An upcoming video project will chronicle the largely untold story of a Black Power protest held more than a half-century ago at Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine school in North Carolina.
“The Abbey Boys,” announced on February 6, is being planned as a live-action web series from Noel & Noah Productions and director Ashleigh Gilliam, who spoke with local media last week.
“At 29 years old, I’d never heard this story before,” she told Queen City News.
“I’ve been around Belmont Abbey College, and if I haven’t heard about it, I’m sure a lot of people haven’t either. So that’s what kind of motivated me to do the story.”
On April 29, 1969, seven students—all Black men, several of them athletes—took over the school’s William Gaston Science Building for 14 hours to demand change and were later expelled for their actions.
The protest concerned previous, unmet demands for recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as for Black professors and Black literature in the campus library. The namesake of the science building (and the local county), the early 19th-century congressman William Gaston, was also a major Catholic slaveholder.
“They took a risk that historic morning that ended their Belmont Abbey College careers. It’s time to recognize that brave, selfless act for what it was,” wrote Belmont alum Matthew Memrick last year for the anniversary of the protests.
“In many ways, these suspended Belmont Abbey students moved on with their lives. They sought diplomas elsewhere, found successful careers, and started families.”
Memrick leads the Conscious Alumni of BAC, a group claiming 300+ members and which centers the cause of justice and diversity concerning the 147-year-old institution.
For years, the Conscious Alumni have sought official recognition of the 1969 takeover, part of a wave of student protests in North Carolina and around the country due to the Vietnam War, civil rights struggles, and the larger countercultural movement.
The group is also helping to promote the “Abbey Boys” web series, which is currently fundraising. The production has also filled audition slots for Saturday, February 25, at the Gaston County Library in Gastonia.
The web series is scheduled to premiere in April, which will mark the 54th anniversary of the rooftop protests. Belmont Abbey College has reportedly never officially acknowledged their significance, but did release a statement to Queen City News when asked for comment on the web series.
“The incident that occurred on our campus in 1969 happened more than 50 years ago,” it reads in part.
“While we understand even today there is some interest in details regarding the incident, there is no one currently at the college who has knowledge of specific details. Furthermore, pursuant to federal privacy laws, we cannot comment on anything in a current or previous student’s official records.”
According to Memrick, the school still does not have a critical mass of Black professors. The optics of a newly announced $100M capital campaign, meant to culminate in the school’s 150th anniversary, is also drawing criticism from some who wonder why the university has never fully addressed the 1969 protests and the student expulsions.
“Alumni want reconciliation between the college and the living students, but these pleas are unanswered,” Memrick wrote last year.
“As a result, many alums don’t understand this decision and choose to withhold their college contributions.”
There are hopes that “The Abbey Boys” can help bridge the gap and also provide much-needed historical context for the school, which remains majority-White despite the nearby metropolis of Charlotte being made up mostly of minorities.
Interested parties can donate to Noel & Noah Productions online via Cash App or Venmo. Official fundraising pages for the individual film are forthcoming.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.