By: Emiene Wright
If you’ve ever been to Wilmington, N.C., you’ve seen lovely beaches, a welcoming boardwalk and resort attractions. But the history buried in the sand is as bloody as they come. On November 10, 1898, mobs of Wilmington whites organized the nation’s longest standing coup d’etat, killing dozens of African Americans, deposing duly elected officials and birthing discriminatory race codes that would hold sway throughout North Carolina and the South for the next 70 years.
Documentary film Wilmington on Fire explores this shameful history and its repercussions felt today, with interviews from historians, activists and direct descendants of the victims. Filmmaker Chris Everett produced and directed the effort, which premiered to sold-out theaters at Wilmington’s 2015 Cucalorus film festival. Wilmington on Fire had the highest attendance of any screening in all the festival’s 21 years.
“It was cool seeing a line wrapped around two blocks and then a massive line inside. But hearing the response from people afterward was really amazing. A lot of them had heard pieces of the story, but had no full picture of what had happened,” Everett said. “One guy’s great, great grandfather had been a police officer back then, but after the massacre [the whites] fired all of them. He had a picture of his great, great grandfather in uniform but until then had no idea why he’d left the force.”
Everett wants viewers to understand American history and why this piece of history has been hidden for such a long time. The reason is as simple as it is chilling: the coup remains in effect, and the children of the murderers are still in power.
“A lot of our laws in North Carolina were introduced by the people behind the massacre. The North Carolina Bar Association was created by these people, so it explains why the laws are always stacked against us and education is a mess in Black areas. The reason a lot of things are the way they are is because of how the white supremacy movement in North Carolina started. This was the catalyst for the entire Jim Crow era,” Everett said.
Before the turn of the century, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina. It was also majority Black, and even before the Civil War, the port city of 10,000 had a solid middle class of freemen, artisans and skilled workers. Queen Quet, head of state for the Gullah/Geechee Nation, lent her expertise to the film, providing historical context for the times. According to her, the presence of famously independent Gullah/Geechee culture was a main engine of African-American self-reliance in Wilmington prior to the terrorist attack. Emancipation and the Reconstruction period saw Black people amassing capital, building businesses and voting, though not without armed resistance from the Klu Klux Klan, former Confederate soldiers and other terrorist groups.
In 1898, the city elected a racially diverse slate to office which was one-third Black. A secret cadre of white supremacists organized and planned to seize power if Democrats—the party of white power—lost to Republican candidates. The Democrats launched a stunning assault on Wilmington’s Black citizens:
- More than 2,000 whites took part in the insurgency
- Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) and federal Naval Reserves, sent to stop the riot, instead joined in and began firing on Black citizens
- Black newspaper The Daily Record was destroyed and publisher William Manley run out of town
- Thomas C. Miller, a formerly enslaved businessman who became so prosperous he lent money to blacks and whites, was run out of town on a wagon. He became a prominent businessman in Norfolk.
- Less powerful Blacks who didn’t have the resources to flee were terrorized by savage mobs of whites. Their bodies lay in Wilmington streets and the surrounding swamps for three weeks.
- North Carolina Governor Daniel Russell and U.S. President William McKinley ignored both the coup and calls for financial redress
- 2,100 blacks left the city permanently, having to leave behind their businesses and properties, effectively bleaching Wilmington into a white-majority city.
In 2000, the North Carolina General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to assess the economic impact of the coup on African Americans. After five years the group produced a report which was used as the basis for 10 bills earmarking scholarships and economic development for victims’ descendants. The bills were soundly ignored by lawmakers.
Larry Reni Thomas, who appears in the film, founded the International Organization for Reparations and Compensation for the Victims of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, Inc. in 2003. He says the economic repercussions are being felt to this day.
“Look at Wilmington now. We own no hotels, no media outlets, no newspapers or magazines or anything. We had more back then than we do now,” Thomas said. “We were robbed, and we want compensation.”
But the effects went far beyond money. The program of erasure, whitewashing history and disinformation around the events left deep scars within the community.
“They not only destroyed the vehicles of economic empowerment which are central to independence, but they then indoctrinated generations so that the descendants of those that had been attacked, murdered, and displaced would fear coming together today,” said Queen Quet. “Most people of African descent in Wilmington are still terrified of uniting and speaking out with other people of African descent and this type of long-standing psychological damage needs to be acknowledged and healed. Talking about this film I pray will begin that process.”