Wilmington massacre of 1898 is focus of documentary, online discussion

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Historian Larry Thomas was born and raised in Wilmington. But it took decades for him to learn the truth about a violent chapter in the history of his hometown and North Carolina. Before his college years, he never learned details about what happened there in 1898.

"But there were whispers. Wasn't anything concrete but growing up in Wilmington, I knew that there was something wrong with the place," he said. "Couldn't put my finger on it. Black folks seemed to be apprehensive about hanging out with White folks.

He then shared what his graduate school research uncovered.

"The rich White folks inflamed the poor White folks, and told them that these Black people were taking over the city," he said. "Mind you, there were two Black lawyers in town, two Black physicians. Four Blacks on the Board of Aldermen. So this became a threat to the rich White folks, the power structure."

On Nov. 10, 1898, the thriving Black community of strivers that, after emancipation and the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War built successful businesses, homes and professional associations was attacked by angry Whites who looted, burned and chased those who survived out of the port city.

"The significance of the 1898 Wilmington massacre and coup d'état was that it ushered in the white supremacist movement of the 20th Century," Thomas said. "Inflame the poor Whites and to tell them that we can't allow this to happen. But what they were really trying to do was gain back the power that they had before the Civil War."

It's a noteworthy, if sordid period in North Carolina's rich history.

"People did die. Some people fled for their lives. Some elected officials were removed from office. This is an important story for us to tell," said Michele Lanier of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, moderator of a discussion that will follow the November 19 online streaming of "Wilmington on Fire," a 2015 documentary produced and directed by Christopher Everett.

Thomas noted the events took more than just a physical toll on all the residents of Wilmington and the city itself.

"It actually did psychological damage to not only the White citizens, but the Black citizens. It destroyed the economic, political and social structure that was in Wilmington at that time," Thomas said.

Lanier said learning the saga of the Wilmington incident is important to all North Carolinians.

"All of us, I think, need to lean in and know more about the story of what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898," Lanier said. "If you register for the Wilmington On Fire event through Aycock Birthplace, you will be able to access the film and access the Q&A."

To register, go to historicsites.nc.gov, click on Events, then Virtual Program to register and learn more about the film as well as the activity it documents.
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