GREENSBORO — One year to the day after Marcus Deon Smith was hogtied by police and later died, about 50 people gathered on the same hot downtown street to remember his life and build a movement calling for change after his death.
Smith’s mother and sister drove three hours from South Carolina to join the street ceremony in the 100 block of Church Street between East Friendly and East Market streets, where Smith encountered police in the early morning of Sept. 8, 2018.
Smith’s mother, Mary Smith, said before the gathering that even after a year, the loss of her son is still raw. “One year feels like Day 1,” she said. “It still feels the same.”
Kim Suber, Smith’s sister, said she and her family are “still lost, still confused with unanswered questions.”
Standing in a semi-circle on the sidewalk a few hundred feet from where the N.C. Folk Festival was wrapping up its three-day run, the group sang songs, prayed and spoke about what many consider an act of violence by police against Smith.
“We are making the transformation of a street into an alley of justice,” The Rev. Wesley Morris told the group.
Police encountered Smith on Church Street as he was running erratically in and out of slow-moving traffic after the first night of Folk Festival concerts last year, asking for help and saying people were trying to kill him.
Last fall, the city released footage of video from cameras worn on officers’ uniforms during the incident.
The video includes scenes of police placing Smith in a car. Smith became agitated in the car and police opened the door. As he rushed out, police put him face down on the pavement. Moments later, they tied Smith’s hands to his feet behind him.
Smith gasped for breath and within minutes was motionless.
Smith, 38, died of cardiopulmonary arrest caused by a variety of factors including “prone restraint” at the hands of police as well as a combination of drugs, alcohol and cardiovascular disease, the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said in an autopsy report, which ruled the death a homicide.
“I’ve seen my brother die,” Suber told the group. “I’ve seen the footage.”
Suber and other speakers say the current administration of Police Chief Wayne Scott bears responsibility for Smith’s death. With Scott’s retirement coming in 2020, Suber called on the city to “get the right people in place so no one has to go through what we’ve been through.”
“Listen to me when I say this,” she added, “we will not go anywhere until we have justice for Marcus Deon Smith.”
Mary Smith asked the group: “How can Greensboro have such wonderful people and have such a corrupt police department?”
A legal team filed a federal lawsuit in April on behalf of Smith’s parents against the city of Greensboro, eight Greensboro police officers, Guilford County and two Guilford County paramedics. It alleges police caused Smith’s death and the paramedics “failed to promptly attend to his serious medical needs.”
The Greensboro City Council had discussed investigating Smith’s death before the lawsuit was filed but tabled that plan and has remained silent on the matter since then.
On Sunday, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson quietly appeared at the gathering and left without comment before it was over.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a longtime civil rights advocate, led the assembly Sunday and thanked Johnson for attending.
“It’s not often that they show up at places like this,” he said.
The city and the county in June filed requests to dismiss the Smith Family’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Briefs for the city and police officers said that the hogtying restraint was not excessive and that courts have never ruled that use of such a device is unconstitutional. Briefs on behalf of the county paramedics said they did not violate their responsibilities because they were responding as they should under intense pressure.
But lawyers for the Smiths in a July court filings asked the court to deny those requests. They argued that evidence and case law exists to the contrary, that paramedics could have intervened when they saw police officers binding Smith’s hands to his feet behind his back. They argued that police had plenty of opportunities to see that Smith was in the midst of a mental-health crisis, was asking for help and posed no threat to warrant such restraint.
On Sunday, some of Smith’s friends spoke of the man who was a rapper, a barber and tried to maintain a positive attitude.
The group closed with the song “Lean on Me” as Mary Smith encouraged those gathered to sing and clap. Before the song, Nelson Johnson said: “We came out today. We’re standing up today. And we’re not gonna stop until justice comes.”
GREENSBORO — Late Sunday afternoon, Amy Grossmann still ran on adrenaline. Yet while tired, she also felt relief.
The second annual N.C. Folk Festival, which Grossmann directs, had gone off as smoothly as she hoped.
Since Friday night, crowds had filled downtown under clear skies for the free, outdoor multicultural festival of entertainment, crafts and food.
“It just couldn’t have gone better,” Grossmann said as she took a brief break to talk.
The N.C. Folk Festival spun out of the National Folk Festival, which held a three-year residency in the city from 2015 to 2017 and drew more than 400,000 spectators to downtown.
ArtsGreensboro and the city government produce the festival, with financial support from sponsors and the labor of volunteers. It costs about $1 million in cash and $500,000 in in-kind contributions of equipment, space, advertising and time.
Sunday’s attendance seemed to be down slightly in spots from Saturday, when streets were packed. Many festival-goers sought shade from the sun.
Grossmann didn’t have attendance figures yet. Last year’s inaugural N.C. Folk Festival attracted more than 150,000.
“I think we have at last met that this year, and probably exceeded it,” she said.
In the next week or two, festival organizers will estimate attendance based on discussions with police and with the Greensboro Transit Authority about bus ridership, as well as by looking at drone footage of festival crowds.
Grossmann did not have a total yet for the dollars that festival-goers had donated through the volunteer Bucket Brigade, which helps keep festival admission free.
Last year, spectators gave about $60,000. Festival organizers had aimed for at least that amount this year.
“It’s looking like we are going to be on par with what we collected last year,” Grossmann said.
Grossmann and the festival programming committee had lined up 45 acts representing a variety of cultures.
Among the most popular: renowned soul musician Booker T. Jones, who attracted a Friday night audience that overflowed the Lincoln Financial parking lot at East Market and Davie streets.
Also popular were the Irish band Lúnasa and Mount Airy sacred steel band The Allen Boys, Grossmann said.
Beer was a popular seller in the dry heat. The festival had stocked up at the start with more beer than ever, yet still had to restock twice.
Festival-goers Deb Maloney and Mike Iwanski of Stokesdale praised everything about the festival — the variety of acts and food trucks, volunteers, American Sign Language interpreters for performances and the upbeat chemistry of the crowd.
“We never see conflict when we come here,” Iwanski said.
Downtown business owners and audiences alike praised a feature new to the festival this year — Folk Fest Music Spots.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, it brought 11 mostly-local bands to perform in eight downtown businesses.
The Fiddle & Bow Society partnered with the festival to create the Music Spots. Economic development agency Downtown Greensboro Inc. provided financial and other support.
Ashley Wigglesworth of Greensboro joined Saturday’s full audience at Joymongers Brewing Co., 576 M. Eugene St., to hear The Minor Swing Band.
“It seems like a very positive change for me this year,” Wigglesworth said.
Although Moore Music Co. at 615 W. Market St. is outside the main festival footprint, it still attracted full houses to Saturday concerts by Cicada and The Williamson Brothers.
Spectators “were thrilled that we had seats and a cool place for them to come and see some great music,” said David Doyle, Moore’s band and orchestra manager.
On Sunday afternoon, the shop Antlers and Astronauts at 534 S. Elm St. hosted Our Band, an Americana band featuring Justin Poindexter and Sasha Papernik.
Poindexter grew up in Greensboro. Now the couple lives in New York City, and he works for Jazz at Lincoln Center. They have toured abroad as ambassadors of American music for the State Department.
“This is incredibly meaningful for me, personally, to be playing in my hometown,” Poindexter said before taking the stage.
To DGI President Zack Matheny, adding Folk Fest Music Spots to businesses “turned a slower weekend into a vibrant, artistic and financial success.”
Matheny hopes that more businesses will participate next year.
Grossmann also wants to keep Folk Festival Music Spots next year.
That will be among the topics considered as she and her team evaluate the festival and ponder what they might do differently next year.
Among topics for the festival’s board of directors: Should the N.C. Folk Festival separate completely from ArtsGreensboro, the nonprofit organization that helps to build and finance the local arts scene? And if so, how?
A year ago, the festival received its own nonprofit status, one of several steps toward operating separately.
The festival and ArtsGreensboro still share office space and work closely together.
The festival and ArtsGreensboro boards, along with Grossmann and ArtsGreensboro President Laura Way “have had multiple conversations, just trying to plan out step-by-step the most thoughtful and prudent way for the festival to start to operate on its own,” Grossmann said in an earlier interview. “We don’t know how long that will take.”
“This is more of an internal, organizational transition that the public, and the people who enjoy the festival, should not know a difference,” Grossmann said Sunday.
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GREENSBORO — Could a war hero who lived in Greensboro and once taught at N.C. A&T win the nation’s top military honor?
Researchers at a private Missouri university are digging into the war records of about 350 American troops who were honored for their bravery but might have been passed over for the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War I because of their race or religion.
One soldier on their list is Lt. Robert Campbell, who won the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in the waning days of World War I. Campbell worked at A&T for four decades starting in 1911 and lived in Greensboro for much of his adult life. He was featured in a recent Greensboro History Museum exhibit on World War I and profiled in August in the News & Record.
Researchers hope to highlight acts of valor performed by members of five overlooked groups — African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and Jews — during World War I, said Timothy Westcott, an associate professor of history at Park University in Missouri who leads this volunteer effort.
The U.S. government awarded 121 Congressional Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest combat honor, to Americans who served in World War I. Only two of those recipients were black, and they weren’t honored until long after the war ended. The second of the two, Winston-Salem native Sgt. Henry Johnson, received a Medal of Honor posthumously in 2015. One of the five Jewish soldiers to win a Medal of Honor also wasn’t recognized until 2015.
Black and other soldiers weren’t awarded Medals of Honor during their lifetimes because of systematic racism, Westcott said.
More than 350,000 black soldiers served with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. But they were assigned to segregated units often commanded by white officers, many of whom were dismissive of the soldiers they led.
Most black units served in support roles behind the front lines. But some black troops took part in the fierce trench warfare that defined World War I. Johnson’s infantry regiment, the famed Harlem Hellfighters, suffered more than 1,500 casualties during their six months at the front.
The French honored their bravery with a top regimental award.
“They were in the thick of things in 1918” but received little recognition from American leaders, Westcott said of the Hellfighters. “You’ve really got to question things.”
Westcott saw that discrimination firsthand when he was doing research on a Park University graduate, Lt. George S. Robb. Robb — the namesake of the World War I research center that Westcott directs at Park University — was assigned to the Hellfighters.
Westcott found in Robb’s papers a recommendation that two soldiers from his unit be awarded Medals of Honor. Robb, who was white, got one. Sgt. William Butler, who was black, did not.
Westcott, with the help of two undergraduates and a New York University history professor, is examining military records, family histories and other documents to see if other black, Asian, Latino, Native and Jewish soldiers were passed over for America’s top valor award. The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission are backing this effort. Bills filed in April in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate would order the Pentagon to review war records of minority soldiers.
The federal government did similar reviews after all major U.S. conflicts since World War II. Shaw University in Raleigh led the review of black service members in World War II. Based on the Shaw research, President Bill Clinton awarded seven Medals of Honor, six posthumously, to black troops in 1997.
“The government has done a good job of conducting systematic reviews” after prior wars, Westcott said. “Unfortunately, World War I has just been overlooked.”
This project could take seven to 10 years, Westcott said. It’s possible that some of these World War I veterans could receive Medals of Honor, he said. But Westcott said there are so many variables — lost or destroyed records, the passage of a century, the results of any official Pentagon review — that it’s hard to predict the outcome.
As for Campbell, Westcott called him “a phenomenal individual.”
Campbell came to Greensboro and A&T in 1911, then enlisted in the Army six years later when the United States entered the war. Commissioned a lieutenant, he won a Distinguished Service Cross — the nation’s second-highest war medal — and two Croix de Guerre medals from the French for two separate acts of bravery in France in 1918.
In one instance, Campbell rescued a wounded private who was cut down in no-man’s land. In the other, his unit used trickery to take out a hidden German machine gun and capture three enemy prisoners.
After the war, Campbell returned to Greensboro and served as the first military science instructor at A&T. The university’s ROTC building is named for him. He died in California in 1972 at age 96.
James Stewart, the archives and special collections librarian at A&T’s Bluford Library, said he’s not aware of any A&T graduates who have won a Congressional Medal of Honor
If Campbell becomes the first, Stewart said, “that would mean a lot for the university.”