Arthur Miller’s War, Part 6– “Looks like Christmas every night”

Azalea Festival garden party, 2007, Wilmington, N.C.

Azalea Festival garden party, 2007, Wilmington, N.C.

This is the sixth post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller’s sojourn in Wilmington, N.C., during the Second World War.

While he was in Wilmington working for the Library of Congress, Arthur Miller also talked with several city officials. At first, I didn’t expect these interviews to be as interesting as his conversations with the shipyard workers or with the men and women he encountered in the street.

However, I found the city officials also had perspectives on the wartime city that helped bring that time and place to life.

The chief of police, Charles Terstein, talked with Miller about the rising crime rate in Wilmington. He was buying extra patrol cars and planned to hire 10 additional police officers.

With the coming of Camp Davis and the shipyard, the city had also created its first vice squad, which has to mark the crossing of some kind of important threshold in a city’s growth.

More ominously, Chief Terstein told Miller that he had recently purchased anti-riot gear. That equipment had included a machine gun and tear gas.

Evidently, the chief feared that a recent spate of labor strikes and other social unrest in Wilmington might get out of hand.

Other city officials offered different insights into boomtown life.

The city manager, James G. Wallace, complained that he was finding it difficult to recruit police officers. The town’s budget could not compete with the shipyard’s wages.

The secretary at the Commission for Public Works, Lucy Cantwell, told Miller that the city had recently begun to provide trash collection services for the first time. Trash pickup must be another benchmark in a town’s history.

A local health official, a Dr. Elliott, reported frantic plans to expand the public hospital.

Even the availability of pasteurized milk, a relatively new foundation of public health in that era, had reached its limits. Dr. Elliott told Miller that the consumption of milk has risen from 2,000 gallons a day to 7,000 gallons a day in only a few months.

Cantwell also talked more personally with Miller about how the city had changed.

Before the wartime boom, she told him, everybody seemed to know everybody. Wilmington’s citizens also had a strong sense of place, history and tradition. Cantwell was descended from one of the city’s most prominent antebellum leaders, and she appreciated that strong sense of community and history.

That had all changed in 1940, with the building of Camp Davis, and in 1941, with the coming of the shipyard. It had not been easy for her.

She told Miller that she now met strangers everywhere she went in Wilmington.  Of course, none of the new defense workers knew anything about her family or any of the other old antebellum families.

Few of the newcomers knew anything about Wilmington’s past, in fact.  In the coming years, this would have odd, ironic and sometimes unfortunate consequences.

This is a bit of a digression, but I think it’s an important point to bring up, at least briefly.

At the time of the Second World War, Wilmington’s white leaders had long shown a great deal of nostalgia for the “the Old South.” They romanticized antebellum life and Cape Fear society before the Civil War, which of course was when the city’s prosperity relied almost entirely on plantation slavery.

Needless to say, that was also before the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment banned slavery.

But with so many new people in Wilmington, the city’s white leaders seemed to embrace a vision of the city’s history that gloried plantation society and the Civil War’s “Lost Cause” with fresh vigor.

After WWII, they acted as if they needed to make an extra effort to teach that version of the city’s past to its new boomtown residents, no matter whether they came from North Carolina’s piedmont, the West Virginia hills or New England.

In coming decades, for instance, the city’s white civic leaders frequently organized grand public celebrations that featured parties, festivals and parades redolent of mint juleps, magnolia blossoms and ladies in pastel-colored hoop skirts that seemed straight out of Gone with the Wind.

Eventually local real estate developers even began referring to new luxury residential neighborhoods as “plantations,” which in the South historically, of course, by their very definition, entailed slavery.

Wilmington was already notorious for white racial violence by WWII (more on that in my next post). However, white leaders’ symbolic embrace of antebellum life and plantation society did little to further the cause of racial healing or to prevent new waves of racial violence from occurring later in the 20th century.

But back to Lucy Cantwell and Arthur Miller–

In some ways with which I can sympathize, Cantwell was also adjusting slowly to the new bustling quality of life in Wilmington.  Regardless of nostalgia for the Old South, the loss of a small-town atmosphere was real.

Cantwell told Miller that, before the construction of the army base and the shipyard, downtown had usually grown quiet immediately after the last show at the movie theater.

But by the time that she and Miller talked, soldiers and civilian defense workers filled the downtown streets late into the night. “My golly it looks like Christmas every night,” she told him.

* * *

To be continued– tomorrow, part 7: “Looking for a better day”

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