Black Lives Matter” and the names of some people who have died at the hands of police over the last few years. I know for a fact, after being a student org president at UNCW, student organizations are allowed to do chalking on campus. The following day, UNCW had all BLM chalking completely power washed before 9am. The crazy part is a couple of days later they allowed the Human Genocide Project to set up their disturbing exhibit on Chancellor’s Walk for two days. They were able to put their intrusive, gigantic images of late-term aborted fetuses up in a way that students couldn’t avoid them. I thought to myself, you’re telling me some BLM chalking is not okay, but this is?.. Total double standard.
It’s weird man, because at UNCW you can find some really cool professors, who are very active in the community. But you meet some people and it’s like ‘this is 2017, and that’s your mindset?” to be a racist or a bigot? It’s sad man, that mentality needs a cleansing or something. ’
Yeah man, we’re trying to get this shit clean.