Guest Editorial: Historical marker teaches Wilmington race riot’s lessons

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History doesn’t change, but it can be hidden.

One of the ugliest episodes in North Carolina, and U.S., history occurred in Wilmington in November 1898, when the city’s elected government was overturned in a bloody, racist takeover. It was a shameful defeat for the rule of law, the only instance of its kind in our country, and neither the state nor federal government did a single thing to rectify it or punish the perpetrators, whose crimes included murder.

For many decades later, this horrific episode was all but erased from history — not taught in schools or publicly acknowledged. While Confederate heroes were cast in bronze from one end of the state to another, the victims of Wilmington were officially forgotten.

That began to change in the 1990s when historians, authors and journalists ventured into this dark corner of the past. In 2000, the legislature appointed a commission to study the events of 1898, and six years later a detailed report was issued. In 2008, the city of Wilmington dedicated a monument to what’s often been called the Wilmington Race Riots.

Now the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources plans to set up a historical marker that, in only a few words, will provide a historically accurate summary of what happened. It will say: “WILMINGTON COUP”

“Armed crowd met, Nov. 10, 1898, at armory here, marched 6 blocks S.E., and burned office of Daily Record, black-owned newspaper edited by Alex Manly. Violence left up to 60 blacks dead. Led to overthrow of the city government and the installation of coup leader Alfred Moore Waddell as mayor. ‘Race riot’ was part of a state-wide political campaign based on calls for white supremacy & exploitation of racial tensions.”

The marker will be placed on Market Street, near Wilmington’s Cape Fear River waterfront, in a busy part of downtown.

An older marker stands at the site of Manly’s newspaper but doesn’t give as much information. Nor does it occupy such a prominent location.

While a marker is a small text for such a significant event, this one may present the initial introduction to its topic to thousands, or tens of thousands, of visitors to Wilmington, an attractive coastal city that draws tourists, convention-goers, college students and beach vacationers. The brief account may inspire readers to investigate further and learn more about a key moment in the history of our state and country.

Wilmington was a target of white supremacists because of its large and somewhat prosperous black population and its Republican-fusionist city government. The campaign of violence that swept through the city changed everything.

The attack was an act of terrorism meant to intimate blacks and white Republicans from seeking or holding political and economic power. It was devastatingly effective. By 1900, blacks were largely prevented from voting. White supremacist Democrats gained total control of state government and immediately enacted laws that created an apartheid regime known as Jim Crow.

This devious movement spread to other Southern states and lasted until the 1960s when it was broken by federal force — six decades too late.

The state historical marker tells the truth — about the scores of black people killed, about the larger campaign of white supremacy and about the “coup” that overthrew a democratically elected government. That is something most Americans might think was never possible in this country. They should know differently.

There was discussion in Greensboro about whether a state marker should label a violent clash that happened here on Nov. 3, 1979, a “massacre.” Nazis and Klansmen on one side and Communist Workers Party demonstrators on the other fired at each other. But only CWP members — five of them — were killed. It was a massacre.

The facts of history can be hidden, but truth-seekers must bring them out and teach them. The lessons are still fresh today.