EXCLUSIVE: CONTROVERSY ABOUT PLANNED 1898 MASSACRE HISTORICAL MARKER
Thanks to the NHCNAACP, there is movement this week to correct the wording of a proposed state historical marker for Wilmington, which commemorates the 1898 race massacre.
That marker, titled “Wilmington Coup,” recalls how, on Nov. 10, 1898, a group of White supremacists started from the downtown area, going through the Port City, killing African-American citizens, and eventually overthrowing the city government, making the event the only recorded coup de ‘tat in American history.
The proposed “Wilmington Coup” marker, however, characterizes the events that began on Nov. 10, 1898, with the following, and some day, inaccurate, information:
Armed crowd met, Nov. 10, 1898, at armory here, marched 6 blocks S.E., and burned office of Daily Record, Black owned newspaper, edited by Alex Manley. Violence left up to 60 Blacks dead. Led to overthrow of city government and the installation of coup leader Alfred Moore Waddell as mayor. “Race riot” was part of a statewide political campaign based on calls for White supremacy & exploitation of racial tensions.
What many, like the NHCNAACP and others, are calling “inaccurate” per the wording, is the sentence, “Violence left up to 60 Blacks dead.”
As a Wilmington Journal editorial published in today’s edition points out, even the State’s own six-year examination of the 1898 Wilmington race massacre is clear in stating that the number of African-Americans killed during the multi-day race massacre remains “unknown.”
“The events of November 10 (the first day of the race massacre) left an unknown number of Blacks dead on Wilmington’s streets. The coroner performed fourteen inquests, but other evidence indicates that the total number of deaths was as high as sixty,” the 1898 commission report states.
A June 2006 story in the New York Times quoted an 1898 commission member, Lottie Clinton, a retired State Port supervisor and 1 of 13 members of a state-appointed panel, as saying, “Nobody will ever be certain how many people died the night of Nov. 10, 1898, on the streets, in the marshes where some ran for safety, or in the swift, wide current of the river that has always defined this port city. The Cape Fear River could be dammed up with Black bodies, but we have no way of knowing just how many.”
The so-called “Wilmington Coup” marker was approved in the fall of 2017, according towww.ncmarkers.com, the website of the North Carolina Highway Historical Program, which is administered by the Research Branch of the NC Office of Archives and History. The NC Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee, which meets just twice a year, “…[reviews] applications received and determines the wording on new markers.”
In this case, according to correspondence The Journal has seen, the application for the 1898 historical marker was submitted by the nonprofit group, Working Narratives, headquartered in Wilmington, which “…[works] with communities to tell great stories that inspire, activate and enliven our democracy.
Members of the historical marker advisory committee are appointed by the Secretary of the NC Dept. of Cultural Resources to serve five-year terms. Their primary job is “…to advise the secretary on the historical authenticity, relative merit, and appropriateness of each subject brought to their attention, to approve or disapprove each proposal, to fix the wording of the inscriptions, and to establish criteria for carrying out the program.”
There were ten members of the committee for 2017, two of which had terms to expire in 2017, while two others are set to leave in 2018. All of them are listed as professors serving at various universities across North Carolina.
However, only one of those committee members, Dr. Arwin D. Smallwood, of N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, teaches at a historically Black university.
Dedication of the “Wilmington Coup” marker will be left up to local organizers here in Wilmington. According to the website, the dedication ceremony is tentatively planned for Market Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. Expected delivery of the marker is between April and May 2018.
Earlier this week, Deborah Dicks Maxwell, President of the NHCNAACP, received correspondence from Rend Smith, Communications Director for Working Narratives, who Ms. Maxwell contacted regarding the organization’s original application for the marker. She had asked Smith to “reach those” at the State Highway Historical Marker Program about the language of the proposed marker, asking for it to be changed.
“I am very concerned about listing that only 60 people were killed. It truly minimizes what actually occurred,” Ms. Maxwell wrote Rend Smith on Dec. 30, 2017. “If you can reach those who have not made plaques at this time to consider using what is at the 1898 memorial “an unknown number” as we will truly never know the real number as records of the deaths of African Americans, especially at that time and considering the circumstances were not recorded properly.
According to a January 2 email from Ansley Herring Wegner, administrator for the program, to Smith, who passed the response on to Ms. Maxwell, a meeting is scheduled for Jan. 5, 2018”… to discuss the historical marker language and our options for how to proceed.”
Wegner went on to say that the marker language may, “…have to [be] put back before the advisory committee in May…to refine the wording. We can’t make significant changes to the wording without their involvement. The words are critical and are part of what the committee is there to advise on.”
Thus far, Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the NCNAACP, and Attorney Irving Joyner, Chair of the NCNAACP Legal Redress Committee and former vice chair of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, are pleased with the response from the State and that the historical marker program administrators seem to be moving quickly to resolve the matter and, possibly, correct the language.
“Good progress,” Joyner reacted in an email.