Many Americans are searching for historical context in order to make sense of what happened at the U.S. Capitol. Again and again, they look to the racial massacre and coup d'etat in Wilmington in 1898, when white supremacists overthrew a duly elected government and took power.
I never grow weary of looking at these old portraits at the New Hanover County Public Library. They date from the 1850s to the present day, and they're available to us all even in these times of Covid-19.
In today's post, I want to reflect a little bit on our history and how we got here-- how we came to be such a divided people, why our racial divisions seem to run so deep and why our country remains the land that the great writer James Baldwin once called "these yet-to-be-United States."
I always wonder what happened to them-- the men, women and children that fled Wilmington after the massacre in 1898. I thought of that again just a few days ago when I stumbled onto one of them in a place that I never would have expected-- a catalog for an art exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston.
The New York Times reported today that the great African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was working on a play about the massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 when she died, far too young, of pancreatic cancer in 1965. The news took my breath away.
Today I'm looking at another artifact from the National Museum of African American History and Culture that has a connection to the North Carolina coast: a first edition of a book called The Conjure Woman, a collection of short stories by African American writer, lawyer and activist Charles W. Chesnutt.
Some of the National Museum of African American History & Culture's artifacts are very small but hold a lot of meaning. This little pinback button is a good example. The button highlights another important moment in the civil rights movement on the North Carolina coast-- the campaign to free the Wilmington 10.
This is the third post in my special series “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “Sundown towns” and racially exclusive resort communities. You can find the other stories in the series here.
"At this point in my research, I was wishing that I could write something about my beloved home state’s history—anything—and not have it come around to race and white supremacy.... So much for telling an innocent little story about a family of bird egg collectors and the popular passion for oology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
At the Newberry Library in Chicago, I also found Edward Price Bell’s diaries from Wilmington in 1898. They are different than his reporter's notebooks that I wrote about a few days ago. Bell used his notebooks to record bits and pieces of interviews. Sometimes he also sketched passages of writing that he later used in dispatches to his newspaper, the Chicago Record. The diaries are of a more personal nature.
Tim Tyson and I edited an anthology on the Wilmington "race riot” of 1898 nearly 20 years ago, but I still got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach a few weeks ago when I looked at Edward Price Bell’s diary and notebooks at the Newberry Library in Chicago.... Bell covered the white racial violence in Wilmington, N.C., as a roving reporter for the Chicago Record. I wanted to see the notebook that he kept while he was in Wilmington....