Tragic history provides impetus for scholarship fund

Although the Howe Scholarship Endowment is just a few years old, its origins go back more than a century, and its creation is an attempt to build hope for the future out of a tragic past.

Uncovering her roots

Lucy McCauley, co-founder of the Howe Scholarship Endowment, has roots deep in Wilmington’s history. Her great-grandfather was a prominent resident of the city in the late 19th century, and McCauley’s family inherited his stately home there. As McCauley, who had moved to Texas, researched her family’s past, she met Cynthia J. Brown, a Wilmington resident who had written extensively about the city’s history. 

As their friendship deepened, the two researchers realized they had more in common than an interest in local history. In 1887, McCauley’s great-grandfather, William Berry McKoy, hired Brown’s ancestor, Alfred Augustus Howe, to build his home. Wilmington’s black community was vibrant and relatively prosperous in the late 1800s, and the Howe family was known for their carpentry skills.

History took a catastrophic turn in 1898 when a mob of as many as 2,000 white men (including McKoy) overthrew the local government and killed or drove away what is estimated to be hundreds of black residents, forcing Brown’s great-grandmother (Athalia Howe) into hiding. This uprising is one of two known coup d’état on United States soil. (The other was a bloodless municipal coup in New Bern, also in November 1898).

Looking for healing

That realization of her great-grandfathers’ involvement in the Wilmington Massacre and Coup deeply affected McCauley. When the McKoy House was sold, she started thinking about making a personal reparation.

“I wanted to do something to begin, in even a small way, to shift that painful legacy in my family line toward something positive, healing, and uplifting,” said McCauley. “Something that would allow the African-American community to benefit from my family’s generational wealth, which I believe everyone should have an opportunity to develop and pass down to their children.”

McCauley continued her conversations with Brown and eventually arrived at the idea of endowing a scholarship. McCauley received permission from the family to use the Howe name for the scholarship, and the scholarship committee at St. Stephen A.M.E. Church (on which Brown served before her death in November 2023) agreed to review applications and present the annual award.

“The idea of honoring the Howe family with a scholarship funded by the sale of a perpetrator’s own home––one that was built by a Howe brother––that resonated with me,” McCauley said. “It also made sense to focus the award on the building arts and sciences, which were so highly valued in the Howe family, as well as in my own family, which included engineers and architects.”

Taking action

 Although she didn’t possess a lot of wealth, McCauley’s share of the proceeds from the house’s sale gave her enough money to fund the endowment. “I always thought ‘endowment’ was a big word that only large universities could set up,” she said. “But it turned out that my $25,000 was enough.”

McCauley also needed help to establish the scholarship and wanted it to be based locally, near where the historical damage had been done. “The North Carolina Community Foundation had an office in Wilmington, so that was perfect,” she said.

The scholarship fund was established in 2021 to support the St. Stephen A.M.E. Church with providing scholarships for African-American students pursuing studies that lead to a career in the building arts or construction, and who attended public high school in New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick or Columbus counties. The fund granted its first $1,500 scholarship in 2023 to Kweli King, an honor graduate of North Brunswick High School who is studying mechanical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.Kweli King, 2023 Howe Scholarship recipient

“The endowment appealed to me because it will distribute scholarships ‘in perpetuity,’” McCauley said. “The scholarship can never make up for harms done by my ancestors to African-Americans––both through enslavement and involvement in the Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat of 1898. But, going forward, I hope that the inheritance I received from the McKoy House might serve as a small, positive course correction from our family to Wilmington’s black community. A long tradition of African-American building arts and sciences was virtually extinguished in the area after 1898, and our intention is to revive it.”