Illustration by Michael Zaharuk
The killing of a Black child 45 years ago reignited anger from the Wilmington riots of 1968, sparking more protests and calls for justice that still echo today.
Monday, Aug. 18 to Friday, Sept. 5, 1975
ohn Bailey was released on bail early the following morning, fewer than 12 hours after his arrest. Bailey was charged with attempted murder, and Municipal Court Judge Carl Goldstein set bail at $25,000. Bailey’s family quickly supplied the cash and they all went into hiding.
Folks who knew Bailey were saddened but not surprised to find him charged with attempted murder. Five years earlier, Bailey faced a similar charge in New Jersey, assault with intent to commit murder, after allegedly knifing another teenager at a church carnival. The charge was reduced to simple assault, but Bailey was ultimately acquitted on an unusual technicality—prosecutors were unable to determine if the stabbing was committed by him or his identical twin brother, Vernon Bailey Jr.
“You hate to say this, but they were terrible,” says Karen Denton Johnson (no relation to the family or to Willie Johnson), who taught English at P.S. du Pont High School from 1967 through 1978, in an interview in December 2019. Although neither of the Bailey twins studied in her classroom, she still remembers some disciplinary encounters.
“They would say awful things.” She recalls one instance in particular, but hesitates to share too many details. “There’s no other way to put it. They were calling kids the n-word in the lunch line.”
She remembers the looks of anger on the faces of younger Black kids, who were calmly advised by their older peers, “Don’t worry about them. They’re crazy.”
olice and city leaders were getting nervous. Seven years earlier, in April 1968, Wilmington had been rocked by three days of rioting in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Hundreds of buildings were looted or burned. In response, then–Gov. Charles L. Terry activated the entire Delaware National Guard—more than 2,000 troops—to restore “law and order.” They occupied Wilmington for more than nine months. The city became a police state.
The uneasy peace that had prevailed in the seven years since was fragile, and city leaders feared that the circumstances of the shooting—John Bailey a white man, and Sheila a young Black girl—would ignite another cycle of violence.
Less than 24 hours after the shooting, demonstrators gathered in front of the county courthouse to protest Bailey’s release. A slender Black woman with a prominent afro was photographed in the newspaper holding a sign that read, “Bailey should be jailed for his own protection.”
“City leaders didn’t know what to expect. There was serious concern that this would get out of control,” recalls former Mayor James Baker in a personal interview with the author on January 31, 2020. Baker cut his teeth as a community organizer on the streets of Wilmington during the 1960s and helped to de-escalate street violence during the 1968 riots by mediating interactions between communities and the police. Seven years later, he was finishing his first term on Wilmington City Council and suddenly everyone was talking about another riot.
“We were all stunned. Why did this happen? Why would you chase a kid down the street and shoot them?” Baker asks. “There’s no rational reason.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Baker says again and again and again during our interview this year. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
he night after the shooting—Monday, Aug. 18—a vigil was held for Sheila. Inside the house of Lemuel Joyner, neighbors and community leaders gathered with Toots and state Rep. Al. O. Plant for prayers and to discuss a plan of action for the days to come.
“If she lives,” said Toots, “she’ll be messed up for the rest of her life.”
City leaders urged Black community leaders to appeal for unity and peace, and to give the legal system time to prevail. But tensions became difficult to contain when news broke that Bailey had been released on bail. As the meeting grew to more than 175 people, Toots and Plant relocated the gathering to the front lawn.
“A dope pusher gets $50,000 bail, and this pig gets only $25,000?” asked Edward Ellzy, one of Sheila’s neighbors on 35th Street.
“We are hoping for the maximum penalty under the law,” Plant responded. “There is absolutely no excuse for anyone charged with this crime to go free under bail.”
Baker remembers attending a lot of meetings during this time, although not this one. Those who lived through the riots and occupation in 1968 were reticent to go through it all again. But young people had little faith in the legal system and were ready to burn the city down.
Plant sought to calm the boisterous crowd: “We’re not going to hear from any radicals.”
“We know what we can do,” said Ellzy. “We can go to City Hall and kick a few butts. I’m ready to deal with this and if I get locked up, so be it.”
The next morning, nearly 250 protesters congregated before the county courthouse to protest Bailey’s release.
rotests intensified through the following days. Demonstrations began around noon on Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the corner of 35th and West streets—near the peach tree. In an act of civil disobedience, hundreds of protesters marched down Washington Street, stopping traffic on their way to the home of Bailey’s parents, where they were met by a phalanx of uniformed police officers and a state police helicopter hovering overhead. Wilmington Police Chief William McCool was desperately hoping to avoid any escalation in violence and asked his officers to show restraint.
“It’s an awkward position for police,” McCool said to The Evening Journal, adding that protesters had every right to show their anger over the shooting. “The Bailey home was an emotional focal point. We felt a police presence was necessary. We were not going to permit any attacks on people or property.”
Protests continued at the Bailey home throughout the day. Later in the afternoon, a contingent of protesters returned to the corner of 35th and West streets and let loose their anger against the peach tree. As a crowd of onlookers gathered in the street, young men, mostly teenagers—glistening with sweat in the summer heat—splintered the peach tree to pieces.
“All we want,” someone said, “is blood for blood.”
poradic acts of vandalism continued through the night, but tensions escalated sharply the following day. Protesters gathered in Rodney Square—just as they did in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968—and prepared to march up Market Street, the central business district in downtown Wilmington.
In 1974, two blocks of Market Street between 8th and 10th streets had been converted into a pedestrian mall with hopes of revitalizing downtown after the riots. But progress was slow, and the urban exodus accelerated in the 1970s as businesses and white homeowners emigrated to the suburbs. Downtown Wilmington was a shell of its former self, and city leaders were desperate to salvage the few remaining blocks of real estate that weren’t for sale.
To make matters worse, the historically Black business district to the east of Market Street had recently been demolished for a civic center that was never built. More than a dozen blocks of Black-owned businesses were reduced to rubble and paved into parking lots, awaiting an urban renaissance that was always just a few more years away, just across the horizon—the mirage of a better future.
hile Carolyn kept vigil at Sheila’s bedside, dozens of sympathizers—mostly young, both Black and white—donated blood at Delaware Division in a show of solidarity with Sheila’s family.
Sheila’s family, however, was despondent.
“I’m just waiting,” Carolyn said to The Morning News. “There is nothing to do but wait.”
“There was a lot of talk about riots,” recalls Sylvia, still disappointed by the response to the crisis. City leaders urged Carolyn and Toots to issue a public statement calling for peace. To this day, Sylvia suggests that politicians were more concerned about downtown businesses than they were about saving the lives of young Black children from racist violence. “They had asked my mom to talk to the people—and she did—but I would have never done that.”
“Please stop this violence,” Carolyn pleaded in a written statement that was later printed in the newspaper. “It was violence that put Sheila here. It’s not what I want or what she would want. Please go home and pray for her. This is what is needed. We need your prayers to help her through her crisis. We don’t need any more violence. Please go home.”
Toots addressed protestors directly in Rodney Square.
“For God’s sake,” he said. “I don’t want anyone else hurt. If something does happen, we will be defeating our own purpose. Help Sheila by not getting hurt in that mall.”
n the shadow of the Hotel DuPont, approximately 75 protestors left Rodney Square for the 10th Street entrance to the Market Street pedestrian mall, where dozens of police awaited. Five officers were mounted on horseback; the rest were clothed in riot gear with helmets and face shields, armed with batons and tear gas.
Leading the march was former state Rep. Charles “Chezzy” Miller and Vera Wilson, whose son, Isaac, was shot and killed outside his apartment by a WPD officer just a few months earlier.
“My son was killed for raising his hand, Martin Luther King was killed for speaking out,” Wilson said. “If you can’t speak out, it’s worth being dead anyway.”
Over the next hour and a half, demonstrators clashed with police as they attempted to march peacefully down Market Street. James Baker was in the middle of it all and still remembers the sounds of chaos—yelling, chanting, whistling. Deafening noise spooked the police horses, causing them to kick and buck. Unable to break the police blockade, the protesters dispersed and Market Street reopened around 2:30 p.m. Several minutes later, however, the protests returned, this time at the corner of 7th and Market, and their ranks quickly swelled into the hundreds.
“It looked like there were a thousand people on Market Street,” Doherty recalls. His unit had been pulled off the investigation and ordered to dress in riot gear. “The orders were to try and break up the crowd and manage it in smaller pieces.”
The protesters marched north on Market Street back to Rodney Square, where they were once again met by riot police. They turned back only to find that their escape was now blocked by another line of riot police at 8th Street. The protesters were trapped. Outflanked.
“I wish none of that had happened,” Doherty says. So many things had yet to be done, he recalls. There were delays in assigning more detectives to Sheila’s case. They had retrieved neither the gun nor the bullet—the .32-caliber shell found at the crime scene had been transported across the city in the tread of a police tire from an incident in another neighborhood prior to when Sheila was shot and was determined not to be relevant in her case. Now the investigation was unofficially on hold while the city prepared for what was feared to be a repeat of the 1968 riot. “The last thing we needed was a secondary incident to further inflame the situation.”
The clash that followed was memorialized on the front page of The Morning News: police dispersing protesters gathered in the street and on the sidewalks; a Black man lying on the brick crosswalk, hands clenched desperately over his ears and the back of his head, guarding his skull from a wielded nightstick. One man is trampled unconscious and resuscitated. Riot police break up the protesters, who flee in opposite directions down 8th Street.
“I did not like what happened on Market Street, when the police surrounded that group of people,” says Baker. “I was afraid that it was going to get out of hand. All it takes is one guy making a mistake and you got a problem.”
Riot police pushed the protesters back, over the hill at Washington Street and down into the valley toward Jefferson. Windows were smashed. Glass covered the sidewalks. Doherty recalls that WPD didn’t have enough helmets or face shields for every officer, and he was caught off-guard by one brick and then another. His face a bloody mess, Doherty was evacuated for treatment and stitches.
y the time journalist Sam Waltz arrived in Wilmington, disturbances were breaking out across the city. Waltz had some experience covering Vietnam War protests for the student newspaper at the University of Illinois, and Morning News and Evening Journal editors Harry Themal and John Taylor were eager to throw him back into the chaos.
“I walked shoulder-to-shoulder with a police line—they in tactical riot gear with helmets and face shields, me in a sport jacket and tie, with pencil and paper,” Waltz recalls.
Just as protesters were dispersed downtown, a contingent reorganized on Market Street north of the Brandywine Creek, and a standoff briefly ensued at the bridge, Waltz recalls. Riot police then launched tear gas canisters across the bridge to disperse the crowd and continued their march up Market Street.
hile tensions were hot on the streets of Wilmington, Carolyn continued to keep vigil at her daughter’s bedside. If Sheila were to die, the charges against Bailey would be upgraded to murder in the first degree.
“The warrants were ready to go,” Doherty recalls. “They were just awaiting a signature.”
As Sheila’s condition deteriorated, Judge Goldstein increased Bailey’s bail to $130,000. Once again, Bailey was taken into custody, only this time he was imprisoned at the men’s correctional center in Smyrna, where he was kept under heavy guard in a hospital security room due to threats against his life.
hroughout the night and into the early morning hours, a state police helicopter patrolled the skies above Wilmington. There were numerous reports of windows smashed and bricks thrown. The police line steadily pressed north along Market Street. Protesters gathered only to be dispersed by tear gas, Baker recalls. They would then reorganize only to be dispersed yet again in an endless game of cat-and-mouse.
“The police tried to control the situation,” Baker recalls. “The residents were the ones who really suffered because they had to put up with the gas.”
In a desperate effort, state Sen. Herman Holloway borrowed a station wagon with a loudspeaker attached and cruised the streets of north Wilmington, sharing news that Bailey was once again imprisoned and urging young people to return home. Holloway, Baker and William “Hicks” Anderson spent the evening dodging projectiles as they cut across police lines and protest lines in a desperate attempt to de-escalate the situation.
By morning, the streets were calm. Fewer than a dozen had been arrested. No one was killed, and property damage was minimal, at least compared to 1968.
ith Bailey in prison, an uncomfortable peace once again settled over Wilmington. Sheila Ferrell remained in critical condition. Prayer vigils were held. A special fund was established to help pay for Sheila’s medical expenses, which were likely to be astronomical.
Each day, Detective Doherty stopped by the hospital to check on Sheila, hoping for her to awaken, if even briefly, to identify the shooter. But over the next week, hope for Sheila’s recovery continued to fade, until 12:45 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30, 1975, when Sheila Ferrell died.
heila’s sister Aletha Ferrell was 10 years old at the time. The apartment on 35th Street was too small to accommodate a fourth child, so she lived with her godparents on Memorial Drive in New Castle, just a few blocks from their grandparents. She never saw the peach tree at the corner of 35th and West, but she does remember another peach tree, this one in her grandparents’ backyard. She remembers Sheila teaching her ballet and eating peach ice cream with her family—that is, until Sheila was killed and they had the tree cut down.
“I remember when they told me she had passed away, I thought they were lying, that someone made a mistake,” Aletha recalls in an interview February 18, 2020. But reality started to settle in a week later when the family laid Sheila to rest.
Thousands of mourners attended the funeral services at Mother Bethel AME Church on Thursday, Sept. 4, many dressed in jeans and sneakers, walking by the coffin to pay their last respects. Hundreds lined the sidewalks as Sheila’s family arrived and walked solemnly into the church, one of the few remaining buildings in what used to be Wilmington’s Black business district.
“Only god knows what Sheila would have become, what a child full of grace, talent, and understanding would have become,” said the Rev. Jesse Walker. “She lived a beautiful life.”
Friday, Sept. 5 to Wednesday, Dec. 17, 1975
olice never found the gun that killed Sheila Ferrell, or the bullet. The woman who accompanied Bailey in the car that day was never formally identified or charged. Multiple eyewitnesses saw Bailey in pursuit of Sheila. Willie Johnson testified that Bailey extended his arms as if to shoot a gun. He then heard a shot and Sheila’s scream. Bailey’s defense refuted none of this. Without the murder weapon, they didn’t need to. Bailey claimed that, yes, he did extend his arms as if he were holding a gun, but he was only holding a door handle. Also, Bailey’s defense team produced a surprise witness who claimed to have seen a second shooter—an unidentified Black man—in pursuit of Bailey. The bullet that killed Sheila, the defense claimed, was meant for Bailey.
The jury appears never to have believed this fantastic argument. Rather, what likely saved Bailey from a life sentence was his wife holding their infant child in the courtroom every single day of the trial. As one opinion writer said in the local newspaper, “The Bailey family is shattered too.” When the jury decided his fate, they had to consider intent. Was he a malicious killer? Was this premeditated? Or was this all a horrible mistake?
Ultimately, the jury decided on the latter, convicting Bailey not of murder but rather on the lesser charge of manslaughter. The judge, disturbed by Bailey’s refusal to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever, sentenced him to 25 years in prison, the longest sentence for manslaughter in Delaware history. He was released in 1993, after serving 17 years of the original sentence.
Bailey still maintains his innocence.
“I made a terrible mistake,” Bailey says in an interview on October 30, 2019. “I bought a house in the city of Wilmington. I feel so bad for what happened to poor Sheila. How she got shot.”
othing was the same afterwards, Aletha recalls. She didn’t want to believe this tragedy had happened, that her sister was dead. She had so many questions, but the family didn’t talk about it. Nobody did.
“It was too painful,” she says.
Aletha cries over the phone during our interview. After 45 years, the pain still cuts deep, especially at the sound of her sister’s name. When asked what she would say to Bailey, she replies, sobbing, “Was it worth it? Was it worth it for a peach?”
“Sheila wasn’t even in the tree,” recalls her younger brother Larry, who now goes by Mustafa, in an interview in January of this year. “That’s what I don’t understand about people saying she shouldn’t have been in the tree. I was in the tree. Sheila didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
Bailey’s sentence brought little peace to Sheila’s family, and the weeks that followed brought only further hardship. Medicaid initially covered all of Sheila’s medical expenses; however, when the family received a cash payout from a special fund established to support the family, Medicaid demanded that extra income as well. When Carolyn refused to pay, Delaware kicked the family off the social welfare programs that were keeping them afloat.
Sylvia still remembers the bitter reality of Christmas mornings, without her beloved sister, or any presents, or really anything at all to bring the family holiday cheer.
Two years after the killing, Sheila’s family posted this memorial in the newspaper:
In sadness we recall
Your gentle smile, your dancing.
So many times we’ve missed you.
So many times we’ve cried.
But as long as life and
We shall remember.
Note from the Editor:
This article is the result of a year-long investigation into the shooting of Sheila Ferrell. Dozens of persons were interviewed and many hundreds of pages of newspaper articles and government documents reviewed in order to retell the events of 1975 as accurately as possible. If you would like to share your experiences, please send an email to SheilaFerrellStories@gmail.com.