Monday, December 19, 2005

Wilmington revisited

Wilmington Nov. 10, 1898

The Wilmington report gets a nice write-up in today's Times. And the News and Observer expresses remorse for founder Josephus Daniels' role in it. What's striking, but not surprising, is how such a horrendous event was almost wiped from memory. One member of the commission that produced the report, a 68-year-old black native, said to the Times, "I didn't even know it happened until I was a grandmother."

Also striking, but not surprising, is the difference between the way the story of the "Wilmington Race Riot" had been told--"oft-repeated local claims that the insurrection was a frantic response to a corrupt and ineffective post-Reconstruction government"--and the stubborn facts that the record reveals. Not content to have won the election of 1898 by stuffing the ballot boxes, a white mob demanded an immediate turnover of power. That's when "Hell jolted loose." Further from the Times:

"The ultimate goal was the resurgence of white rule of the city and state for a handful of men through whatever means necessary," the historian LeRae Umfleet wrote in the report's introduction.

The report concludes that the rioting and coup fully ended black participation in local government until the civil rights era, and was a catalyst for the development of Jim Crow laws in North Carolina.

"Because Wilmington rioters were able to murder blacks in daylight and overthrow Republican government without penalty or federal intervention, everyone in the state, regardless of race, knew that the white supremacy campaign was victorious on all fronts," the report said.

The Wilmington report contributes significantly to a larger effort by historians to come to a more honest reckoning with Reconstruction and its aftermath. It joins recent reappraisals of racial violence in Rosewood, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it adds interesting overtones to my own work on a brutal event in Carrollton, Mississippi.

Eric Foner has been at the forefront of this movement. You can get a taste of his work in this neat digital exhibit/essay.

Foner's new book, which includes illustrated essays by Joshua Brown, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, stresses that the failure of Reconstruction was not because it was misguided and corrupt (though corruption did happen), but because white southerners could not tolerate the thought of blacks in the voting booth. The "what ifs" continue to haunt:

What if the brief flowering of equality in the war's immediate aftermath had been allowed to flourish rather than being brutally suppressed? What if the federal government had upheld the Constitution and upheld the rights of all its citizens? The story is at once poignant and urgent. The complex legacy of Reconstruction is lived every day in America. Until Americans understand that history, we are, as the saying goes, condemned to repeat it.

The North Carolina legislature did a brave and wise thing in setting up the Wilmington commission. Back to the Times: a white member "said he had questions initially about whether the report should have been done at all." Why go there? And yet, he said, "'My opinion changed, and I was surprised to learn the depth of feeling that existed and that it was not that long ago."

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