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Residents are working to help Wilmington, N.C., heal racial divisions that persist 100 years after whites ran blacks out of town

City Struggles to Bridge Century-Old Rift

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998


Overlooking the Cape Fear River as it flows toward the sea, the antebellum landmarks of old Wilmington stand like stoic, silent witnesses to a brutal act kept buried by this North Carolina port for 100 years.

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Historic plaques gracing the city's marble walls and Italianate halls betray not a word about the killings of 1898, nor do the glossy brochures on display at tourist sites and gift shops.

Yet like the Cape Fear breeze that whispers through the oaks and crape myrtles lining Wilmington's avenues, the century-old secret haunts local residents.

"We still suffer the mental effects of 1898," says Kenneth Davis, a Wilmington native. "There is an element of fear based on years of suppressing this incident and people talking about it in back rooms with hushed tones."

What happened is this: On Nov. 10, 1898, hundreds of white supremacists rode through Wilmington shooting and killing blacks. The mob drove hundreds out of town in a systematic campaign to rid the majority-black metropolis of "Negro domination."

The violence left deep scars on Wilmington, fostering economic and political decline and racial unrest. The incident lived on as the community's central memory - one everyone shared but no one talked about.

"It was the single event that most shaped the world that we grew up in, and in ways that far transcend acts of racial violence," says David Cecelski, North Carolina historian and co-editor of the coming "Democracy Betrayed: The Wilm- ington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy."

White Democrats who led the massacre seized power, taking control of the state's biggest city in what is considered the only coup d'tat in US history. The incident had far-reaching impact: It marked victory for the state's white-supremacy revolution, led to the disenfranchisement of blacks, and rolled back decades of progress for African-Americans.

Almost as bad as what happened in Wilmington was what did not.

Pleas by both blacks and whites for help reached the desk of President McKinley, but no aid ever came. Nor did an official apology, or any admission of wrongdoing by those responsible.

In an Orwellian denouement, those behind the coup not only evaded justice, they became heroes. From North Carolina to Washington they won high-ranking political posts. Over the past century, their names have been enshrined in public places, monuments, and history books. Today, their descendants remain among the most powerful people in Wilmington.

As the event's 100th anniversary nears, a biracial group of activists is working to resurrect the past fully and help the city heal. But it faces resistance from defensive whites and resentful blacks.

"Before the next millennium is upon us, we must move forward," says Bertha Todd, co-chair of the 1898 Centennial Foundation, which is promoting racial reconciliation.

From boomtown to bust

Bordered by swamps and sand-hill banks to the west and the Atlantic to the east, this city of 64,000 has more the air of an isolated outpost than of the Southern boomtown advertised by boosters.

Tourism is a mainstay in Wilmington, which boasts an "international" airport served by three carriers. In recent years, the city has attracted a population influx that includes many retirees as well as some high-tech firms.

Nevertheless, Wilmington's growth since the turn of the century has lagged well behind that of New South meccas like Savannah, Ga. Indeed, with its Confederate monuments and quaint azalea festival, many residents view it as a parochial community.

It's hard to imagine that only 100 years ago Wilmington was the biggest city in North Carolina, with a thriving trade in naval supplies, a major rail center, and political prominence.

Moreover, the city had an unusually large, prosperous black middle class, and a population of 20,000 that was 60 percent African-American. It was a magnet for thousands of freed slaves, who migrated to Wilmington after the Civil War for jobs generated by a business and construction boom. Blacks worked as skilled tradesmen, judges, and policemen.

In the 1880s, blacks were also making political gains. After a "Fusionist" coalition of Populists (mainly white farmers) and Republicans (predominantly blacks) ended the long-standing rule of Democrats in North Carolina and Wilmington, new election rules encouraged black participation in government. Soon, two blacks were elected aldermen in Wilmington.