I suffer from the primary carpet-bagging compulsion of the northern writer living in the South: I long to appropriate southern tragedy for my own personal gain. It is unseemly, I know, but ever since I moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, I’ve wanted to write about the 1898 Wilmington massacre, in which the white gentry murdered scores of African Americans and overthrew the liberal local government, in the only successful coup in American history.
But I have kept the impulse in check. For a century and a half, outsiders have come to the South to explain what’s wrong with it, which is of course very annoying to southerners. Think about it: If you hear someone saying nasty things about your hometown, you’ll likely find yourself defending it, even if you hate your hometown. I think this natural defensiveness at least partially accounts for the post-Civil War lies that dominated the 20th century—and which have been incredibly detrimental to southern race relations—so for three years, I refrained from writing about the massacre. But a few months ago, something happened.
As the end of my stay in Wilmington drew near (I would soon be moving west for work), I started taking long walks around the downtown part of the city. You can live in a city for years without really seeing it, unconsciously navigating the familiar blurs for days on end, but once you know you’re leaving, everything rushes into focus. Wilmington is a tourist-heavy city of about 100,000 in southeastern North Carolina, bracketed by the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a very walkable riverfront area, and as the city was never shelled during the Civil War, old architecture is the norm. Protestant churches with arrowed towers and antebellum mansions quartered into three-bedroom apartments line the sidewalks of Market Street. The riverfront area is home to several brick warehouses converted into bars, restaurants and boutiques, and a little north of downtown, tunnels of trees shade the roads past traditionally segregated graveyards.
But as I walked the city, the most distinct characteristic that kept popping up wasn’t old buildings—it was the signs that mark the old buildings, telling the history of the structures.
During one of my walks, I strolled down a block on 2nd Street in which eleven of the fourteen houses have official plaques from the Historic Wilmington Foundation. One of the three remaining homeowners had put up their own plaque, which reads: “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” Interestingly enough, most of the official plaques—of which there are nearly six hundred—tell similarly uneventful stories. In front of the Dickinson House on 2nd Street the plaque reads: “Neoclassical Revival style house built as rental property for Charles R. Dickinson (1877-1956), native of Beaufort, N.C., insurance agent, and wife Lillian Walker (1879-1904), native of Brunswick County, N.C. This house is one of a pair of mirror image dwellings; other house, demolished in 1969…”
The more plaques I read, the stranger I found it that none of the plaqued homes had housed anyone involved with the 1898 massacre, which thousands of Wilmingtonians had participated in.
But I thought maybe it was just the domestic markers that told an incomplete story. Why would you pay for a plaque—which cost a few hundred dollars apiece and are written by the Historic Wilmington Foundation based on research the home owner provides—to commemorate an atrocity that you’ll be reminded of every day when you pick up your mail? So I started looking for city markers that commemorated Wilmington’s darker moments.
I went down to the site of the old slave market at Water and Market Streets, right at the center of downtown, and found a plaque dedicated to a Confederate shipyard that had been located miles away from the site. There was no marker that mentioned the sale of slaves. I walked to the corner of 4th and Harnett, where the first African Americans were killed in the 1898 massacre, and found no markers at all. On my way back through town, I saw a statue of the former attorney general of the Confederacy, a memorial to the Confederate dead, and a sign that memorialized the captain of an ironclad Confederate ship. I looked for markers that mentioned the 1898 massacre, but found only two, both of which went up within the last five years.
One marker, which stands on 3rd Street, told the story of a black newspaper editor who was driven out of town by the violence in 1898: “Alex Manly 1866-1944. Edited black-owned Daily Record four blocks east. Mob burned his office Nov. 10, 1898 leading to ‘race riot’ and restrictions on black voting.”
I found it odd that the sign said the burning of Manly’s office led to a “race riot,” since a state-commissioned historical investigation released in 2006 proved conclusively that what happened in 1898 was not a spontaneous outbreak of violence, but rather a carefully planned coup, orchestrated by patrician white Democrats in order to regain political power and segregate the city.
In 1898, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, and one of the most integrated cities in the South. There was a thriving black middle class, with African Americans in the government, in the fire department, and on the police force. The white gentry weren’t happy about this, and when the progressive Republicans won elections in 1896, white Wilmingtonians began conspiring to retake the government. They held secret meetings, bought high-powered machine guns, and assigned each district of the city a “captain” to command the area when the violence broke out. When the bloodshed began on November 10, prominent whites had been planning it for months.
It’s also misleading to call what happened a “race riot” in the contemporary sense, as the marker does, because the event in question consisted of up to 2,000 whites storming the most traditionally black part of town and shooting African Americans dead in the street. (As I would later learn, the naming of the violence is a contentious topic in Wilmington. The white supremacists who took part originally called it a “rebellion” or “insurrection” to justify their actions, and one historian I spoke to referred to it as a “political conflict.” Others call it a “coup” or a “massacre”—the author of the state-commissioned report on 1898 told me that what happened was in fact a massacre—while the most popular moniker is the totally inaccurate “race riot.”) Between at least twenty-five and one hundred black men were killed during the massacre, depending on whose estimate you go by. (Estimating deaths is quite difficult because of the black bodies left in the streets as an example to others, the black bodies thrown in the Cape Fear River, and because so many blacks fled town after the violence, which makes it hard to know who died and who left. The lowest estimate of the dead stands around ten, and the highest at over two hundred.) No whites died, though one white man was injured by a stray bullet.
After the killings, hundreds of armed whites went to city hall and persuaded the Republican mayor and Republican members of the board of alderman to resign. The Democrats then swore in a white supremacist board of alderman and a new mayor—a former Confederate soldier who had given speeches encouraging whites to shoot any black man they saw trying to vote. The federal and state governments did nothing to prevent the takeover, and the mutinous Democrats held power well into the twentieth century. In the days after the massacre, they gathered up hundreds of prominent blacks and progressive whites and forced them onto northbound trains.
But in all of downtown Wilmington, there’s only one sign that mentions 1898, and that sign presents a sanitized version of history. To find the only other marker that mentions the massacre, I had to walk about a mile and a half north, far away from the foot-traffic of the city’s touristy area.
Tourists come to Wilmington for the beach and the bars—up to tens of thousands on any given weekend—but they also come here for the history. The city has successfully marketed its downtown as “Historic Downtown Wilmington,” and offers several walking tours and historical horse-drawn carriage rides every day. (The click-clack of horse hooves wakes me up every Saturday morning, and the sound often sneaks its way into my dreams, which involve a disproportionate amount of jousting.) Though Confederate markers are prevalent, I have never seen a Confederate flag flying outside a home or business. The city is stunningly segregated, but in my three years here, I have heard exactly two racist remarks from strangers, which is fewer than I heard while living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Austin. Wilmington is a college town filled with educated people, part of a county that came within one percent of going to Obama in 2008, so why, I wondered, were Wilmingtonians trying to hide the day that segregated the city and disenfranchised black voters for decades to come?
I started asking local historians. One of the first people I interviewed was Bernhard Thuersam, Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Cape Fear Museum in downtown Wilmington. When we first spoke, I was surprised by Thuersam’s lack of accent. He was born in New York state, but moved to the South at a young age, and has lived in Wilmington since the early ‘90s, immersing himself in local history ever since. He interrupted me a few times to ask me to why I chose a particular term over another, and when I would present him with a piece of information he disagreed with, he would turn momentarily heated, but he quickly returned a friendly conversational ease after getting his point across.
When I asked him to tell me about the coup, he said, “It was not a coup. People are just searching for words to use to make it sound more important.”
I asked him how an armed takeover of the government could be considered anything but a coup.
“It might have had some coercion to it, but coercion has been used a lot of times in the past,” he said.
As our conversation progressed, Thuersam also took issue with my calling what happened in Wilmington the only coup in American history, which is the way it was characterized in nearly every text I had encountered.
“I think the first coup was in Baltimore in 1861, when Lincoln had city officials and legislators arrested through the government,” he said. “That’s a coup.”
Thuersam’s version of the 1898 violence is that blacks started firing on whites, which instigated the bloodshed. His view contradicts almost all the history I had read about the massacre (excluding the clearly racist website 1898wilmington.com, which sprang up around the time the state ordered a commission to investigate what really happened in 1898). But as I spoke to more historians, I learned that Thuersam’s incredibly implausible narrative had been the accepted version of events until well into the 1990s.
This popular narrative said that on November 10, 1898, white Wilmingtonians burned down the local black newspaper in reaction to an offensive editorial. (The black editorial was in response to a white editorial that promoted lynching “1,000 negroes a week” to protect southern womanhood from black rapists; the black editorial suggested many of these “rapes” were actually consensual relationships, and that if white men took better care of their women, maybe their women wouldn’t fall in love with black men). After burning down the paper, the white mob marched back through the city and encountered a group of African Americans on the corner of 4th and Harnett streets. Even though the blacks were outnumbered and highly out-armed, the story says that they started shooting at the white mob. Both sides fired on each other, and as the day progressed, whites did what was necessary to restore order. The popular narrative suggested that the violence was regrettable, but whites were not to blame. If anyone or anything was to blame, it was—as Thuersam told me—first politics, and second the black newspaper editor who printed the risqué editorial.
But if both sides were firing on each other, why didn’t any whites die? Whites had all the high-powered weaponry, the numbers, the support of the local military, and had actually planned for the violence for months in advance, but even with limited access to primitive rifles, one would think that if the blacks were actually firing on whites, they would have killed at least one white person. (The one white man who was hit with a stray bullet was sitting on his porch, half a block away from the shooting, and there is debate as to which side actually shot him.) And if whites were restoring order, why were groups of white men seen riding in streetcars and shooting into black homes? And if whites and blacks were shooting at each other, why did all the killing take place in the traditionally black part of town? Why were black bodies the only ones left in the streets?
Melton A. McLaurin, Emeritus Professor of History at UNC Wilmington, was instrumental to the movement to correct the myths about 1898, and I wanted to speak to him because he’d published one of the definitive essays on Wilmington’s discomfort with its violent past. During the course of our conversations, he laughed more often than almost anybody I’ve met. In response to every question I asked, McLaurin would crack up and say, “Well, yeah!” before explaining to me the obvious nature of my question. (“That’s like saying, if you jump off a building, you’ll fall!”) But it wasn’t mean-spirited at all. It felt more a necessary mechanism that developed from growing up a white civil rights activist in the South—from spending your life explaining the painfully obvious.
McLaurin, who was one of the leaders of The 1898 Foundation, said that trying to start an honest public discourse about the topic was no small feat. He related the story of a local Republican who sat in McLaurin’s office and said that if McLaurin and his cohorts ever built a monument to 1898, he would be the first to tear it down.
“I think by and large the whole community tried to avoid it,” McLaurin said. “And the white community—which is the community in power, of course—was fairly determined that it wasn’t going to be a topic of conversation in the public sphere.”
As the centennial of the massacre approached and momentum for the 1898 Foundation began to build, one of the catalysts for revising Wilmington’s skewed history was a historical novel. In 1994, Philip Gerard—Chair of the Department of Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington and a former professor of mine—published Cape Fear Rising, a meticulously researched fictionalization of the 1898 massacre.
“The book was an early reminder that 1898 could not be swept under the rug,” McLaurin said. “The people that [Cape Fear Rising] really informed were the people that had a conniption fit about the book. Those were the older families that took such exception to real names being used in fictional work.”
Some of the 1898 conspirators have buildings, plazas, parks, and streets named after them all over Wilmington. (The building in which Philip Gerard teaches at UNC Wilmington is named after one of the conspirators.) Many of the conspirators’ ancestors still live in Wilmington and belong to influential families that were generally not too eager to dredge up the past.
When Philip Gerard was writing Cape Fear Rising as an untenured professor in the early ‘90s, he was called in for a meeting with the Chancellor of UNC Wilmington.
“I walk in and it’s not just the Chancellor,” Gerard said, “it’s every Vice Chancellor and Dean sitting around this conference table. And the Chancellor says, ‘Now Philip, can you tell them what your book is going to be about?’”
Gerard said he was unaware that many of the descendants of the 1898 conspirators were influential members of the university. “I didn’t realize at that point that Mrs. Hugh McRae was the chair of the board of trustees, George Rountree [III] was on the board of trustees, and a number of other families mentioned in the book had close ties in one way or another to the university.”
Gerard was quick to note that he was not threatened during the meeting, but he was later told that, after he left the room, “that there was a spirited discussion and a motion among the board of trustees to not grant me tenure.”
“The great mystery to me was why people were in such denial about it,” Gerard said. “Because it isn’t like I had to make tremendous leaps of logic to get from here to there. Everything in the novel that is public is verifiable.”
When I spoke to Gerard, I asked him if Bernhard Thuersam was correct in his assessment that there was no coup in 1898.
“No, it was really an accident that [the Republicans] all resigned on the same day and white supremacists took their places,” Gerard said, eyebrows clenched. “I mean, give me a break.”
I later contacted the authority on the topic, historian LeRae Umfleet, who in the mid 2000s was assigned by the state of North Carolina to research and write the 600-page 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report. Umfleet is the kind of exceedingly friendly person who puts exclamation points in emails to strangers asking her for interviews (“I would be glad to help!”). Over the course of our interview, whenever I confronted her with quotes from people who criticized her report for being biased or using a limited bibliography, she would laugh and say, “I bet I know who that was,” before clarifying that everybody is entitled to his own opinion.
“Up until [the centennial], it was a hush-hush in Wilmington,” she said of the 1898 massacre. “It didn’t matter which race you were, you just didn’t talk about it.”
She explained that, “A coup did happen. Regardless of which side of the story you want to fall in, there was a coup d’etat. And that is an armed overthrow of a legally-elected government, and that did happen.”
The further I got in my research, the clearer it became that Bernhard Thuersam belongs to a school of Lost Cause mythologizers who, since shortly after the Civil War, have been writing southern history in a way designed to promote white southern honor and minimize the racism of the past.
Melton A. McLaurin described the central narrative of Lost Cause mythology as such:
The mythologized view of southern history presented a wealthy, antebellum planter aristocracy that was morally superior to its northern counterpart. The planter elite benevolently treated slaves supplied by greedy, cruel, Yankee traders, and the Civil War resulted from Yankee jealousy of the South’s success. After four years of gallant resistance, the numerically superior northern forces subdued the South’s heroic troops, after which the region endured the horrors of Reconstruction, including the rule of ignorant, rapacious blacks supported by a northern Republican party bent upon destroying the South.
The motivations of the first wave of Lost Cause mythologizers are obvious: the South needed to create a new identity for itself following the Civil War, and southerners needed a narrative that could erase the humiliation of being the only Americans to suffer foreign occupation. So southern historians changed the past. But the question, for me, is why there are still so many people desperately clinging to these myths.
“Lost Cause mentality just dominated the American South until about 1970,” McLaurin said. “It was taught in the school system; it was taught in the churches.” He believes that a revised history of the KKK also plays a large part in the mythology: “To save white civilization and the virtue of southern womanhood,” the story goes, “the gallant men of the South organized into such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. Using violence only when forced to do so, they overthrew their black and Republican oppressors and reestablished the rule of honest, God-fearing whites who continued to look out for the true interest of the region’s blacks.”
When I interviewed Thuersam, he echoed this narrative: “The Klan was simply an outgrowth of a war, because once you disarm the army, the people will find a way to resist. That’s really what the Klan represented,” he said. “People will react that way; they’re just human beings.”
What surprised me wasn’t just Thuersam’s opinion—though that did give me pause—but the fact that he started defending the Klan without my even asking. Thuersam characterized the Klan’s activities as “a defensive mechanism” and blamed Republican Union Leagues—which empowered black voters—for forcing the Klan into existence. “The Klan was created by the Union Leagues,” Thuersam said. “They were basically organizing the black people to vote down here and terrorizing the white people away from the polls.”
I was quickly learning that the main argumentative tactic among Lost Cause mythologizers is to respond to any racist or unethical behavior on the part of southern whites with rhetoric about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the wrongs of Lincoln’s Party.
“You just absorbed it through osmosis,” McLaurin said of post-Civil War revisionist history. “For people under fifty who didn’t grow up with that mythology except in families and in some churches, it’s dying, thankfully.”
But with monuments, markers, and museums commemorating racist history all over the South, and vocal supporters of what one North Carolina historian categorized as “history grounded in the writings of the first wave of southern historians after the war,” Lost Cause mythology won’t just die on its own. The defensiveness caused by common stereotypes of southerners—racist, parochial, ignorant—and the wounded pride lingering from the Civil War leads to perpetuation of the myth. But the Lost Cause mythologizers I spoke to did not confirm the stereotypes I had unconsciously assimilated about Civil War fetishists. The ones I encountered tended to be intelligent, well spoken, and, besides believing a delusional version of history, friendly, sane people who do not believe themselves to be racist. They also have massive amounts of research to back up their arguments. (After our interview, Bernhard Thuersam sent me a long email with relevant passages from a 1979 Kent State doctoral dissertation about 1898 to help me with my article—not his dissertation, just one he read for pleasure.) But Lost Cause mythology is plagued by confirmation bias. The same could be argued about any written history (I’m sure at least some people will make that claim about this essay), but when you refuse to admit that two hundred armed men in a city hall forcing government officials to resign is a coup, and in the next breath argue that the president of the United States ordering the arrest of government officials accused of treason is a coup, that’s a special kind of reading.
The mid ‘90s were an important time for correcting the myths of post-Civil War race relations. In 1994, the Florida legislature awarded reparations to the survivors of the Rosewood Massacre. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution apologizing for its racist past and its defense of slavery. In 1996, Tulsa erected a memorial to commemorate the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. And in 1996, a biracial group of Wilmingtonians formed The 1898 Foundation, “with the goal of creating an organization that would commemorate the events of 1898 in the centennial year and…improve racial relations in the community.”
LeRae Umfleet said that it was the efforts of The Foundation that precipitated government involvement.
“They were able to pull biracial groups together to talk about what happened and to try to get a grip on dealing with something so significant that happened in their community. And that’s what gave rise to the impetus to create the Wilmington Race Riot Commission in the legislature.”
In 1998, the 1898 Foundation held a series of events aimed at creating discourse about the massacre, in hopes of working towards acknowledging the wrongs of the past for the betterment of current race relations.
“Wilmington in 1898 was probably very much more integrated than it is now,” said Philip Gerard, who has lived in Wilmington for over twenty years.
“It’s like there’s a line,” said Umfleet, who agrees with Gerard’s assessment. “This is a white street, and then the next street over there’s a black street. Before, it was mixed. We saw that change from 1898 to 1900. And by 1905 it was very clear.”
Some of the Wilmingtonians I spoke to believed that denial about the 1898 Massacre has perpetuated more recent racial violence in the city. In 1971, following the integration of Wilmington schools, rioting broke out in Wilmington, and the “Wilmington Ten” were sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison. (Amnesty International subsequently took up their case—on the grounds that they were political prisoners—and they were eventually freed.)
“It wasn’t garden variety confrontation of the type that had happened in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi,” Philip Gerard said of the Wilmington post-school integration violence. “The ghosts of 1898 were still in the room.”
So in 1998, when the grandson of one of the 1898 conspirators—George Rountree III—agreed to participate in a public discourse, it seemed like a big step forward in the healing process. But what followed turned out to be the most contentious event of the centennial year.
George Rountree’s grandfather was “a primary facilitator of the coup,” according to the Race Riot Commission Report, and after the coup, he championed the Grandfather Clause, which would prevent blacks across the state from voting for decades. When his grandson, a Wilmington lawyer, rose to speak to the large biracial crowd at a local church, Professor McLaurin was in the crowd. As McLaurin recalled the events:
[Rountree III] began with a declaration of his support for equality by evoking his appreciation of a childhood mammy, and the silence thickened. He refused to apologize for his grandfather’s actions, insisting that he was the product of his times. He then spoke of his personal relationship to his grandfather, of his boyhood image of this almost God-like figure.
Though McLaurin, like many in attendance, appreciated Rountree’s participation in the public forum, he couldn’t understand Rountree’s thinking. “My grandfather was an enormous influence on my life,” said McLaurin. “[He’s] a man I still admire tremendously. But he had major flaws. And he was a patrician racist of the first order.” McLaurin wondered why “Rountree couldn’t admit that his grandfather had good characteristics, and that he did things that were terrible. It seems to me that that’s just denying the human condition. I just don’t understand why George couldn’t say, ‘I love my grandfather, he was a wonderful influence in my life, and I disagree with what he did in 1898. End of story.’” McLaurin called it “ancestor worship” and worried about its effect on the community.
After Rountree’s speech, several young African American Wilmingtonians stood up and called for reparations. Forced reparations, as anyone involved with contemporary southern race relations knows, are the greatest fear of Lost Cause mythologizers.
“I think we’re race conscious today to an extent we don’t need to be,” Bernhard Thuersam told me. “We dwell upon it too much. We’re fixated on race, and of course that fixation leads to the reparations thing.”
As an example of the ill effects of reparations philosophy, Thuersam recalled the recent renaming of the Smith Creek Parkway in Wilmington to the Martin Luther King Parkway, which he personally went to Raleigh to try to stop. “[The Parkway] was named for Chief Justice William Smith. He was an integral person in the development of Wilmington…You don’t throw him out in the ditch and say someone else is more important. Find a road that doesn’t have a name yet.”
Thuersam said of the young men who demanded reparations from Rountree, “I think those kids at that Rountree thing should have been yelled at and told to sit down, shut up, and open some books up, and read more about history to understand more and realize that you can’t put today’s standards on people a hundred years ago.”
While the centennial proved very effective in bringing the events of 1898 into public discourse, permanently revising the lies of the past proved more difficult. Following the centennial, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History put up a marker on 3rd Street to commemorate Alexander Manly, the black newspaper editor who was run out of town in 1898—the very same marker I saw when I first went looking for the history of the massacre. Except it wasn’t the same marker.
“Not long after we put [the marker] up, it disappeared,” LeRae Umfleet said. “I had people in the community tell me they knew who took it down and they knew whose garage it was in but that they weren’t going to tell me.” It took several years to replace. “We eventually put another one up [in 2007] and it’s still in place, as far as I know,” Umfleet said. “[The markers] are not light—they’re iron-cast—but somebody did a lot of work to get rid of it once.”
It wasn’t until ten years after the centennial, in 2008, that The 1898 Foundation finally succeeded in one of its biggest goals: to erect a memorial to commemorate the victims of 1898. After securing a plot of land, soliciting private donations—from sources as varied as local civil rights activists, to descendants of the conspirators, to the Historic Wilmington Foundation, to the city of Wilmington—The 1898 Foundation unveiled the 1898 Memorial on the corner of Davis and 3rd Streets. The memorial depicts six large oars, which symbolize the importance of water in African spirituality. The oars were to honor the African Americans who lost their lives in the massacre, and The Foundation saw the erection of the memorial as a major triumph. But not everyone agreed.
“Most people call it the canoe memorial,” Bernhard Thuersam said. “It looks like canoe paddles. It doesn’t really say much.”
Thuersam is not alone in his assessment. Many locals were against the monument in principle. The comments section in a local news story about the monument’s unveiling was littered with gripes: “ANYTHING to keep the hostility alive, no matter what the cost. Really really stupid.” But it wasn’t just those who were against the monument who objected to its placement and design. “The design is horrible,” said one local. “People driving by have absolutely no clue what the memorial is about. Couldn’t we have spent that money on something more noticeable?”
A main concern was how the monument would be perceived by car traffic, since it’s located away from the foot-traffic of downtown, next to a high-speed, six-lane road.
“Contrast the Confederate Soldier Monument on Third Street,” said one local. “You can be two-hundred yards away and know that it has to do something with honoring a military man. I believe that a traditional bronze monument showing Blacks rebuilding Wilmington, or something along the nature of a Phoenix rising from the ashes would have had far more eye appeal and conveyed the message far better, even to people driving past at forty-five.”
Philip Gerard acknowledged how difficult it is to secure land and funding for monuments, but said he wished the marker had been placed in a more visible place. “That should have been downtown, on Market Street, at the site of the old slave market.”
“I don’t know that if people are driving through know what it is,” said LeRae Umfleet. “I don’t know that it’s marked well enough, and I think that there needs to be more at the corner of 4th and Harnett [where the shooting in 1898 started and where there are no historical markers].” Umfleet added the need for monuments “all over town” to commemorate the massacre, but acknowledged “markers are expensive.”
“People who have money like to mark their family’s history because they’re proud of their family,” she said. “So some of the monuments and things that are in the Market Street area, they were paid for people who collected money to put a monument up. And people aren’t going to collect money among people who can barely feed their families to put up monuments to such tragic history.”
But Melton A. McLaurin saw the monument as secondary. “1898 is what ushered in legalized segregation and disenfranchisement in North Carolina,” said McLaurin. “I think it’s important that the monument be put it up—that that aspect of the history be recognized publicly. But I think even more important was the fact for the first time, as a result of the things that were done by The 1898 Foundation, the events of 1898 were brought into the public discourse of the community.”
While McLaurin is correct that The Foundation brought the events of 1898 into the public discourse around the centennial, I question whether it remains in the public consciousness. As I was working on this essay, I asked one of the classes I was teaching at UNC Wilmington how many of the students had heard of the violence of 1898. Of the eighteen students present that day, two raised their hands. Granted, surveying a group of college students is not a scientific approach to measuring the community’s knowledge of the events. But during my three years in Wilmington, I’ve been very surprised at the lack of awareness about the massacre, especially after the efforts of The 1898 Foundation and the release of LeRae Umfleet’s report. Many native North Carolinian colleagues of mine who had to take North Carolina history in school had never even heard of it.
Umfleet said this general lack of awareness was because the 1898 massacre “had been squished into the corners of history books, or sometimes completely obliterated from the state history lessons people got. Even people who went into college and had NC history classes would not get much about 1898, because the story had been hidden so well.”
On a warm Saturday afternoon in April, I went to the 1898 Memorial and sat on a bench for four hours to get an idea of how many people actually stopped to see the monument. This was a day when the sidewalks of downtown were crowded with tourists with cameras and sunglasses slung over their necks, teenagers doing weekend shopping, and locals walking dogs and smoking cigarettes. But during the entire afternoon I spent at the 1898 Memorial, not a single person came by to view it. I sat on a bench waiting and looking at the oars, six stately symbols completely hidden from public understanding.