If you go online, and search Wikipedia for “Wilmington Insurrection of 1898,” and then go down until you find how many were killed during this violent, racist, unprovoked attack on decent African-American citizens in November 1898, you’ll see the following:
“Originally described by White Americans as a race riot caused by Blacks…a mob of nearly 2,000 White men attacked the only Black newspaper in the State, and persons and property in Black neighborhoods, killing an estimated 15 to more than 60 victims, and destroying homes and businesses built up since the Civil War.”
Now here’s the REALLY interesting thing about this Wikipedia passage: It is based on a June 4, 2006 New York Times article by John DeSantis, titled “Wilmington, N.C. Revisits a Bloody 1898 Day and Reflects.”
But that’s NOT “the interesting thing” to which we’re referring.
“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,” said Lottie Clinton, a retired State Port supervisor and 1 of 13 members of a state appointed panel that studied the night’s events for six years. “A lot of people, nobody ever heard from them again, so you just couldn’t know whether they ran away and never came back or were killed.’”
The “commission” to which the Times story was referring was the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, and, according to the Times, “The panel….concluded in a report released this week that what happened was not a riot but a well planned insurrection by White businessmen and former Confederate soldiers, mostly Democrats, against a lawfully elected government of Fusionists and Republicans, who were mostly Black.”
But that first line of the Times story from 2006 about one of the key conclusions from a commission member is extremely important here:
“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.”
OK, so the Times quotes a commission member, saying, “Nobody will ever be certain how many people died …” So we go straight to the commission report, since Ms. Clinton and her fellow commissioners spent six years putting it together.
Under “1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission FINDINGS, bullet point #7 reads, “The events of November 10 (the first day of the race massacre) left an unknown number of 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.”
What “other evidence?” From where and from whom? And given that some of the first reports from the days of the race massacre erroneously had Blacks attacking Whites, then certainly getting sources of accurate information from the very people perpetrating or supporting the massacre was absolutely foolhardy.
The bottom line here is that we DON’T KNOW, and we may NEVER know. There is NO certainty as to how many Blacks in Wilmington were killed then. Serious research needs to be done by someone reputable on that point, and we simply don’t have it yet.
So why, as the New Year is just beginning, is The Journal bringing this up now? It is because, right before New Year’s Day, it was reported that the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Committee had approved a new plaque to be placed in downtown Wilmington, commemorating the 1898 race massacre.
According to published reports, the language on the planned marker reads, in part, “Violence left up to 60 Blacks dead,” but, according to the State’s own commission, that statement IS NOT TRUE!
“The events of November 10 left an unknown number of dead on Wilmington’s streets.” So how many bodies were in the Cape Fear River or elsewhere around what was considered the largest municipality in North Carolina at that time?
Answer – NO ONE KNOWS, and the commission report tells us that!
So why didn’t the State Historical Marker Committee listen? What could possibly be wrong with the 1898 historical marker stating the same fact that the State’s 1898 race massacre report clearly stated, the events of Nov. 10, 1898 left an UNKNOWN number of Blacks dead on Wilmington’s streets?”
And by the way, history tells us that the 1898 race massacre started on November 10, 1898, and lasted for several days thereafter. Thus, if we can’t get a clear indication of how many were killed on the first day, then how are we supposed to accept “up to 60…” as the number dead from just ONE DAY as a historical fact?
The Wilmington Journal strongly urges Representative Deb Butler, and whoever else is tied into this 1898 historical marker mess to DELETE that “up to 60” line and replace it with “…unknown number of African Americans…,” which is historically accurate, as stated by your own state researchers.
We also salute the immediate action taken by Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the NHC NAACP, and Rend Smith, communication director of Working Narratives, the local group that sponsored the marker, for their immediate direct action addressing this issue. They’ve already gotten the wheels turning.
If it were good enough for North Carolina’s 1898 Commission, then it’s good enough for the historic marker committee.
CHANGE IT NOW!