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In 2020, protestors were chanting “Black Lives Matter,” but the Wilmington City Council wanted to add a word to the slogan.

Artists Janna Robertson and Greyson Davis had approached the council that summer about painting “Black Lives Matter” on Third Street, in front of city hall. A number of cities across the country had moved to do so after police in Minnesota killed George Floyd, sparking a summer of protest.

But Councilman Charlie Rivenbark took issue with the idea. 

“I think this is probably the most racist and divisive thing that I’ve seen come before [council],” he said at a meeting in July 2020. “If you think Black lives are the only ones that matter, you’ve got a problem.”

The council’s two Black members, Kevin Spears and Clifford Barnett Sr., spoke in  support of the project. But other council members argued the sign was political speech that belonged on private property. 

After meeting with city officials, Robertson and Davis came up with an alternative: an 8-foot-tall sign at the city-owned Thomas and Willie Jervay Freedom Walk park, in the city’s Northside neighborhood, that would read: “Black Lives Do Matter.”

Three years later, the compromise has taken on new meaning as it travels around the city.

The sculpture remained in Wilmington’s Northside, a historic Black neighborhood, for two years before it was temporarily relocated to the Cameron Art Museum in January 2023, where it will stay until the end of May.

At a glance, moving it to CAM felt like a curious choice.

Formerly known as St. John’s, the museum was established in downtown Wilmington in 1962. It was relocated to the intersection of Independence and 17th Street in 2001—in an area marked by sprawling, new mixed-use developments far from Wilmington’s historically Black neighborhoods—and renamed. 

CAM long had a reputation as a gathering place for the city’s affluent white community. But under the stewardship of interim director Heather Wilson, CAM has become a gathering spot for community and conversation. The site is hallowed ground for the city’s Black community—and the perfect place for “Black Lives Do Matter.”

The “Black Lives Do Matter” installation at Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

It sits at the site of the 1865 Battle of Forks Road, a significant part of the Union’s campaign to capture Wilmington, the South’s last seaport. The Fifth Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops led the way. And while the Confederates initially defended their position behind an earthen berm that still exists today, they were eventually forced to withdraw, creating an opening toward the city. 

“Boundless,” a monument by North Carolina artist Stephen Hayes, celebrates the sacrifices of the 1,600-plus members of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought there, and it now bookends the museum grounds with CAM’s latest installation.

For Wilson, the Black Lives Do Matter sculpture shows that the battle those troops fought is ongoing.

“As soon as we heard that it needed to travel, we [knew we] would be an ideal home for it, and that we could introduce it to an audience that had not interacted with it before on the Northside,” Wilson said. 

It now sits at the corner of 17th Street and Independence Boulevard, a busy intersection that hundreds of Port City drivers pass daily.

Wilson said the two sculptures are changing CAM both from the outside and inside. The museum’s donors, volunteers, and board have all gotten more diverse in the last four years since the museum received the Z. Smith Reynolds Inclusive Public Art grant for “Boundless.” Black participation in CAM’s programs has doubled, and more people have visited the museum in the last year—approximately 65,000—than any other time in its 60-year history.

“We’re very conscious that that is what we’re trying to do in Wilmington to help heal the racial divide,” said Wilson, who became interim director in 2023 after the previous director retired. “I have always felt like we had a moral obligation as an institution.”

Eighteen Forward, a collective of 18 artists, designed and painted each letter of the “Black Lives Do Matter” installation. 

At first, Davis, the group’s artistic director, wanted no part in adding the two extra letters. He almost bowed out, he said, but then got an idea. 

Davis invited his arts students from GLOW Academy, an all-girls charter middle and high school, to decorate the “D.” He invited youth from DREAMS of Wilmington, a local arts nonprofit, to decorate the “O.” Of those letters, the first shows children smiling. The second features the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in different languages.

“I look at ‘do’ as an emphatic statement where, like, yeah, Black lives matter, obviously, but Black lives do matter,” said Davis, standing in front of the 18 letters on the grounds of CAM. “That’s an emphasis. Underline. Italic. Underscore. All of that.” 

A different artist painted each of the other letters. 

Some are more abstract. The first “T” is a photorealistic depiction of scenes of the George Floyd protests in Wilmington. Davis chose to paint the “I” himself, inverting the lowercase letter to become an exclamation point.

“The sculpture,” Davis said, “is not in protest.”

“I wanted to make sure mine was representative of my community,” he said. “It’s a place of happiness. It’s a place of expression.”

And he wanted that to feel welcoming to all of Wilmington. In some ways, adding the “do” made that case for him; it’s a declaration, as well as a verb.

“It is an emphatic statement that is undeniable when you look at it,” Davis said. “If it weren’t for the ‘do,’ I don’t think people would be talking about it as much as they did.”

The sculpture’s next destination is unclear. Davis said he’d like it to go on tour before returning to a permanent home in Northside. He sees it as the closest thing to the city’s own “Hollywood” sign—and one with a call to action.

“Black lives will always matter,” he said. “But what are you going to do about it?”

Kevin Maurer is is The Assembly‘s Wilmington bureau chief. He is a three-time New York Times bestselling co-author and has covered war, politics, and general interest stories for GQ, Men’s Journal, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post. Email him at kevin@theassemblync.com.

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