Arts & Culture

As a teen, he held an integrated party – and was run out of town. Now, he’s back as a superhero.

John Wesley Shipp has played the D.C. superhero The Flash twice – once in the short-lived 1990 CBS TV show by that name, and again on the current iteration on The CW seen here. This weekend at the Raleigh Convention Center, Shipp returns to Wake County for Raleigh Supercon, where he is a guest.
John Wesley Shipp has played the D.C. superhero The Flash twice – once in the short-lived 1990 CBS TV show by that name, and again on the current iteration on The CW seen here. This weekend at the Raleigh Convention Center, Shipp returns to Wake County for Raleigh Supercon, where he is a guest. The CW

It was the end of 1969, and teenager John Wesley Shipp and his older sister Karen were planning their annual Christmas party. The guest list included both black and white kids, a scandalous notion in the slowly integrating town of Wake Forest.

At the time, Shipp’s father was the pastor of a Baptist church in a rural area called The Harricane, just outside of town, and he had always taught his children that all people are equal. The elder Shipp had always been open about his pro-integration views, to the point that he was surprised that particular church hired him. Yet, once word got out that the Shipps were planning a racially integrated party, his church called a deacons meeting.

“Dad tried to explain to them that he can’t teach us that everyone was created equal in the love of God, but that some of our friends weren’t welcome in our home because of the color of their skin,” Shipp says. “(The deacons) said, ‘Well, we’re just concerned there’s going to be trouble.’ 

“At the end of two and a half hours, he told them, ‘What can I tell you? The party is on, and each to their own conscience’ – never expecting that there would be violence,” Shipp continues. “Maybe he was naive in that respect.”

There was indeed violence the night of Dec. 13, 1969.

A photograph of John Wesley Shipp’s father and the pellet holes in the window of their home in Wake Forest was on the front page of The News & Observer in December 1969.

“A little past 9 o’clock, a shotgun blast ripped through our house,” Shipp recalls. . The only reason no one was hurt, Shipp says, is that the popcorn popper had just finished and everyone had walked into the kitchen.

“I was looking at (Dad) across the room, and he got what had happened and said, ‘Cut the lights and hit the floor,’ ” Shipp says. Then his dad armed himself and stepped out to defend the house – just in case – while his mom called the police.

His pastor dad lost his job for allowing that integrated party, but not before preaching one last service at that church. Shipp proudly remembers his father standing in the pulpit, singing, “Red and yellow, black and white / they are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

“At the end of that, they called a special business meeting and dad was fired,” Shipp says. “We were told to be out of the community by sundown, for our own safety.”

But the teenaged Shipp refused to run: if his friends who lived in Wake Forest couldn’t escape, he and his sister wouldn’t either. So they stayed with friends of the family for six more tense months, until the school year was out. The teens couldn’t go anywhere alone. They were threatened at ball games, and Shipp recalls the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms calling his father a communist on TV. (His father went on to lead a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multidenominational ministry.)

Shipp returns a superhero

What happened that night 48 years ago has stuck with Shipp, even as he went on to a rewarding acting career. Among his roles, he’s played the D.C. superhero The Flash twice – once in the short-lived 1990 CBS TV show by that name, and again on the current iteration on The CW – and he was Mitch Leery (that is, Dawson’s dad) on late-’90s teen drama “Dawson’s Creek.”

This weekend at the Raleigh Convention Center, Shipp returns to Wake County for Raleigh Supercon, where he is a guest alongside “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actors, pro wrestlers, the Six Million Dollar Man, Power Rangers, Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and a host of artists, cosplayers and writers. Friday at noon, Shipp will join Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane for a ribbon-cutting ceremony opening this star-packed con.

And then he’ll go to his booth and meet his fans.

“Inside the magic of the comic book universe, it’s just people to people, unguarded humanity overlapping and just getting to interact,” Shipp says. It’s also where superhero and sci-fi actors learn what audiences think. “The way we get our verdict is going to these conventions.”

Shipp’s first starring prime time experience was 1990’s “The Flash,” making his 2014 return to that fictional universe especially satisfying. Shipp is the title character’s father in the current version of “The Flash” (“I was called to play my dad in 2014,” he jokes), as well as an alternate reality version of The Flash sporting a Golden Age costume, winged helmet and all.

“It blows my mind when they call me the O.G. Flash,” Shipp says. “Since I played The Flash 27 years ago now, it’s sort of a stroke of genius for casting and producing to have me circle around and bring that experience with me.”

Shipp admits he wasn’t a hardcore comic book fan when he was cast as 1990’s Flash, and he initially had some trepidation. He discovered, though, that there’s a lot of depth to superhero characters and their interrelationships. Then he saw the scripts, which were multidimensional and explored classical dramatic themes. These he knew how to do. Acting alongside Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker) also helped Shipp get comfortable in his red tights.

“Mark, he came blazing onto that set with all flags flying and all guns blazing,” Shipp says. “It was really a force of nature, really something to watch.” Shipp recalls Hamill as a creature of pure enthusiasm for his role as the villainous Trickster in the 1990 show. Hamill unselfconsciously committed to the bombastic supervillain role – unitard, madcap schemes and all. Hamill and Shipp would face off again as The Trickster and The Flash in a 2016 episode.

“(Hamill) said to me, ‘How often does one get to revisit a project 24 years later and participate, not in a token way, but in a meaningful way in handing it on to the next generation?’ ” Shipp says. “Of course, he had just come from the set of ‘Star Wars,’ so he got to do it twice.”

He was Dawson’s dad

Shipp’s life and career keep bringing him back to North Carolina. “Dawson’s Creek,” a show named after the Pamlico County backwater of Dawson Creek and modeled after the Eastern North Carolina town of Oriental, was shot largely in Wilmington. For Shipp, who was born in tidewater Virginia and raised in North Carolina, it felt like home. Weekdays meant filming, while weekends meant boating and Jet Skiing at Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach.

“Wilmington at that time . . . it was sort of an interesting mixture of Hollywood culture meets Southeastern coastal town,” he says.

Mary-Margaret Humes, left, and John-Wesley Shipp in the WB series “Dawson’s Creek,” which filmed in Wilmington and ran from 1998-2003. THE WB/FRED NORRIS TLP

Several of the show’s young stars, such as Katie Holmes and James Van Der Beek, went from barely being on the radar to superstardom with remarkable speed, Shipp says. As he sees it, shooting in smaller, calmer Wilmington rather than Los Angeles smoothed what could have otherwise been a jarring transition for them.

During Shipp’s run with “Dawson’s Creek,” he was invited back to Wake Forest – this time, to give the commencement address for Wake Forest-Rolesville High’s (now Wake Forest High School) class of ’99. It turned into a week of events centered around the Shipp family, including a public apology from Wake Forest Mayor George Mackie, who presented the key to the town to Shipp’s parents.

The actor wouldn’t trade these formative experiences for anything, he says, nor the full-circle experience of being invited back to Wake Forest three decades later for reconciliation.

“Change does happen, you know?” he says, reiterating that he loves Wake Forest.

“Looking back, I have nothing but good feelings about the sort of creative combustion that we experienced there,” Shipp says. “The people who weren’t sure about what we had done in 1969 coming forward 30 years later and saying, ‘We’re so sorry, we just didn’t understand’ – it was a movie-of-the-week moment, let me tell you.”


What: Raleigh Supercon

Who and what you’ll see: This sci-fi, comic book and pop culture convention features “The Flash” actor John Wesley Shipp; “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actors LeVar Burton and Brent Spiner; pro wrestler Ric Flair; “Six Million Dollar Man” Lee Majors; the always dy-no-mite Jimmie Walker; Michael Rooker of “The Walking Dead” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”; and even Randy “The Cowboy” Jones from the Village People. And that’s just a few of the guests. On the convention floor, you’ll also find comics and collectibles dealers, cosplayers and the usual fan convention trappings.

When: July 14-16

Where: Raleigh Convention Center, 500 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh

Cost: $250 VIP weekend pass; $60 weekend pass; $50 Saturday/Sunday pass; $20 Friday single day ticket; $35 Saturday single day ticket; $30 Sunday single day ticket. Kids 9 and under get in free. Celebrity autographs, selfies and photo ops cost extra, so visit the convention site for individual rates.