WILMINGTON — A civil rights icon that once called the Cape Fear home could soon be immortalized with a new statue in the heart of it.
The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County is heading up the fundraising efforts for a lifesize monument to Joseph McNeil, a Wilmington native who was a member of the groundbreaking Greensboro Four sit-in movement in 1960 that served as a key moment in the civil rights movement.
This wouldn't be the first time McNeil was honored in downtown Wilmington. In 2019, the city unveiled signs turning North Third Street into a commemorative way called Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil Way honoring his service in the Air Force.
But the new idea to recognize McNeil, now 78, with a statue in Wilmington comes at a crucial moment, following months of intense scrutiny on Southern history and how it is honored in public spaces. Last summer, statues honoring Confederate soldiers from the Civil War were removed from cities all over the South, including two from downtown Wilmington.
It was those statues that got Gwenyfar Rohler thinking about privately-funded statues and why McNeil was a figure in the city's history that deserved further recognition.
"This is a man whose entire life has been focused on trying to discuss how to move people forward," said Rohler, a bookstore owner. "If we are really going to talk about taking down public art and what we would erect in its place, I think he really embodies everything we are trying to talk about as far as moving the city forward."
McNeil, a 1959 graduate of Williston High School, was a leading organizer and member of the Greensboro Four — N.C. A&T students that sat down at the segregated lunch counter in the F.W. Woolworth department store on Feb. 1, 1960. When they were refused service and asked to leave, they didn't give up their seats.
The next day, they returned with more than 20 students to join the sit-in, which would get national news coverage, spark boycotts of businesses and eventually lead to some stores in the South serving all customers.
After college, McNeil joined the U.S. Air Force, in which he served from 1962 to 2000. He would also serve as the deputy director of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rohler brought the idea to honor McNeil to the Arts Council of Wilmington. Council executive director Rhonda Bellamy said they have been in contact with the Carolina Bronze foundry in Seagrove about creating the statue if the campaign is successful.
The foundry already has some experience with McNeil's story. It handled the casting of the Greensboro Four statue on A&T's campus, which features the likeness of the four men. The foundry still has the mold of McNeil that it could use for this statue, Rohler said.
There is no timeline by which the council hopes to have the money raised. Still, Rohler would like to see the statue completed while McNeil is still living.
"Like a lot of people, I have been thinking a lot about the power of public art and public symbol," she said. "I understand wanting to erect statues to people who are dead, but Maj. Gen. McNeil is still alive and it would be an incredibly powerful thing for the city of his birth to honor him while we still could and he is still alive."