In 1898 Wilmington, NC, was the site of the only successful government coup on American soil since the American Revolution. It was accompanied by an attack on the African-American community—and looked much like a dress rehearsal for Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, those attacks became increasingly more common in America.
The history of the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NC NAACP) notes: “When these pogroms reached Lincoln’s hometown [Springfield, Illinois], it sparked enough outrage among some white progressives to put out a call to action which said, in part:
“We call upon all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.”
The multi-racial group that responded included Ida B. Wells, W.E. B. Du Bois, Mary Ovington and Moorfield Storey, among others.
“The public needs to know this organization was founded by a diverse group of people—men, women, black, white, Christian and Jewish,” notes Deborah Dicks Maxwell, district 16 director of the NC NAACP.
That was 1909. Ten years later, in 1919, our local chapter was founded. It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to extrapolate that the group who founded our local chapter included people who lived through and remembered the massacre of 1898. “This unit was started in 1919 by Rev. A.F. Elmes,” Maxwell confirms.
On Friday, May 31, at 7 p.m. at Wilmington Convention Center, our chapter of NAACP will celebrate its centennial. The keynote speaker will be Ms. Tafeni English of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). A nonprofit law firm and advocacy origination, SPLC was founded in 1971 by Julian Bond, Joseph J .Levin Jr. and Morris Dees. The organization monitors hate groups and utilizes the legal system on behalf of victims of hate crimes. Though Morris Dees has left the organization under allegations of harassment, SPLC continues to pursue their mission.
Ms. English works as director of their Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) in Montgomery, Alabama. It seeks to educate visitors about the civil rights movement and houses the Civil Rights Memorial, to honor 40 men, women and children killed in the struggle. It’s quite a fitting choice for an organization dedicated to civil rights—and in an area that still struggles with two inescapable events on our streets—to bring in English to speak at its centennial.
In addition to the coup and massacre of 1898, we were also the site of the Wilmington 10 in 1971. The Wilmington 10 is the name used to refer to the 10 people who represent events surrounding the New Hanover County School system. According to The NCPedia:
“Wilmington’s African-American students announced a boycott of the city’s schools. Ben Chavis, an experienced activist from Oxford, N.C., was called to Wilmington to organize the boycott. Ten people—nine African American men and one white woman—were arrested, tried and convicted on charges of arson and conspiracy to fire upon firemen and police officers. The ‘Wilmington Ten’ were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison.”
The case took off worldwide. Some believed the 10 were political prisoners more for their overall beliefs of inclusivity and less for their actions on February 6, 1971. One of the 10, Rev. Benjamin Chavis, served as executive director of the National NAACP.
“I am very proud of the fact we were part of the hiring of the first black police officer since reconstruction, Sgt. Haynes, and the part we played in pardoning the Wilmington 10 to include the beautiful packed ceremony,” Maxwell notes. The work of the NAACP legal defense fund, in conjunction with Dr. Eaton’s work to desegregate James Walker Memorial Hospital, remains an important moment in the area’s history as well.
The NCPedia cites 1917 as the launching point for the NC NAACP. Early work focused on anti-lynching campaigns, fair employment, voter registration, and equal education. Branches increased over the years, and membership grew to 5,700. The work of Kelly M. Alexander, Sr., of the Charlotte area revived the Piedmont chapter in the 1940s and propelled him to the National NAACP. Under his leadership the statewide NAACP grew to over 120 branches and 30,000 members.
“During his presidency, the Alexander home was bombed and his life threatened as he carried out his duties to the NAACP mission,” Maxwell tells of NC NAACP history. As well Alexander’s brother, lawyer Julius Chambers and activist Reginald Hawkins all had their homes bombed.
Charles Chestnut, author of “The Marrow of Tradition,” a fictionalized account of the events of 1898 written at the time, grew up in Fayetteville. By 1898 he was living in Ohio, where he passed the bar.
In addition to committing the events of 1898 to the page from the perspective of an African-American, in a novel that was reviewed by William Dean Howells in the New York Times, he used his legal training to work with the NAACP. Among his accomplishments in the courtroom were to secure prohibitions against public screenings in Ohio of “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s film celebrating the KKK.
In addition to the strides the NAACP has made in the big picture, Maxwell points to the accomplishments they have made in daily life. More so, the success they’ve had mentoring the next generation. “Personally, I am proud we have an annual scholarship program and have National ACT-SO winners,” she notes.
In 1978 the NAACP launched the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics—or “ACT-SO.” It is for high-school students to compete locally, regionally and eventually nationally in the categories. The projects usually have a mentorship component with someone in the community, and focus on rewarding problem-solving and academic excellence. It is lovely how they pass on the accumulated wisdom and knowledge from one generation to the next, in a very personal but also applicable way. Maxwell is focused on the work to come.
“The future and the next 100 years we will continue to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination as we work towards equity,” she comments. “This organization continues to be diverse. The word ‘colored’ in the organization name throws some people off.”
Everyone is invited to support and meet with the NAACP. Their meetings are held the fourth Thursday of every month at 501 Red Cross St. at St. Stephens. The Centennial Celebration offers an opportunity to celebrate the strides of our community and to start putting together action steps to move forward on the road to equality.