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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar revisits the past and considers how Wilmington could right a major wrong

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Instead of talking about symbolic acts and gestures, we could undo the damage we were left with that permeates our daily lives.

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My grandfather on my father’s side of the family would have been a Red Shirt, had he lived in Wilmington in 1898. The Red Shirts were a group of young men with para-military ambitions who were part of the perpetrators during a dark and horrifying chapter in Wilmington’s history: the 1898 coup. Our family did not live here at the time, and so I am spared at least that piece of shame. But it was through his obituary I discovered the answer to a question I have asked for over 20 years.


YESTERDAY’S HEADLINES: Gwenyfar ponders over Wilmington’s governing system, where it is founded and the ongoing debate over what can and should be changed. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

It started with a phone call last fall from a woman who turned out to be a long-lost, distant cousin. She called the bookstore, looking to connect with me and talk about family history, specifically, medical history.

“I’ve been told I look just like Edith,” she said. “But I’ve never seen a picture of her, so, I don’t know.”

Edith was my grandmother’s little sister who was killed violently in her teens. I had just published a column about family photographs.

My newfound cousin asked if I would scan and send her copies. I explained as kindly but firmly as I could that I was in the middle of opening the bed and breakfast in the wake of a hurricane and trying to get the bookstore back on its feet. “So I don’t want to promise you that,” I replied. “Because the truth is I probably will not follow through right now.”

It seemed like the most honest and honorable thing to say. Through an odd series of events, I found my newly discovered cousin sitting at my dining-room table recently. I unpacked boxes of pictures and family memorabilia.

“Do you know who any of these people are?” I asked over and over again. “Really, I would love it if you could tell me.”

By the time she departed, the table had disappeared under heaps of albums, pictures and family ephemera. While repacking boxes, my eye caught a newspaper headline: “Council to look again at districts.” I checked the date: January 23, 1999 of the Local and State section of the StarNews.

Ah, OK, this was saved because it had my grandfather’s obituary in it.

One of the things I love about my mother is she didn’t cut out individual newspaper articles or obits. She saved the entire section of the newspaper they appeared in.

So let’s look at that date. There are a couple of things on a family and personal level I need to disclose: In addition to my grandfather’s death, this was during my time away at college. I grew up here, but I do have a pretty big gap of local knowledge from the years I was away. In addition, I admit, I wasn’t really reading the paper or paying attention to much—including the obituaries—during my self-obsessed young-adult years.

The year 1999 is also just past the centennial mark of the events of November 1898. Why is that important? During the election of 1898, the City of Wilmington came within a hair’s breadth of electing an African-American majority to city government. The white power structure of the time decided to prevent it—and with blood if necessary. A government coup overthrew our freely elected city government and a massacre was unleashed on the African-American community.

We used to have a Board of Alderman in Wilmington with ward-style (or district) representation. That was changed in the wake of 1898 to “at large” elections. The assumption was, if each candidate had to get the most votes of the entire city, the likelihood of electing another African-American to city government—let alone an African-American majority—would be reduced to zero. Indeed, in the wake of 1898, we did not have another African-American citizen file to run for public office in this area until 1952 (when Dr. Eaton ran unsuccessfully for New Hanover County School Board).

For all the conversation surrounding 1898 and bringing those events into light, we have yet to address its lasting political ramifications of the only successful government coup on American soil since the American Revolution. We have a system for electing our city government, designed to ensure African-Americans do not have equal voices in government affairs and decisions. Until we address the issue, we have yet to really address 1898 as it continues to resonate in daily life in our city.

Apparently, just after the 100-year mark, there was some discussion about creating district-based representation in our area. Wilmington City Council discussed it. Unfortunately, as former City Council Member Herb McDuffie pointed out in the 1999 StarNews piece, this was under discussion because of the annexation of Landfall into the city—not with the intention of righting a wrong.

At the time it was pointed out Wilmington was “one of only six North Carolina cities with more than 25,000 people that do not have district elections.” There can be a blend of district representation and at-large seats, for example, in Charlotte, according to the Charlotte City Council web page:

“The mayor and four council members are elected at-large by a city-wide vote. Seven council members are elected from districts by voters who reside in each district.”

Among arguments raised against district representation are the fact that districts would have to be redrawn or adjusted with the release of each new census data (every 10 years). Obviously, given the issues around gerrymandering legislative districts in the state, it is a touchy topic. But I have to wonder: If so many cities in America have district representation—and have for well over 100 years—surely, we can figure out how to do it in an honest, transparent way that honors every citizen in Wilmington. We wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

So what would the process look like to make it happen?

Historically, when I have asked this question, I have gotten the brush-off. Former State Representative Thomas Wright told me the NC Legislature would have to vote on it. When I asked him about making that happen, he responded it wasn’t part of the legislative agenda at the time. That is indeed one of the paths to district representation, or a blend of district and at-large representation. According to the old story in the StarNews, city council could put together a plan, hold a public forum and pass an ordinance. Or we could have a public referendum. We, the electorate, could vote to have elections that represent all our citizens’ voices.

I know—what a radical idea! But maybe it’s the perfect bookend: The white citizenry of Wilmington forcibly overthrew the government in 1898. In its wake, they codified their actions to create a local government that would exclude rather than include tax-paying, law-abiding, registered voters. We, the heirs of this system, could actually right a wrong. We could hold a public referendum and vote to truly address the aims of 1898. Instead of talking about symbolic acts and gestures, we could undo the damage we were left with that permeates our daily lives.

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