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Wilmington Remembers the Past to Improve the Future of Race Relations

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WILMINGTON — One hundred years ago, chaos erupted in eastern North Carolina. November 10, 1898 -- a day known as the Wilmington Race Riot.

There were people killed, buildings burned, and government leaders run out of town. It was the only successful coup d'etat in the history of the United States.

Wilmington is remembering its past and reflecting on how it has changed since that one day 100 years ago, a day marked by fear.

"Fear. Even today, what they don't know is what they fear," says historian Margaret Rogers. "Fear."

"A lot of people don't know. It's amazing how many people just don't know about it," adds historian Harry Warren of the Cape Fear Museum. "It was a very volatile situation."

November 10, 1898. A race riot that lasted just one day. It happened 30 years after the Civil War.

"African Americans had a new found freedom and they were exercising it," says Warren.

"They began to hear little phrases such as, 'Oh, you're from Wilmington, the town that's run by the niggers," Rogers explains. "Some members of the community felt that blacks had forgotten their place. They were threatened, and if it became necessary, they would choke the Cape Fear River with black bodies. The river would run red with black blood."

On November 10, 1898, the tension snapped. A mob of white men marched to the city's black-owned newspaper building and set it on fire.

"Shots were fired," says Warren. "Some white men were wounded, some black men were wounded and killed."

"We have no idea how many black people were killed," says Rogers. "And some of the ones that were killed were left in the streets and their families could not go and get the bodies."

It was a huge deal that day. Warren say the riot was written about and reported from coast to coast."

Dr. Silas P. Wright, the white Republican mayor, resigned as did several members of the city council and other officers -- both black and white. The revolt was growing. It now had the support of some of the most powerful men in the city.

There are descendants of those who were part of the riot. Hugh MacRae says even though it's apparent his grandfather participated in the riot of November 10, 1898, he spent the rest of his life as a kind and generous person.

"As far as I know, he had nothing against black people, per se," says MacRae." If indeed he was involved, and apparently he was, I expect they were just part of a ground swell that was trying to reassert their authority in the Wilmington area. And I suspect this affair in Wilmington, whatever it really was, simply got out of hand."

For months, Wilmington has been holding a series of interracial dialogues leading up to the 100th anniversary of the race riot. It's an effort to try to understand the past and move forward together into the future, an effort aimed at reconciliation.

The mission is to tell the story, honor the memory, heal the wound, and restore the hope.


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