Sara A. Lewis: Did you know that the Oxford American is a nonprofit? That means that when you buy a subscription, wear our super soft logo tees, donate, you're not just supporting us. You're supporting a vibrant network of storytellers and artists in the places we call home and every little bit helps. To support deep stories from diverse voices, which are made possible by you, visit oxfordamerican.org/donate. That's oxfordamerican.org/donate. Welcome to Points South. I'm your host, Sarah A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Today, we joined folk band Birds of Chicago for a live performance from the 30A Songwriters Festival. But first, a segment from KaToya Ellis Fleming. KaToya served as a Jeff Baskin Editorial Fellow for the OA and is currently an Assistant Professor of Publishing Arts at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she serves as editor at Lookout Books. In this piece, she explores the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, which is often called the only successful coup d'etat to take place on American soil. In interviews with experts, KaToya troubles this assessment and examines the effects the Massacre still has on Wilmington today. Here she is.
KaToya Ellis Fleming: There’s a tight little opening to get into this gate here at Pine Forest Cemetery. You know, there’s something particularly haunting about cemeteries anyway, but something about this one, knowing the reason that we are here… that feels a little more sad than, than normal. “Arrive at your destination” Thanks Siri. And actually, I think I am just going to pull up right here, because there’s a directory there… Pine Forest Cemetery, incorporated in 1869, is an expression of the vitality of the African American community in Wilmington at the end of the 19th century. And, as we know, it was also the place where countless African Americans fled and hid during the Massacre on November 10, 1898. It seems like they would have had to hide here knowing they wouldn’t be looked for here. Or hoping that they wouldn’t be looked for here. On the morning of November 10th, 1898, in what had been until that day, the most progressive city in the American South, a fire broke out at the offices of the Daily Record, Wilmington North Carolina's preeminent Black newspaper. As it raged, hundreds gathered to watch it burn, while nearby others denied passage to a crew of Black firefighters. When only the blackened shell of the building was left standing, heavily armed white men posed for photographs with its charred remains and then, satisfied, they moved on hunting and terrorizing Wilmington's Black citizens. Untold numbers of the town’s Black residents fled the Brooklyn neighborhood and hid here in the woods at Pine Forest Cemetery, fearing for their lives. Others swam across the Cape Fear River in search of safety. Some were forced onto trains and banished from town. And many—estimates range from dozens to as many as 300, maybe more—were murdered in broad daylight, gunned down in the streets by members of white supremacist groups who wanted to take over the city's Fusionist government. And they did, in what's often called the only successful coup d'etat to take place on American soil. In years since, the incident has been rebranded as the Wilmington Race Riots, but this was no riot. It was a massacre, months in the making, and predicated on a lie. Prior to moving to Wilmington, I had never heard of the violence that took place in the city in 1898. And though I was saddened by the discovery, I wish I could say that I was shocked. The fact is, this story is one of many throughout the country, hidden from history, silently impacting our day-to-day lives from the inside out. Wilmington is my home now, it's history mine, and yes, I want to unearth it so that I can understand this place. But also this is American history. Our collective story of a past that is prologue. In this episode, I'll sit down with Duke University professor Dr. William “Sandy” Darity Jr., New York Times contributing writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, documentarian Christopher Everett, and my colleague in the creative writing department at University of North Carolina Wilmington, Philip Gerard, author of “Cape Fear Rising.” Here’s Philip.
Philip Gerard: As I looked into the thing, it clearly was about race. It was clearly about a writer, Alex Manly, and the suppression of his right to publish, you know, an editorial. And then the truly chilling part of it hit me, as I got deeper into the research, was that this was a coup. This was not just, you know, say just what, you know, all those things that happened in the South were terrifying. All of the, the racial massacres, lynchings. More terrifying, still, was on top of the massacre was that they actually overthrew the government, a legally elected government in America. And nobody did anything about it. So, not only does that make it different from all those other things, but it means that that becomes the founding story of the city where I live, Wilmington. It isn't just one more thing that happened. It is the founding story. It is the way the government was laid out. It's the way the culture was laid out. It's the way the real estate ended up being parceled out. It's the way the money and the business interest ended up being parceled out, and all that is still in place today.
KEF: Today, Wilmington is the eighth largest city in North Carolina. It's a coastal town with beautiful beaches and a picturesque river walk, which people may recognize as a backdrop from popular movies and shows like “Dawson's Creek” and “One Tree Hill.” It's also, according to the most recent census data, a city with nearly a hundred and twenty-five thousand residents and a Black population of just over 18%. I've met some wonderful people here, but making it my home has not been without its challenges. It's not uncommon to find myself as the only person of color in any given establishment. And it took time to find a salon that knows what to do with hair like mine. For sure, these are not problems that are unique to Wilmington. What stings, though, is when one learns that this place was previously a haven for the Black middle-class and one wonders, had it been allowed to thrive, what that place might look like today.
PG: In the generation and a half from the Civil War to 1898, the most American miracle in the world happened. And it's not—I don't think it's sufficiently talked about—you had people, four million people who left a condition of slavery, where they literally didn't own the clothes on their back. And within 30 years they had created a middle-class with political power. They had educated their children. They had educated themselves. These are people who by law, on pain of death, were not allowed to learn to read and write for 300 years. And then of course there was a systematic undoing of it in the 1890s. And then it continued on through the rise of the Klan out of the twenties and the Jim Crow era. And then finally ended on the streets of Birmingham and the halls of Congress with the Voting Rights Act.
KEF: During Reconstruction, in the years leading up to the coup, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, a thriving port town with a majority Black population and a robust and growing middle-class. Black people served as elected officials and worked in civil service. They were policemen and doctors and lawyers. And if you're thinking that sounds unusual for a city in the American South right after the Civil War, you're right. Wilmington was an anomaly, a picture, historians say, of what the New South could have become.
PG: There was this gigantic wonderful kind of renaissance. And then suddenly that was slapped down in a very violent way. And then everybody started over again. And then you have the diasporas to Detroit and Chicago and Philadelphia and New York and the rest as people left the South.
KEF: This idyllic situation was able to exist due largely to a phenomenon known as Fusion politics. Fusion happened in the state of North Carolina when the Republican Party, comprised of progressive whites and free Black men, aligned with the Populist Party, who were mostly poor white farmers. Together, they joined forces against the Democrats, a party composed mostly of rich white segregationists. And in 1894, they won the political majority and ousted the Democrats from political power. But white supremacists would make sure the coalition wouldn't last.
Dr. William “Sandy” Darity: The folks who were the architects of the Atlanta Massacre were in close communication with the folks who had executed the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. And they patterned what they did in Atlanta on the basis of what took place in Wilmington, so that in a sense, Wilmington set a template for the Atlanta Riot.
KET: That's the voice of Dr. Sandy Darity, the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American studies, and Economics, and the founding director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. He's co-author along with A. Kirsten Mullen of, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century.” Dr. Darity and I recently spoke about the Coup over Zoom.
WSD: What I think people are somewhat mistaken about is the claim that Wilmington is the only instance of a municipal coup d'etat in the United States. You know, the people do draw a line, quite legitimately between what took place in Wilmington in 1898 and what took place this year, uh, January 6th in the nation's Capital, where there was an attempted coup, but Wilmington was not the only instance of a municipal coup d'etat.
KEF: And Dr. Darity. Isn't the only one who feels this way.
John Jeremiah Sullivan: I've started to think that the thing people most often say about 1898, that it's the only successful coup d'etat in American history is really the wrongest thing you can say about it, because it's such a product of and, and kind of culmination of, um, a series of, of coups d'etat that began right after the Civil War and continue beyond Wilmington.
KEF: John Jeremiah Sullivan is an author, a New York Times contributing writer, and co-founder of the Third Person Project, a non-profit documentary research group that he runs with other historians and scholars from the Wilmington area. Among the group's initiatives is the Daily Record Project in which students from local schools use digital media to uncover, restore, and preserve copies of the Record. Most of which were destroyed during the massacre.
JJS: Look at, uh, Louisiana, look at South Carolina. As soon as the war is over, you have this tool kit; the white supremacists have a certain set of tools, they use it to overthrow newly elected Black and white Republican politicians to get rid of them. They do things like manipulate the law in a way that they have to replace the person. And then, and then a white supremacist Democrat is, you know, inserted in that seat and violence, even massacres. Um, sometimes only four or five people, but just enough to let them know you shouldn't get in the way of what we're doing here. And what they were doing was overthrowing democratically elected governments by means of violence, voter suppression, or really voter elimination in some cases and, um, and political machinations.
KEF: It's hard to ignore the parallels between the Capitol insurrection on January 6th and the Wilmington Coup, both of which were precipitated by the systemic spread of misinformation, campaigns that—in the minds of the aggressors—justified the violence. Both events resulted from lawful elections. The legitimacy of which were called into question by duplicitous actors who began underhanded crusades to agitate their supporters. In both instances, these campaigns were based on lies—lies that painted the victims as being responsible for the attacks. As we continue to recover from the disturbing images from January 6th and grapple with what that event says about the current state of our nation, it's hard to say it could have been worse, but it could have. And if you're wondering what could be worse than insurrectionists trying to overthrow the government, think of it this way. What if they had succeeded? In 1898, they did. The question is, how did they get away with it and how do we stop it from happening again? Before we get into the “how” it's important to understand the “who.” First there's Alexander Manly, the prominent, successful and outspoken Black man who was the publisher of the local Black newspaper and a leader in Wilmington's Republican Party. His paper, the Daily Record, championed itself as the only Negro Daily in the world and covered national, state and local news of import to the Black community. Manly used his paper to empower Wilmington’s Black residents. And he often used his influence to encourage them to vote; destroying it would send a message both to Manly and to the city's Black residents, and destroyed it was. Let's talk a little bit about the people who were responsible for that destruction. While the Red Shirts, a group of armed vigilantes emboldened by the Democratic Party were responsible for the violence on the ground, some of the state's most powerful white supremacist Democrats orchestrated the plot for the coup, which was months in the making. Among them were Charles Aycock, a U.S. District attorney who would be elected governor in 1901 and pride himself on having solved the “Negro problem” in North Carolina. And there was Josephus Daniels, a publisher whose newspaper, the News and Observer, was the largest in the state and it was an integral part of the white supremacist campaign. A statue erected in his honor was recently removed from Raleigh's Nash Square in the wake of the protest following the murder of George Floyd. And then there's the former congressman and Confederate soldier who masterminded the plan and led the mob on November 10th as they marched to the Daily Record to burn it to the ground: Alfred Moore Waddell. Here's Philip Gerard with more.
PG: Of course you have Alfred Moore Waddell who had been a congressman. In fact, he was charming and funny and witty and erudite and actually came out in favor of letting educated Black men vote before the Civil War was against secession. As far as I can tell, by the time of 1898, he was more or less of a local joke. And in fact, he left the army under a cloud of cowardice. And so I saw him as a guy looking for the main chance to redeem his reputation. And he's the guy nobody sort of wanted in charge. They thought they could use him because he, among other things, he was a very good orator. He was the speaker, he was the guy that was going to get up on the podium and rile up the crowd. And boy, he could do that.
KEF: Sound familiar? But let's get back to Alexander Manly.
PG: Alexander Manly was a journalist, a printer. And, uh, by all accounts, just sort of a guy trying to help his community. He wasn't a firebrand, as far as I could tell. He was simply doing everything he could to help his community. And so the, the, the extant issues of the Daily Record—I've only seen a few because of course, most were burned up—are pretty harmless. They're talking about so-and-so's rose garden and so-and-so's family is going to spend the summer in New Jersey with relatives. And, uh, and in that regard, that editorial, that started all the trouble that was used as a pretext, I should say. It was really kind of out of character for him.
KEF: It was that editorial written by Manly in the summer leading up to the election that would provide the scapegoat the white supremacists needed to rile up their base. The editorial was written in response to a deplorable speech by future U.S. Senator Rebecca Felton of Georgia, herself an aberration at the time as a Southern woman with a powerful political voice. Felton promoted widespread lynching of Black men to protect the virtue of white women whom she could not fathom would enter consensually into a sexual relationship with a Black man. In the speech delivered to a room full of cheering, white men, she offered a solution. She said, “If it needs lynching to protect women's dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch, a thousand times a week, if necessary.” The editorial that Manly wrote, the response to Rebecca Felton speech, was written on August 18th, 1898, the same day that Wilmington's morning star newspaper reprinted the speech which had been previously published in the Atlanta Journal. It was dated August 12th. What was missing was the year the speech had been delivered on: August 12th, 1897, the year before. Step one of the plan had been to run the piece and see if they could get Manly's attention. And they did. He fired back, and as David Zucchino states in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wilmington's Lie,” he mocked the myths that had sustained whites for generations. The white supremacists had all the ammunition they needed to begin sowing the seeds of chaos. They would make Manly the face of the Negro problem. Then they would take him down and anyone else who got in their way; the Black people who were left, they'd be scared into submission. And then they'd take back the government. And they had three more months until election day to get the whole town on board.
PG: There was nothing accidental or spontaneous about this. They stockpile weapons. And they, on the appointed time, they, they, uh, they salted the ground with sermons, with speeches, with pamphlets, with intimidating tactics. So they determined that they were going to change the city, and they were going to do it right after election day. And they needed a pretext, and they found Alex Manly's editorial.
JJS: They reprint the thing, and people start getting worked up because they've been told to get worked up. So it is, um, just kind of amazing what they were able to do. I mean, there, there are moments when you almost have to stop and admire the brilliance of it before you remember that it was all in the, in the service of something evil and certainly anti-democratic.
PG: And, in fact, the night before election day, he does that famous speech on, on the stage of Thalian Hall. If you see the Negro out voting, tell him to go home, if he won't go home, shoot him down in his tracks. You know, you can't get much more explicit than that.
KEF: And the speech worked. Sort of. Red Shirts patrolled Black neighborhoods on election day threatening would-be voters at gunpoint, and the Democrats won every seat—every state seat. Black folks somehow managed to hang on to power in Wilmington’s city government in the November 9th election. But the next day, all hell broke loose, and the Daily Record went up in flames. But this was no spur of the moment thing, no. Like I said, Waddell and his crew had been planning this for months. So let's back up a bit. Though the stories in Manly's paper often kept it light, he—just like dedicated journalists now—was not afraid, when the situation called for it, to speak truth to power. And that's just what the conspirators were counting on. This was a calculated plan and an intentional misuse of the media that was timed with an eerie perfection. When Black people retained power in the election, it was just further proof that Alex Manly had to be stopped. He wasn't at the Record when it burned. The rioters weren't able to find him, though not for lack of trying. He managed to escape Wilmington with his life, if not much else. Others were not so lucky. Gunfire rang out everywhere as unarmed Black men raced for their lives. The Red Shirts and the Wilmington Light Infantry and other militia groups armed with rifles and a Gatling gun, laid siege to Black neighborhoods. And in the aftermath of the violence, when the duly elected government officials had been forcibly removed from office and newly unelected representatives installed in their place, Alfred Moore Waddell was there, poised and ready to assume his position as mayor of Wilmington. After the Massacre, thousands of the Black citizens who were left fled, and in 1900, the North Carolina legislature saw to it that going forward, Blacks would be denied the right to vote with the enactment of the Grandfather Clause. Thus began the stronghold of Jim Crow in Wilmington, the impacts of which can still be felt today. Here's Dr. Darity.
WSD: They created a refugee community out of many of the Black Wilmington residents who had to flee to other parts of the country and never returned to Wilmington. To me, that's, that's an act of genocidal violence, and it, I think it meets the terms that the, uh, United Nations Human Rights Commission would deploy for identifying instances of genocide. So there's a number of things that changed between the period of the Massacre and in its aftermath with respect to the profile of the Black community in particular. One of the most significant things, from the standpoint of the, the political environment is the fact that prior to the massacre, Wilmington was a majority Black city, and then after the massacre, it was not any longer. The second thing that occurred was actually a diminution in the Black businesses that were located on the prime site in Wilmington. Uh, the, the favorite site for businesses was along the waterfront. And, uh, what we found in doing an account of, uh, the, the presence of Black businesses before and after the massacre, is that virtually all of the Black businesses that had been located at the waterfront site no longer were in operation, no longer existed. Which meant that the massacre had a disproportionate effect on the more well-off Blacks in the city, in terms of, either they were killed, or they were driven out of the city altogether.
KEF: This destruction continues to have ramifications in today's Wilmington, though some strides are being made. Christopher Everett is a Durham-based film producer. He's the founder and president of Speller Street Films and the director of the award-winning film “Wilmington on Fire.” Everett's feature-length documentary chronicles the Massacre and the events leading up to it. But it also opens an important discussion about how we can begin to move toward healing and justice and accountability, perhaps in the form of reparations for the descendants of the victims who lost their livelihoods or their lives in the Wilmington Massacre. I met Chris at the 1898 Memorial Park in Wilmington's Brooklyn Arts District. The first thing I see are the six 16-foot bronze paddles, which comprise a striking monument towering, grand and imposing at the edge of the park. This is a place I've seen many times before driving around town, but until recently I had no idea of its significance. Here's Chris.
Chris Everett: Um, when I first started coming to film the first “Wilmington on Fire,” it's like 2011, 2012, you rarely had any traffic out here. No one was really coming and checking this park out. The good thing about it is it's in the heart of the historic community in Wilmington. Um, this area is called Brooklyn. Um, the Brooklyn district, and this is really where the Massacre really took place. Um, cause right around the corner, Fourth and Harnett, that's where the first Black person was killed. Wilmington back then, you know, really was what the New South was supposed to be after the Civil War. Um, it was a Mecca, not only for African Americans, but for anyone who wanted to come here and raise their families, start businesses, get involved in politics and just, you know, live that American dream. You know, you work hard, and it shouldn't matter, you know, your race, your, your gender, um, you know, your social class. If people wanted to come here, they could, they could find a way to do that. Um, I also want people to realize that we do have certain factions in our society, and we still see that to this day, of people that wanted to, to divide that and destroy that. And that's exactly what happened in Wilmington, and the city never really bounced back from that.
KEF: Everett is currently working on a follow-up to his film, “Wilmington on Fire: Chapter Two,” a sequel that explores the contemporary impacts of 1898 and the ways in which the city is making active strides toward recovery. He wants to bring the story full-circle and explore the ways that folks in the port city have begun the journey to healing.
CE: Well, you know, doing well, doing “Wilmington on Fire,” um, we were fortunate enough to, um, interview several direct descendants of the 1898 Massacre. One was, um, Dr. Lewin Manly. His grandfather was Alex Manly, um, who owned the, the Wilmington Daily Record, which was the Black owned newspaper at the time in Wilmington. I think the biggest thing with a lot of descendants is not knowing, um, the history and just not knowing, you know, why their grandparents, great-grandparents had to leave, um, this town, and, you know, and you also just see the wealth, um, that's, that was decimated. Um, so it just shows you that, you know, just a lot was lost, not only financially, but just history, family history and family ties, you know, that was lost along the way.
KEF: One of the ways that many of the folks I spoke to attempt to help the city recover from 1898 is by educating people, particularly Wilmington's younger generation by involving them in the quest to uncover the past and inviting them to examine how it affects our present, so we can move forward together into a better future. Here again, is John Jeremiah Sullivan.
JJS: Third Person Project, the nonprofit I helped to start and still work with here in Wilmington is, um, it wasn't really created to, uh, achieve any particular agenda. It sort of emerged out of work we were already doing. And then, I guess it was five or six years ago that, um, Joel Finsel, my research collaborator on the 1898 Project, we really started to go deep and make some research trips. And, and we kept seeing these sentences in different essays and books along the lines of “Sadly, no existing copies of the record have survived.” And so Joel, he had the idea. We were driving down the street one day. We had started working with a curriculum initiative here at the university, so people were saying, how do we make sure the school kids in this town, when they reach a certain age, know about 1898 and know that it's part of their own city's history. And Joel said, what if we do it almost like a, like a scavenger hunt or like a hunt, where we get these students, these eighth graders and, and present them with this problem. Okay you had this great newspaper, had, had a huge role to play in a, in a momentous, um, event in American history. And they're all gone, totally gone, even though it was almost 1900 when they were published. And so we, we did it, we started meeting with these groups of students once a week and talking about the newspaper, and how one looked for things that were lost and how you can never trust that. How you had to read critically anytime in a story started talking about forgotten, lost, obscure, all that. ‘Cause a lot of times it turns out it wasn't lost by Black people. It was just lost by white people. And these classes were, were amazing. They were life-changing, I think, and in every group we worked with, there were one or two kids. You could see there, you could see these maybe future historians kind of blossoming, and it was really, it was beautiful. So I think we ended up with seven known copies. You’re really able to look into this key hole onto this culture, this extraordinary culture and community that existed here in Wilmington. Both the Black culture and the interracial culture were, were so interesting. Alex had written this headline, “If you would know us as we are read our papers,” and that kind of became our motto, rallying cry as we went along and our description of what was happening that through these newspapers, we were able to get as close as you can possibly come to the Black world of Wilmington before 1898, before it was decimated.
KEF: “If you would know us, as we are, read our papers.” I got emotional when John showed me that headline. How sad and sobering it is to see that the desire to be understood, seen for who and what we are is one that we still carry. That issue of the paper now hangs on the wall in my office as a reminder to all who see it to respect the history of this place and to realize that the fight continues. My heart bleeds for the people for whom this city was once a Haven, and it bleeds still for us now. There’s an inscription on the memorial plaque. It ends with this line: “We believe these slender yet strong paddles, though rooted in this soil of past memories, rise Skyward to the future in a spirit of reconciliation and hope.” I find myself filled with that hope for this beautiful city. For all of us really. Because this isn’t just Wilmington history. It’s not just Southern history. It’s American history. May we all share the hope for a better future. And may we gather in ourselves the strength to rise Skyward and let that hope not be in vain.
SAL: Y'all asked and we listened. Back by popular demand is the free CD accompaniment to our 2021 Up South music issue. Join us this winter to explore the influence of Southern sounds in Motown, Chicago gospel, Philly soul, and beyond. You can order the music issue today at oxfordamericangoods.org and use the code PODCAST for 15% off your purchase. That's oxfordamericangoods.org promo code PODCAST. Birds of Chicago is an Americana folk band made up of Allison Russell and JT Nero. The Chicago-based band reflects the movement and flow of Southern music detailed in our Up South music issue, available now at oxfordamericangoods.org. Early last year, we met up with Birds of Chicago at the 30A Songwriters Festival for a live performance of their music.
Allison Russell: This is a really new one.
JT Nero: Yeah, we thought we’d do a really new one.
AR: Actually, we’ve never played this for other people before, per se. So yes, world premiere.
JTN: Alright, it’s called “Red Skies.”
Birds of Chicago: [“Red Skies”]
SAL OUTRO/CREDITS: Thank you to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the African American History Commission for making this episode possible. This episode was produced by me, KaToya Ellis Fleming, Sarah Whites-Koditschek, Hannah Saulters, Noah Britton, and Julia Kraus with Trey Pollard. Audio mixing by Curtis Fye and post production and score by Spacebomb. Special thanks to William "Sandy" Darity, Christopher Everett, Philip Gerard, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, and to David Zucchino and LeRae Umfleet whose respective books, "Wilmington's Lie" and "A Day of Blood" were instrumental to our research. Thanks to 30A Songwriters Festival, Fayetteville Roots, Visit Fayetteville, and Birds of Chicago. Sign up for our newsletter at oxfordamerican.org/newsletter for all the latest OA and Points South information. And remember, promo code PODCAST gets you 15% off any purchase at oxfordamericangoods.org. Thank you for listening. We hope you've enjoyed the show.