In 1898 white upper class businessmen carried out a campaign of disinformation to incite a race riot to unseat the bi-racial city government of Wilmington, North Carolina. The similarities with the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol are striking. But on November 10, 1898 the white supremacists were successful. There was a massacre of the Black population of Wilmington, which was the largest city in the state. Black civil leaders and entrepreneurs were driven out of town. Their property was taken. Blacks were impoverished and subjected to passive acceptance of Jim Crow. The fusion government of the city was removed, as were judges who were unfriendly to the white supremacists. Laws were passed to prevent Blacks from voting. Political and economic power has been in the hands of whites ever since. The last remnants of reconstruction and the fusion politics that it had made possible ended, as it had throughout the South. That legacy is still with the nation today.
The documentary film “Wilmington On Fire,” directed by Chris Everett, recounts this tragic story from the point of view of the victims. Much of the historical research had been done by a young southern white woman, LeRae Umfleet. She wrote a report and a state legislative Commission began to make the events of 1898 publicly known by 2005. And so the dirty secret that was no secret has become known.
Until 1898 Wilmington had been a thriving port city, half Black and half white. The massacre decimated it, undermining its economic potential for whites as well as for African Americans. For decades similar tragedies scarred the South. The 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma have recently been brought to public attention. Some ask what good can come from bringing out all the dirty history of white supremacy in this country? Chris Everett points out that in Wilmington his film has helped wake up some white businessmen who are now trying to help Black entrepreneurs get established. The Wilmington police department has made the film part of its training for new recruits. And it is being included in school curricula. Exposing an ugly history can have positive benefits. Eventually, reparations?