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Cover Story: An Encyclopedia Entry, A Flyer and a Path to Politics 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

Wilmington City Council Member Earl Sheridan was bound to land in the change-making realm one way or another. But if not for the ‘P’ volume of World Book Encyclopedia, who knows where precisely?

As it was for most or all African-Americans living in the South at the time, Jim Crow laws were a part of Sheridan’s daily life, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he remembers well. The act brought about desegregation, but also new levels of unrest and uncertainty, with often slow progress for civil rights, which Sheridan observed from childhood into his teenage years all spent in Wilmington.

"It influenced me a lot," he said. "It influenced my interest in politics. I got interested in politics because I saw politics as a means to bring about social change."

Sheridan adopted political influencers like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey as examples to follow, but for him the pivotal moment wasn’t until his mother bought him a World Book set, which he would browse at length, the same way curious youths explore the Internet today.

"One day I was thumbing through one of them, and I saw this thing called ‘political science,’" Sheridan recalled with a smile. "And I read about it. And I thought, boy, that sounds like an interesting thing to be involved in, political science. And so I decided then that I would major in political science in college."

He was only about 14 at the time, and while we all called our shots at that age, not many of us followed them seriously. But Sheridan wasn’t kidding.

After high school, he left Wilmington and blazed to Appalachian State University with heavy involvement in campus politics, serving on the student senate and as an officer with the college Democrats. At one point, he ran for student government vice-president.

After undergrad, he went straight in pursuit of his master’s degree and doctorate, yes, in political science, at the University of Tennessee – before another fateful turn that would lead to his service in municipal government, even if he didn’t know it at the time.

Sheridan wasn’t wasting a moment. He was knocking out school, wrapping up his dissertation and already putting out the feelers for political science jobs. Specifically, he wanted something in academia.

The stars aligned.

"Someone put a flyer in my mailbox advertising an opening at (UNC-Wilmington) in the area of political theory and comparative government – which were my areas," he said, still surprised at the coincidence. The lucky opening, in his exact concentration, could mean a return to his hometown.

"And so I applied," Sheridan said. "I actually turned down a job at another college hoping I would get the offer at UNCW. I didn’t even have it yet."

But it came. "Maybe it was fated that I was supposed to be here," he said of Wilmington.

Whether fate, chance or some unconscious strategy at work, he wasn’t going to take it lightly. Sheridan spread into UNCW’s academic environment, noting it wasn’t just about teaching, but learning and involvement. And that reached far beyond campus boundaries with his roles at the county branch of the NAACP, of which he served as president from the mid-1980s to the mid ‘90s.

"I saw what I did in the community as just kind of an extension of my academic work," Sheridan said.

And plenty of Wilmingtonians took notice.

"I wasn’t really thinking about it that much at the time when I was approached in 2005 about running for city council," he recalled. That might have been because he’d just gotten married, but his wife ended up supporting the idea. Sheridan’s backers saw him as a voice for the underserved and for issues facing Wilmington’s African-American community. He ran, won, grew into the local government sphere with vigor – and has kept to his mission.

Affordable housing is a current focus of his. Sheridan wants to dissolve the  mental association of affordable housing and crime, for one. "It doesn’t have to be that way," he said, noting that many walks of life seek affordable homes, including teachers and police officers.

He’s also hopeful for better police-community relations and was instrumental in reviving a defunct community relations advisory board to improve the conversation.

But he’s had a hand in plenty of other change, particularly in the ongoing revitalization of Wilmington’s beautiful, historic waterfront downtown, the fruit of team efforts. With city investments, heavy machines are now at work, fully updating the layout of what national publications have labeled America’s best walkable waterfront. It’s a key tourism-dollar draw expected to reach knockout status once the work crews leave.

The city council also recently approved a public-private partnership toward a new, mixed-use development in place of a to-be-demolished "eyesore" of a parking deck built on Water Street in the 1960s. More city-driven development on the north side of downtown, near the also-city-built convention center, is in talks or underway. It’s all projected to bring more residents, jobs, money and boosts in quality of life.

"I think Wilmington is pulling itself up," Sheridan said. "We still have to make sure that we have enough jobs for all of our people, but there are important developments going on."

Asked where he sees the city in 2030, he noted big population projections and listed the questions afloat over so many North Carolina cities.

"Are we going to be able to handle the growth?" he posed. "Are we going to have the infrastructure to handle the growth? They’re coming. Are we going to be able to handle that?"

Sheridan said he’s found his involvement with the League, including time as a member of the Board of Directors, helpful in finding strategies and new ideas as growth transforms communities across the state.

"You can see things that other cities might be doing because, to a large degree, cities have a lot of the same problems or issues," he said. "I’m just glad to be a part of that effort."

He’s heartened to see such teamwork. He says that’s the only way progress or justice of any kind is made.

Said Sheridan, "You don’t get up there and snap your fingers and things change."

And he’s too determined to wait around for fate.