The need to reclaim, repair and rebuild

Published November 16, 2023

By Cash Michaels

Last week, the port city of Wilmington commemorated the 125th anniversary of the tragic 1898 Wilmington race massacre, where, on Nov. 10, 1898, right after local elections, a well-organized group of white supremacists brutally attacked the black community.

Well-documented history tells us that after the Civil War, Wilmington, one of North Carolina’s largest cities at the time, was also its most successful and progressive for African-Americans, who comprised over 50% of the population.

They were accomplished artisans, businessmen, top politicians, and property owners. Wilmington also had an effective black-white fusionist city government.

However, white Democrats saw the progressive success of Wilmington as a threat to their supremacist beliefs, and decided that a violent change was necessary.

Powerful Democrats, like Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, had begun to poison the minds of white citizens with racist editorial cartoons, convincing them that blacks were a definite threat to them, their families, and culture.

Finally, it was an editorial by Alex Manly, publisher of The Daily Record, the nation’s only daily black newspaper, countering charges that black men were unabashedly raping white women, with a suggestion instead that black men and white women actually enjoyed each other’s company, that was used to justify the widespread killing of African Americans by Gatling gun throughout Wilmington by white supremacist so-called “Red Shirt” militiamen. 

Properties and businesses were taken at gunpoint. Blacks were forced to abandon their homes, and either leave town, or hide in a nearby swamp for safety. The Daily Record was burned to the ground.

The Wilmington City Council was overthrown  - the only successful coup d’tat in U.S. history.

Historians note that Wilmington’s thriving African American community was cut to one quarter of its original size afterwards. The city’s black wealth was stolen, and black political leadership replaced.

All of that was 125 years ago, and Wilmington’s African American community still has not recovered.

In fact, Wilmington/New Hanover County’s black population has continued to shrink in the century plus since the massacre. The black community in Wilmington has, and continues to struggle economically as small black businesses fight to find their footing.

It doesn’t help that the city has targeted much of the black neighborhoods for gentrification, renovating old structures for young middle-class white families to live in.

And many of the black community’s historic structures along Seventh Street, like Gregory Congregational Church, and the weather-beaten offices of the Wilmington Journal, North Carolina’s oldest black newspaper, are in dire need of repair.

It has become all too clear that unless there is a healing in the soul of Wilmington, a reconciliation so that blacks and whites there can come together, and indeed, begin the process in earnest, the port city’s black community will never share in the prosperity that the rest of Wilmington seems to be enjoying now.

To do that, all of the citizens of Wilmington, as they did last week, must embrace the truth about 1898, have it taught to their children, and then be earnest about improving the quality of life for all.

There is no hiding the truth of 1898 anymore, something that was indeed done until about 25 years ago. But that truth must be the catalyst for a better future…a future where once again Wilmington’s black community can soar to economic, social and cultural prosperity as it once did over 125 years ago.

(Editor’s note - Cash is an award winning film producer, and writer of columns for five African American newspapers across North Carolina, including The Carolina Peacemaker in Greensboro, and The County News in Charlotte/Mecklenburg. He was moderator for a Nov. 11th symposium on the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre at Williston Middle School there.)