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
WILMINGTON, N.C. — 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.
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.
But in late 1897, state Democratic leaders launched a race-baiting strategy to regain power. The white-supremacy campaign vowed to end "Negro rule," which was blamed for paralyzing business, encouraging lawlessness, and endangering the "sanctity" of white women.
On the eve of the November 1898 election, whites in Wilmington threatened to kill any black who insisted on voting - even it if meant "chok[ing] the Cape Fear with the bodies of Negroes."
The intimidation worked. White Democrats swept into office in Wilmington and statewide. Leading Wilmington Democrats then issued a white "declaration of independence" stating that all political offices and most jobs would thereafter be reserved for whites.
The next day, a corps of mounted white vigilantes armed with shotguns, pistols, and a new Gatling gun brutally enforced the declaration. They burned down the African-American newspaper building, fired on black-owned stores and residences, and shot to death at least 14 blacks, according to a coroner's report. Witnesses cited by historians said scores more died. Finally, they ousted the Republican mayor and black aldermen.
Today, standing in Wilmington's battered Brooklyn neighborhood, at the scene of the worst violence, Mr. Davis reflects on the havoc. "[The violence] destroyed the economic and political base of the black citizens of Wilmington and created chaos that has lasted 100 years," he says, scanning the empty lots and boarded storefronts. "The black community never recovered."
The massacre spurred a mass flight of blacks, hundreds of whom hid out for days in the woods outside the city. Prominent blacks were marched out of town at gunpoint. Within a month, 1,400 African-Americans had left, and half a year later the prosperous were still departing - their land and jobs taken over by whites.
Meanwhile, leaders of the white-supremacy campaign in Wilmington and elsewhere took power across the state. "It was sort of like being a war hero," says Professor Cecelski.
One of those men, Wilmington lawyer George Rountree, became a state legislator and crafted the "grandfather clause" that in 1902 effectively disenfranchised blacks statewide. Afterward, less than 5 percent of African-Americans in North Carolina were registered to vote.
Yet the racial terror ultimately backfired. In the decades that followed, the city withered. "It was the leading economy in the state, and in 10 to 20 years it became a backwater," says Ms. Todd.
Opening the steam valves
On a recent Sunday evening at Wilmington's Church of the Good Shepherd, a small group of middle-aged blacks and whites pull up folding chairs to speak about 1898 and its legacy.
Cheryl Johnson is a psychotherapist whose great-great-grandfather, a policeman, was beaten by the white mob. She says race relations have improved little over the past century. "People here are still judged by skin color," she says, echoing the feelings of many Wilmington blacks.
The bitterness vented at the church session, and in some 22 other black-white discussion groups formed as part of the 1898 centennial, suggests how destructive racial tensions have been to Wilmington's progress and prosperity.
Those tensions flared most publicly in the early 1970s, when protests and violence erupted over desegregation at New Hanover County schools. The trial of the "Wilmington Ten" - nine black men and one white woman who were jailed in the firebombing of a white-owned grocery store - cast a national spotlight on the city's racial troubles. Delores Moore, whose then-teenage son was among the 10 convicted, believes the incident reflected the 1898 mandate of Wilmington authorities to "keep blacks under control."
Racial divisions remain today, affecting everything from business and schools to politics and relations with police, both black and white residents say.
Greg Allen, a white restaurant manager, was struck by the racial rift when he moved here eight years ago. "A lot of merchants wouldn't welcome black clientele," he says, adding he knows of no black-owned establishment downtown. Would Wilmington be more prosperous without its racial troubles? "Absolutely," he says.
Others point to a lack of investment in black inner-city communities. "Forth Street used to be blooming with stores and cafes. Now there is nowhere to shop," says retiree Retha Johnson.
Blacks, who make up 28 percent of the population, earn less than half the average income for whites. They are also underrepresented on Wilmington's city council and police force, residents say. "I still hear the echo of 1898: 'Negroes will never be an economic or political power in New Hanover County,' " says black historian Fred McRee, a Wilmington native.
Barbara Sullivan sits in the living room of her late 19th-century home a few blocks from Thalian Hall, the elegant antebellum structure built by black craftsmen where whites declared their "independence."
A lawyer by training, Ms. Sullivan is an outsider to Wilmington, but by marrying into one of the city's prominent white families she gained an insider's perspective on the racial sentiments among the elite.
'No one feels an apology is due'
At teas and social gatherings, Sullivan was shocked to hear well-dressed white women use the term "nigger." And whenever she asked about 1898, the reaction was dismissive. "I got so tired of people saying, 'Why do you want to open that can of worms?' " she recalls. "No one feels an apology is due anyone."
Sullivan is now leading the 1898 Foundation's pathbreaking yet arduous effort to promote dialogue between hundreds of Wilmington's whites and blacks.
Her work is part of a wide range of projects spearheaded by the foundation to help citizens understand and overcome the shadow of 1898. A play on the coup will open in November. In October, John Hope Franklin, chairman of President Clinton's race initiative, will speak at a conference. Churches are planning services. A monument and park are being designed to commemorate the event. Education projects are under way to teach the history of 1898, long sidestepped by public schools. A new Web site aims to "tell the story, honor the memory, heal the wound, restore the hope."
Finally, there are initiatives to promote economic development in the black community, including black-heritage tourism.
Still, the foundation's work remains hampered by the lack of involvement by white descendants of the coup leaders.
Behind the gleaming pillars of the Cape Fear Club, a sprawling, exclusively white country club his family helped found, Hugh MacRae II is greeted deferentially by caddies. One of the most powerful men in Wilmington, Mr. MacRae oversees family holdings that range from banks and shopping malls to beaches. The Hugh MacRae Park was donated to the "white citizens" of Wilmington by his grandfather, identified by many historians as one of the "Secret Nine" who planned the 1898 coup.
MacRae says his grandfather did not support the violence; he is adamant that no apology is necessary. "History has shown people will defend their territory," says MacRae, seated in his office. "There's one thing my family and I don't have to apologize for, and that's my grandfather."
According to MacRae, after the Civil War a vengeful Northern government elevated Wilmington's growing black population to political dominance and encouraged them to "get back at the white man."
"I have to presume that intelligent and well-balanced men like my grandfather would have some reason for acting the way they did," he adds, describing his grandfather as "absolutely colorblind."
MacRae's views are seconded by lawyer George Rountree III, grandson of the attorney who crafted the 1902 amendment to disenfranchise blacks.
"[In 1898] the majority of well-educated, economically advantaged people were white," he says. "Democratic processes told my grandfather that the majority ruled, and people who had no stake and insufficient education to make decisions in their best interest ought to be governed by those who did."
Like MacRae, he is wary of plans for a monument to commemorate 1898, saying it would "promote racial irritations."
For many black residents, the absence of a heartfelt apology from prominent whites makes genuine healing impossible. Descendants were not involved in 1898, but they inherited its legacy, they say.
With a velvet-fisted determination, Todd is attempting to mediate. She seeks to win meaningful participation from local white power brokers, saying it is vital to forestall boycotts and protests by more-radical black groups. "Racial unrest could fester if things don't improve," she says. "I believe in pursuing goals other than violence - if it works."