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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar reviews a Pulitzer Prize winner’s research on Wilmington 1898

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

 

Wilmington’s Lie
By David Zucchino
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020, 448 pages
Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino has turned his interest to Wilmington—specifically to the much-discussed, much-reported upon and much-researched coup of 1898. Mr. Zucchino’s national reputation shines a greater light on the subject.

In the year 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina was the site of a successful government coup that included a massacre of the African-American community. It was premeditated, organized and well-funded. In short, it was humanity at its worst.

Wilmington was home to the African American-owned newspaper The Daily Record, managed and produced by Alex and Frank Manly. The Record was firebombed during the violence, with the Manleys barely escaping.

At the core of 1898 was the intention to silence the African-American community: The newspaper was destroyed, people were killed and the terror unleashed on the community was aimed at making sure African Americans didn’t raise their voices, or demand to be treated as full citizens of the United States.

So, the first question: Do we need another book by a white person about 1898?

Whose voice do we need to hear?

As one friend asked me, “Is there anything new in the book?” As in, is there anything new that hasn’t been covered in the variety of other books on the topic? Well, yes and no. As far as laying a broad groundwork for post-reconstruction life in Wilmington, Zucchino does that with a wider lens than I expected. Included is material on Abraham Galloway, plantation life, the cotton exporting business, the lineage of several families that controlled business and land interests, and the challenges of daily life in the changing post-war South. Zucchino does what a good journalist or historian should do: shines a light on the factors that came together over a period of time to create the storm that erupted in the coup.

He cites institutional racism and such common occurrences in the Union Army (African American soldiers being paid less than their white compatriots) as examples of what led to the coup. He also discusses the big names associated with it: Alex and Frank Manley, Hugh MacRae, Alfred Waddell, William Rand Kenan, and James Sprunt. Yet, Zucchino extends the net and makes this ensemble cast truly see the sheer number of players it encompasses. Pieces of the military coup come together with the Light Infantry, The Naval Reserves and the Red Shirts. We meet and spend time with the named targets, both African American and white. We watch several attempt to live through it, and see people either get forcibly removed from the city or flee of their own accord.

 

 

 

 

 

Zucchino follows several of these people in the coup’s aftermath—which is perhaps the piece that interests me the most. I was familiar with Manley’s story and Congressman White’s, but I had remained curious as to how others attempted to rebuild their lives in the wake of such tragedy. Zucchino follows step by step the codification of the coup into law, and the legalizing of the aims of the coup in the subsequent months and years. Though he talks extensively about voter suppression and the tactics employed, I wish he would have touched more on the changes made to our local government and the long-term effects of it.

The book is about a government coup. Technically the coup has not been overthrown, and our local government was dramatically altered to ensure it would continue to be controlled by a small and select group of people who care little for the welfare of the whole. For example, we have at-large representation, instead of ward-style representation in local government. It was a tactic frequently employed in that part of the century to prevent African-American voters from electing African-American representation to local government and was instituted here in the wake of the coup. However, Zucchino draws very specific parallels with the voter suppression tactics at the turn of the 20th century and what’s currently employed in North Carolina at a state level. That is the real reason to study the coup and learn from it—because we are so close to repeating those events if we don’t learn from them.

Zucchino interviewed descendants of several victims who note no real effort at healing has been made during their lifetimes. Certainly, the events of the Wilmington 10 happened in 1971 and are related to 1898, so many residents of this city do remember. Zucchino’s book certainly adds to the conversation.

It’s worth reading. It’s also worth seeking out books about the events by people of color. There are several titles currently available now, including “The Marrow of Tradition,” “Hanover: Or the Persecution of the Lowly” and “We Have Taken a City.” In addition, LeRae UmFleet’s book, “A Day Of Blood,” is a remarkable and detailed nonfiction report upon the events.

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