Wilmington on Fire

“Wilmington on Fire”

        November 10th, 1898 is a date that holds many titles in Wilmington and across the state. Long deemed a “race riot” by many, including the state-sanctioned commission set up to research the incident, the events of that day and their impact are more indicative of other words; Coup d’état. Theft. Massacre. Many people are aware of a basic narrative of a violent mob that left a dozen people dead in the streets. In his documentary “Wilmington on Fire”, director Christopher Everett delves deep into the layers of this coup to reveal information that could come as a surprise to most of the public.

 “What surprised me once I started researching was the many layers to the story and how organized it was”

        It all began a little over five years ago when Christopher was working on a fundraising documentary for the Laurinburg Institute. “I kept running into the racist climate in North Carolina at that time, and 1898 kept popping up,” he says. “I decided right then I wanted to make a film on the topic.” Admittedly, he didn’t know that much about what had happened when he started. Born several hours away from the Port City, his family had not passed that story on.

        “What surprised me once I started researching was the many layers to the story and how organized it was,” says Christopher. A major point brought up in his film was the complicity shown by the state government when the massacre happened and beyond; it took until the commission was formed in 1993 that it was even officially called a coup. What many people think of as a spontaneous event was a planned overthrow of the democratically elected officials, and a complete failure to respond by every level of government from local to federal. Given the racial climate of the time, there was overt compliance to the coup in several branches of state government.

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The panel at Kenan Auditorium after the January 21st screening.

        When it premiered last year at Cucalorus, “Wilmington on Fire” sold out in short order; the rush line wrapped around Thalian Hall towards Princess Street. The three screenings that followed sold out as well; Christopher was surprised at all the support he’s received. He funded the project by himself for the first several years, then relied on crowdfunding and an anonymous donor to get it through production. “I’m very thankful for all of the support from everyone in Wilmington, and throughout the country,” he says. “I thought I would get a lot of resistance [to the film] but I never did.”

        Christopher wants to eventually get the film shown in schools, but has his doubts; instead he is working on individual screenings for interested schools. After a January 21st showing at Kenan Hall, “Wilmington on Fire” will travel to Charlotte, Goldsboro, Durham, and other parts of the country before returning to Wilmington for the North Carolina Black Film Festival at the end of April. Christopher is also planning a DVD release this summer that will include bonus footage. A sequel to “Wilmington on Fire” is in the works that will go into further details about events both before and after the 1898 coup.

Kent Chatfield

Within five days, I had found the names of all the coup leaders,the people involved, and the chain of events

        A native of Wilmington since 1963, Kent Chatfield has been hearing about 1898 since he was nearly 5 years old. “Some of the members of my church and their families had been involved in the coup,” he says. People discussed it quietly in all sorts of ways; from how terrible it was, to outright gloating, but most of the talk was meant to suppress any conversation. “Of course, the black community wasn’t going to stop talking about it because they knew what had really happened,” says Kent. When the General Assembly created the race riot commission in 1993, Kent had a feeling it wouldn’t lead to anything. He was right; after ten years, the commission announced their findings to be inconclusive based on the length of time since the event and the lack of remaining records. It was at that point he took matters into his own hands. “Within five days, I had found the names of all the coup leaders, the people involved, and the chain of events,” says Kent.

Alex Manly resized
Alexander Manly

        On the receiving side of the latent violence was Alexander Manly, editor of the Daily Record that he co-owned with his brother Frank. Began earlier in 1898 as the Wilmington Record, their readership grew so quickly among both white and black residents that they soon became the only daily African American newspaper in North Carolina, and possibly the entire country. The August 18th editorial would catapult both the Record and the Manly brothers into the midst of an already racially charged powder keg. Earlier in the month, Georgia native Rebecca Felton had publicly called for a lynching campaign to “to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts”. Alexander Manly rebuked her charges with the Record, pushing back against the notion of the “Black Bully” and calling attention to the hypocrisy of white men protecting their women while having long taken advantage of black women throughout slavery and beyond.

        Two of the lead conspirators, William Barry McKoy and Alfred Moore Waddell, were prominent Wilmington citizens during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Both men were lifelong Democrats and segregationists, therefore disgruntled with the recent swing in political power toward the Republican Party; they were even more upset that newly freed slaves were a large part of this shift. McCoy also happened to be the chairman of the board of elections during the November 2nd elections of that year. When the election favored the Republican and Populist fusion party, he falsified the final tally to shift power back to the Democrats. Knowing that something was amiss, local Fusion party leaders demanded a recount.

        Manly published the story of the recall in the Record, but the impetus for the coup was already in motion. By that point Manly was just a focal point for white aggression. No one knows who warned him and Frank of the incipient violence, but he had left Wilmington for good by the morning of November 10th. When the mob reached the Record they searched for the Manly brothers to no avail. At some point a fire was lit, and the second story of the building was burned completely. The mob even posed for a photo that has come to be the most widely recognizable symbol of the entire event.

White Government Union mob poses outside the burned Daily Record
White Government Union mob poses outside the burned Daily Record

         Another notable black citizen run out of town was Thomas C. Miller. A former slave who became a prominent businessman with property on Front Street, his loan business had expanded to the point where he was lending extensively to both black and white residents. When the collaborators put their plan into action, he was seen as a posterchild for the thriving African American, something that the coup leaders could not allow. It’s possible that his family was held hostage to discourage him from returning to Wilmington. Along with the majority of the black intelligentsia of Wilmington, both Miller and the Manly’s fled north. Frank ended up teaching at Tuskegee University, while Alexander fell back on his training as a commercial painter; neither of them ever worked in the newspaper industry again.

        Another Wilmington native, Larry Reni Thomas is a graduate of New Hanover High School and UNC Chapel Hill, with both a Bachelor and Master’s degree in History. His first experience with 1898 came when he suggested to his advisor that his thesis be on the Wilmington Ten. His advisor said that hadn’t become history yet, and suggested looking into 1898. What he found was a history of oppression larger than he thought. “Wilmington is almost synonymous with racial violence,” says Larry. There had been five riots prior to 1898; in 1831 several slaves were accused of an attempted overthrow after word spread of the Nat Turner Rebellion. They were captured and executed, their heads posted at what is now Castle Hayne Road.

Larry Reni Thomas
Larry Reni Thomas

1898 was just a part of the unfolding drama that got the ball rolling

        “1898 was just a part of the unfolding drama that got the ball rolling,” says Larry. The later massacres in Atlanta, Rosewood, and Tulsa were modeled after Wilmington, and were a part of the larger picture of the expanding Jim Crow South. One major difference between Wilmington and the other locations is the response of the state and local governments after the fact. Some of the Rosewood victim’s families were compensated in 1994; the Tulsa commission did manage to set up a scholarship for some descendants of the violence. Larry and others think it is time for the theft of 1898 to be recognized, and the descendants repaid in some way.

        “I incorporated my organization [ICROW Inc.] in 2003 to push for compensation,” he says. The International Organization for Compensation/Reparations for the Victims of Wilmington 1898 aims to do exactly what the title suggests, as well as educate the public and provide scholars the opportunity to research and identify the victims. Beyond that, legal help is really what Larry is looking for. “We’ve found the descendants that we need to find,” he says. What they need now is an “altruistic, progressive” lawyer to take on the case.

        Considering how long it took for the state to attempt research on the event, it can be difficult to figure out the timeline, but Larry is in this for the long haul. “I’m a scholar, I don’t want anything out of it,” he says. “The right thing to do is compensate the victims of this theft.” Larry has also done extensive research on the Wilmington Ten, publishing “The True Story of the Wilmington Ten” in 1982.

        If you are interested in contacting Larry, you can reach him at icrow1898@hotmail.com.

        One well-known element of the 1898 story may be incorrect. Many people familiar with the story have long associated Hugh MacRae with the violence. “I’d heard a lot of stories about Hugh MacRae possibly being the leader of the coup,” says Kent, “but a member of my church who was involved said repeatedly that MacRae wasn’t involved at all.” The story stems from the Secret 9, the group that supposedly laid the plans for the overthrow. MacRae refused to join them on the grounds that it was treason.

        Another facet of the coup many people may not be familiar with how long is lasted; the violence did not stop until November 14th. While still a born segregationist with all the racial prejudices of his era, MacRae did play an integral part in halting the bloodshed. When the Wilmington Light Infantry had reached his Seagate and Winter Park properties on the 13th, he assembled a group of his men and rode to the WLI building. Given his rank as captain, he and his group were allowed past the checkpoints. “They probably thought he was coming to join the overthrow,” says Kent. While there was no legal course of action he could take, MacRae reminded the collaborators that he could execute them all for treason. With most of their manpower in the countryside, the WLI leaders were forced to send out dispatch riders with orders to stop the killing. It wasn’t until 1936 when Harry Hayden published “The Story of the Wilmington Rebellion”, the first known publication accusing MacRae of leading the coup.

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