BELMONT, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — A Gastonia woman is producing a web series based on a true story at Belmont Abbey College. Producer-director Ashleigh Gilliam says the drama will capture the sense of urgency, and even fear, as students pushed for change in the late 1960s.
“The Abbey Boys,” Gilliam said, telling us the title of the YouTube series. “It’s about seven guys who went to Belmont Abbey College, and we’re trying to recreate everything that happened during that time.”
Auditions for the series were held recently at Gaston County Library.
“How do you feel?” Gilliam asked actor Joshua Petty.
“Nervous, now,” Petty replied, taking a deep breath.
We watched actors Octavia Adams, Ronda Boatright, and Petty read for parts in The Abbey Boys.
“I love to audition, love to be on the camera,” said Adams.
“I think this story is something that, you know, needs to be heard,” Petty says.
“We have a lot of hidden figures that a lot of people don’t know about,” Gilliam told Queen City News.
The Abbey Boys is inspired by a demonstration at Belmont Abbey in April of 1969, one year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The yearbook described it as the day “Abbeymen were forced to face the racial conflict in all America.”
At 4:30 am that morning, seven African-American students took over the Gaston Science Building.
“Locked ourselves in, locked all the entrances/exits, and then we went up to the roof,” said Larry Bembry, one of the demonstrators who now lives in New Jersey.
Bembry attended Belmont Abbey on a basketball scholarship.
“Why did we take the extreme of locking ourselves in the building? Well, if you look back at that time, there were a lot of different student protests around the country,” he says.
“I think what students were asking for was perfectly reasonable,” said Michael Fitzsimmons, who was also a student that spring.
He was among the faces in a growing crowd outside the Science Building as the demonstration continued.
Before that day, the protesters asked the administration for changes including a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and more black literature in the library.
“Black studies courses, at least courses in African-American history. I mean all these are a fixture of college campuses today,” Fitzsimmons says.
The protest continued for 14 hours. The longer it went, the more Bembry feared the worst. Demonstrators communicated with administrators through a mentor, Dr. Howard Fuller.
“It was a frightening experience, quite frankly,” Bembry recalled. “And finally, and this is after 14 hours, Howard Fuller came to us and said to us that we should make a decision, that we should leave the building because our lives are in danger.”
“Police had been called, by whom I don’t know,” says Fitzsimmons. “But they were off campus and there was an effort to keep them off campus because it seemed that they were quite averse perhaps to discussions. They simply wanted to resolve it.”
Bembry and the demonstrators left the building peacefully and were put on “indefinite suspension.”
“We were told that there was a demand by some Belmont Abbey board members that we be dismissed,” Bembry said. ”And we were also told that our lives were in danger and that we should not only leave the campus but leave Belmont.”
Fitzsimmons considers that day a missed opportunity for the college.
“I believe Belmont Abbey had a chance to lead the way,” he lamented.
The Abbey Boys series is produced by Noel & Noah Productions, and is scheduled to be released in April, sheds light on events seared in Bembry’s memory. Looking back, he’s proud of what he and his fellow students did.
“It kind of gave me solace that what we did then, was the right thing to do. Maybe we could have done something different, but the mindset of it,” said Bembry.
Tapping into that mindset is how actors will convey the story.
Gilliam says The Abbey Boys captures black history that too many locals are unaware of. But perhaps this is her chance to flip the script.
“At 29 years old, I’ve never heard this story before,” she said. “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.”
Belmont Abbey College issued the following statement to Queen City News:
“The incident that occurred on our campus in 1969 happened more than 50 years ago. 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.
Regarding the core issue of race surrounding the 1969 incident, here at the Abbey, we continue our mission of educating and forming men and women of character and virtue. We aim to form graduates who can be leaders in their communities and show respect for the God-given dignity of each person. The college is committed to restoring the public square by creating vibrant communities where all people can flourish in mutual respect and justice.”