The Sheila Ferrell Story

The story I am about to tell you is one of the most heartbreaking least known race killings of the last forty five years. It happened before the 24 hour news cycles of CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Gerald Ford was president and the Vietnam war had just come to a close a few months earlier. The first CD’s were five years off and the first cell phones were 10 years off… Pam Grier was the baddest black woman on earth and the Ohio Players “Fire”, sure was…
As I researched the story it brought me back to those days when I was a child and to one of the most favorite activities of the children in our neighborhood. You see there were fruit trees in almost every yard. We had apple, and cherry trees, fig trees and walnut trees.. grape vines, mulberry trees.. and just a whole bunch of stuff. Although most of the trees were on people’s property, more than a few hung over the property owners fences or property lines. As kids we would pick the fruit from the trees that hung over the fences or off the ground and enjoy them in the shade amid the hot humid summers of D.C. Most of the families on our block had kids, but even so once in a while you might hear someone complain about us lollygagging and making a lot of noise around somebody’s house. Yet I fondly remember those days… the ones where when the street light came on, you could hear moms all over the neighborhood calling out their children’s names. “Jerooowww!!” “Here I come momma..” That’s how it was in a million different places and for a million different kids.. except one.

The Talent

In more than one way Sheila was that one in a million. In 1973 she was chosen for a dancing scholarship at the prestigious Ballet Repertory Company in Wilmington. The dance company gave out scholarships to talented children from low income families. Her mother had divorced her father ten years earlier and was raising three children with help from social services. She did have a job, but like it is today it wasn’t enough to provide shelter and enough food for her family. Sheila loved to dance and her talent caught the eye of James Jameison, a renowned Delaware ballet instructor. Under Jameison, Sheila flourished and qualified for another scholarship the following year. Her mother was a devoted Christian and tried to install that devotion into her children. Many of their days were dedicated to church activities, such as singing in the choir, serving as ushers, or participating in church events. It was at one of these events that Jameison first noticed Sheila. The story goes that during a church show, the music to a dance play that the church was giving experienced technical difficulty and would not play. Sheila was a featured dancer. She told them not to worry because she would just count the beats in her head and perform. She did a wonderful job and the rest was history.

Busted

It was the last day before school would be back in session. Sheila had just gotten back from her grandmother’s house in Philadelphia. Her mother Carolyn had sent them to vacation with her parents during the summer. On the day she got back, her mother had left the house and told them not to leave. Of course Sheila and her brother thought ” what’s the harm” because they weren’t going far and would be back before their mom got home. Her older sister had stayed put mostly because she was there with her boyfriend. At around a little before 7:00 pm Sheila, her younger brother Larry and their cousin Kevin were together. They went to a vacant row house on the corner of 200 W. 35th St. There on the side of the home was a ratty ass peach tree just spitting distance from a two foot brick wall. You know the kind I mean.. you have no idea how a tree.. much less a peach tree would even grow there in a patch of funky dirt that had never seen a blade of grass or a drop of water since the Big Bang. Anyway Larry and Kevin climb the tree to get some peaches while Sheila looked on. While they were in the tree some ugly white man in a beat up car who obviously didn’t have a TV because he never saw a soap commercial and some old hag who hadn’t seen a comb since Lewis and Clark crossed the Louisiana Purchase and made their way to the Pacific ocean… okay, it’s hard to be objective… got out the car and yelled at the children, “Get out hell out of the tree!”

The Big Bad White Man

Well as you may have guessed, the arrival of these two thugs frightened the children and they took off. The women chased Sheila’s brother down an alleyway until she lost him, while the man pursued Sheila.The man who would later be identified as John H. Bailey, was no match for the athletic professionally trained dancer. She hauled assed, leaving him in the dust. “Stop or I’ll shoot!!” Bailey fired a shot and then another one, the second one hitting Sheila. An eyewitness would later testify, “He stopped and extended his arm, I saw a pistol in his hand. I heard another shot, I saw a little smoke, and Sheila clenched her chest.” She screamed in pain. Barely making her way, a trail of blood lead to her cousin Kevin’s house, where she collapsed. Kevin’s house was less than 500 ft from the peach tree. What happened next could not be fully corroborated. Some say Bailey came and stood over the body as her family gathered and told them she had stolen some furniture from him. Other say he stood over the body and said “I told you I would kill you.” That statement was corroborated by a neighbor and then another witness said that he heard the man muttering “something” nasty. (The witness said “something”, I am saying it was “nasty”..”) After saying whatever he said, they all agreed he fled. The witness who had heard the gunshots followed Bailey back to the car where he wrote down the tag number as the woman now behind the driver’s seat drove away with the shooter.

Over A $##@! Peach!

Sheila’s sister Sylvia would later relive the story of the moment she would last see her sister alive during an interview. She was in the apartment with her boyfriend when she heard a loud bang. She wondered what was that loud noise. “There is some guy out there shooting.” Just a few moments later Kevin came into the apartment and said “You have to come right now, your sister has been shot!” As they approached the scene, they could see the neighbors huddled around the bloody body of the young girl as the paramedics frantically worked to save her. Sylvia stood over her sister watching the paramedics cut away her shirt to stop the bleeding. Sheila looked up at Sylvia. They had been arguing earlier that day, and all Sheila could say was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Then Sheila closed her eyes.. Hearing of the shooting Sheila’s mother frantically made her way to the police station. “Where is my baby!!? Where is my baby!!?” Sylvia was already there. They were escorted into a waiting room where they were given an update on Sheila’s condition. “She was in a coma. The bullet that struck her in the back had pierced the left lung, damaging the pulmonary artery before exiting out the chest. She lost 70 percent of her blood, requiring 13 pints of transfusions to reestablish cardiovascular circulation. Doctors feared her brain was starved for oxygen for several minutes, potentially causing irreversible neurological damage. Her lungs had collapsed. She was intubated. A ventilator was the only thing keeping her alive.” DelawareToday A week after the shooting Sheila died at 12:245 on the morning of August 30,1975.

Bang!! Bang!!

In the immediate aftermath of her shooting the hunt for her killer got underway. I am using the word aftermath loosely but the hunt actually started immediately after the shooting, I’m saying the blood was still wet on the ground. The police feared the city would explode and be burnt to the ground if the white man who killed a black child over some rotten peaches wasn’t caught as soon as possible. It really didn’t matter, the city did explode eventually. The police had a description of the car as well as a tag number that was provided by the witness who followed Bailey back to the car. The car was registered to Vernon Bailey who lived at 4400 Washington St. A few hours later the car was spotted at the address. The vacant house with the peach tree also belong to Vernon Bailey. The police banged on the door and said “Open up $##@ and give it up!!” Okay they didn’t say that.. but I would have said it.. Anyway,w the door opened and a blond woman said, “What are owners to do when people trespass and pick peaches?”, then she closed the door. Now if that had of been me, right then and there it would have been a misunderstanding… “What!!!” Of course that’s not happened. Detective John Doherty had been listening on the police radio and heard that a child had been shot. The shooter had escaped and was in hiding. The family was not cooperating and they would need a search warrant to check the residence where the car was located. The warrant would not get there until 9pm that night. All during the time they waited for the warrant, the Bailey family remained uncooperative and belligerent. With warrant in hand the police kicked open the door and shouted, “Who’s your Daddy!!” Okay I will stop, but they should have made an example out of them people. Anywho, the police found an empty box for a 25 caliber semi- automatic handgun and some bullets. The car matching the description of the one at the crime scene was in the garage with the carburetor taken out. The detective was about to leave when he heard a noise and spotted a pull-down ladder leading to the attic above the garage. Me: “COME OUT MFER OR ELSE!! (BANG!! BANG!!)” Ain’t y’all glad I ain’t got no badge?.. Okay.. he spotted the ladder and found the killer hiding up there. He asked the killer did he have a gun and the killer said no, he had thrown it into the river. It had only been three hours since the killing and a suspect was under arrest, twenty four old John Bailey. By now a crowd was gathering outside the Bailey home as the killer was being escorted to the police car. Remember when I said that Sheila’s mother had gone to the police station and was given an update on her child’s condition? It was right after this arrest that she was given the update by Doherty.

Fiyah!!.. Say What!! Oh Child!!…. Fiyah!!

This was not John Bailey’s first run in with the law. A few years earlier he had been accused of attempted manslaughter for stabbing another man at a carnival. Due to a technicality, the charges were later downgraded to simple assault because the prosecution could not prove that John or his identical twin Vernon had done the stabbing. He was a known racist as one of his former teacher remembers disciplinary actions against the brothers for calling black children the “N” word. Bailey was released the following morning on bail after his arrest. The bail was set at $25,000. His family got the money together and went into hiding because they bedda. After word got out that the child killer had been released, demonstrators gathered in front of the courthouse. That same night a virgil was being held at a local community leaders house about what to do in the coming days. The meeting had to be moved to the front yard as news of the killers release spread throughout the black community. They say some members of the crowd were passing out gas cans, matches and maps of downtown.. It was about to get real!! City leaders urged Black community leaders to ask for unity and peace, and to give the legal system time to prevail. The city leaders remembered how when in 1968 after the King assassination the Governor had to send in two thousand National Guard troops to restore order. It took decades for them to rebuild the city. “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. State Rep. Plant recalled going to a lot of meetings and voiced his concern over the destruction that the 1968 protest had caused. However young people were not having it. They had little faith in the legal system. On August 20th hundreds gathered at the corner of 35th and West streets within burning distance of the peach tree. They blocked all traffic as in an act of civil disobedience as they made their way to the home of the Bailey’s. “Burn it down!! Burn that @!$$$ down!!, was in their minds as they approached the Bailey’s house. Okay I don’t know what was in their minds, but shatttt…. Once they arrived at the property they were met by a battalion of police in riot gear. Helicopters were flying overhead. Wilmington Police Chief William McCool was desperately hoping to avoid any escalation in violence and asked his officers to show restraint, but he couldn’t allow violence to come to the Bailey’s or destruction to their property.
Pictured above (1968 Wilmington Delaware King Protest)

Burn Baby Burn!!

The standoff continued throughout most of the day. In the afternoon a large group of demonstrators broke off from the siege and headed for the vacant home where the peach tree stood. After eating all the peaches, they ripped the tree to shreds. Someone reportedly said, “We want blood for blood!” That night there were minor disturbances and flash points, but the next day it hit the fan. “Lets go downtown and burn that shid down!!” They gathered at the same place they had gathered a few years earlier during the 1968 Civil Rights protest and started passing out matches. As an aside, the place that they met was historically the black business district. In 1974 it was demolished amid an urban renewal scheme. The businesses were torn down and parking lots were built were they once stood… only thing is they scrapped the plan after the black business district was razed. Anyway, they marched down Market Street lead by Rep. Charles “Chezzy” Miller and Vera Wilson, whose son, Isaac, was shot and killed outside his apartment by a WPD (Wilmington Police Department) officer just a few months earlier. There were about 75 protestors and they were met by officers in riot tactical gear armed with batons and mace. There were also mounted police. “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 couple of hours the police and the 75 protestors clashed as they attempted to move down Market Street. The police line held and the protestors withdrew.. or so the police thought… when they returned the 75 protestors brought back hundreds of people with them. There were so many that every available officer was told to suit up into riot gear and report to Market Street. Even Doherty was pulled from the investigation and told to suit up!
Pictured above (2020 Wilmington Delaware Floyd Protest)

You Can’t Always Get What You Wawnt…

The protestors marched down Market Street to Rodney Square where they were met by a phalanx of police armed to the teeth. They turned around only to realize that they had been flanked and were now completely surrounded. What happened next was emblazoned on the front page of the next morning’s newspaper. “Don’t You Neva Eva Think About Burning Down Nuttin Again!!” The unarmed protestors were violently dispersed. ” Pictures of 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 chasing protesters fleeing in opposite directions down 8th Street. They pushed the protestors back down to Washington Street. The formally unarmed protestors now fought back hurling bricks or anything they could get their hands on at the police. 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, he was evacuated for treatment and stitches. Even so the police kept hold of the upper hand, dispersing the crowd as they force them from Market Street. A small group of protestors briefly held the bridge at Washington Street but they too were dispersed after a volley of tear gas canisters were hurled at them. In the meantime the Ferrell family was keeping a vigil at Sheila’s bed. Doherty recalled that if Sheila were to die then the charges against John Bailey would be upgraded to to murder in the first degree. As Sheila’s condition deteriorated, the judge increased Bailey’s bail to $130,000 and Bailey was re-arrested. He was was kept under the strictest security at the prison hospital because of the reward someone had offered for his private part to be delivered to them in a dirty paper bag with holes in it… okay.. i am just making the story more interesting.. but he “was” held under heavy guard due to death threats.. inside and outside the prison.
Pictured above (Prison where Bailey was held)

It Ain’t Over

The struggle between the protestors and the police went on throughout the night. It was a cat and mouse game. The police would disperse one group of protestors, only to have them reform at another location. The sound of broken glass, the smell of tear gas and the cry of those fallen by brick or baton permeated the night into the early hours of the morning.  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. Throughout the night other state officials and community activist also tried to de-escalate the melee. Fortunately morning brought peace. Only a few people had been arrested, no one had been killed and for the most part the business district was still intact. The main reason that the protests stopped was that Bailey had been re-arrested. Doherty, the detective in charge of her case visited the hospital daily in hopes Sheila would wake up, if only momentarily to identify her attacker. But as I said earlier, Sheila never regained consciousness and passed away on August 20, 1975. 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. She lived a beautiful life.” –Rev. Jesse Walker.

And What Of John Bailey?

Well what’s left of the the paper bag and whateva is in it… is displayed at the African American Museum of Wilmington in the new Black Business District on Ferrell Street… at least that’s how we would like the story to end. Unfortunately we will have to live with just us. At the crime scene a 32 caliber bullet casing was found but they only recovered a 22 caliber gun box and ammunition at his home. The gun and the bullet that killed Sheila were never found. The woman who allegedly accompanied Bailey was never formally charged or identified. The witness who said he saw Bailey holding up his arm as if he were hold a gun testimony was refuted when Bailey said he was pointing at Sheila, but he was holding a door handle to a car. Without a gun or the bullet that killed Sheila, there was no point in arguing about it according to the prosecution. In addition Bailey’s defense team came up with a surprise witness. I don’t know what his ethnicity was , but let’s just say.. we wish a @##@! would. Anyway the surprise witness threw a monkey wrench in the proceedings when he told the court that there were two shooters and that it was the second shooter who’s bullet hit Sheila! He described the second shooter as an unidentified black man. The jury didn’t buy it and gave him the “Mfer please,” look. Bailey was not only looking at life behind bars but he was also facing the same system that made the Smyrna State Prison population 60 percent black.. Court watchers say the only thing that kept him from receiving such a harsh sentence was that his wife showed up everyday with their infant daughter sitting in the front row. One newspaper wrote that both the Ferrell and Bailey families were shattered by the crime. 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? Personally, I don’t know how the word mistake even came out they mouth… but whateva.. The jury ended up convicting him of making a mistake… I mean manslaughter. The judge was pissed by Bailey’s refusal to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever and 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. To this day Bailey maintains his innocence.

Just Us

After the shooting the Ferrell family started a fundraiser similar to GoFundMe to raise money to pay for Sheila’s medical expenses and to support the family. Initially Medicaid had been paying for her care. After they got wind of the fund set up by the family, they wanted the money that was in the fund. When her mother refused, Delaware kicked the family off the social welfare programs that were keeping them afloat. In an interview last year… “Sheila wasn’t even in the tree. 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.” -Larry Ferrell (Sheila’s younger brother.)

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
memories last
We shall remember.

Rest In Peace Sheila.

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