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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Rhiannon Giddens and John Jeremiah Sullivan bring the sounds of local history to life on Sunday

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John Jeremiah Sullivan and Rhiannon Giddens have been working tirelessly to turn the 1898 stories into a possible musical.

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“We’re calling it a ‘musical discussion,’” John Jeremiah Sullivan explained to me last week. He and I were discussing the idea behind his latest project with Rhiannon Giddens, “When the Battle’s Over: Songs of 1898.” “[It’s] an exploration of the music of the black community before the massacre,” he continued.

MUSICAL JUSTICE: John Jeremiah Sullivan and Rhiannon Giddens played Wilmington in the spring for a Friends School of Wilmington fundraiser and will return to the stage together this Sunday for a performance of ‘The Songs of 1898’—the beginning stages of what could become a musical about the 1898 riots in Wilmington. Photo by Harry Taylor

MUSICAL JUSTICE: John Jeremiah Sullivan and Rhiannon Giddens played Wilmington in the spring for a Friends School of Wilmington fundraiser and will return to the stage together this Sunday for a performance of ‘The Songs of 1898’—the beginning stages of what could become a musical about the 1898 riots in Wilmington. Photo by Harry Taylor

The massacre he is referring to is the coup  of 1898, which has been described as the only successful government coup on American soil since the Revolution. It was accompanied by a massacre of the African-American community in Wilmington, NC. It was basically a dress rehearsal for the world to see ahead of the 20th century, before Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass announced the arrival of the Nazi regime in Germany. Such a comparison might be surprising at first, but both events were politically motivated, coordinated through all levels of society, targeted specific groups for scapegoating, were engineered utilizing rhetoric and propaganda of fear, and were accompanied by a seizure of private property from the victims and a consolidation of government control. Yet, it’s not something found or discussed in history books.

With the 1898 coup in Wilmington, the propaganda campaign utilized a newspaper editorial battle in both the city and across the state: Newspapers in Raleigh and Charlotte, among others, picked up the gauntlet. Alex Manley, editor of The Wilmington Daily Record—the first daily published African-American newspaper in the United States—found himself and his newspaper the focus of white supremacist rage.

At the time Wilmington had a flourishing African-American community, with a strong and successful middle and professional class, including representation on the Board of Alderman. The white power structure, with collusion through all levels of state government, decided the Board of Alderman must be controlled by whites. A coup d’état to seize the election and control the city government through media and violence was put into motion. The African-American community suffered violent deaths and forced many to flee the city, as others hid in the wilderness and cemeteries until a plan for escape or return could be made. It was a deliberate act of terror, designed to instill fear and exert control over a specific group of people.

“I think it is important that word be used: ‘terror,’” Sullivan noted. “It’s a word I want to try to emphasize. I think people connect to it now, but also because it so accurate, it is so precise. They wielded fear as a weapon unto itself.”

Sullivan cites an example: “One of the things they did about a week before the election [was take a] big machine gun, these colt-repeating rifles that became famous during the massacre. They invited African Americans—leaders and people who happened to be just standing there—on an extrusion over to Point Peter [where Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers meet]. They had them watch while they blew apart trees and bales of hay with the gun. And then just said, in no uncertain terms, ‘that’s what will happen to you if you try to contest the election or try to make trouble in any way.’”

Sullivan and his colleague, Joel Finsel (a contributor to encore and its sister publications) have been working to unearth and preserve newspaper stories and documentary evidence around the events of 1898. They’re trying to make the artifacts accessible. Specifically, they were trying to find pages of Manley’s paper, The Wilmington Daily Record.

Sullivan is a noted novelist (“Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son,” “Pulphead”), as well as a musician and essayist, with a strong body of work about musicians. “I’ve been working on a story about [Rhiannon] for The New Yorker about lost North Carolina musical history,” he confirmed.

Giddens lept to fame with the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.  In 2017 she won the MacArthur Fellow (“genius grant”) for her African-American contributions to folk and country music. She continues to record, tour and write, while also pursuing her passions for ethnomusicology.

“It is more that our separate interests emerged and were pinging off each other,” Sullivan recalled of their exchanges about 1898. The more material he unearthed and sent her to study, the more excited they both became.

“It turns out 1898 has multiple tragedies in it,” Sullivan explained. It’s not only about the coup itself, but the subsequent diaspora and the successful blocking of legal recourse.

“Then there’s this other thing that happened that had to do with history,” he pointed out. “History that was already history when 1898 happened. This was, and still is, one of the most important black cities in American history. . . . [It] had in it an incredible memory of centuries of interracial cultural transference, and that was, as it turns out, taken, too. It was buried by what happened in 1898—that memory was buried.”

“You can take my body,
You can take my bones,
You can take my blood,
But not my soul”
— Rhiannon Giddens,
“At the Purchaser’s Option”

Among the people and stories Sullivan and Giddens have become fascinated by are Carrie Manley (née Sadgwar), Alex Manley’s wife, and a gentleman named Frank Johnson. Sullivan has been very excited to read Carrie Manley’s letters. “[They’re] online at Chapel Hill,” he said. “She wrote to her sons when she was very old about the amazing musical scene that had existed here. She herself had been a soprano with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She names some of the songs they do—and that doesn’t survive anywhere that I’ve been able to retrieve.”

Sullivan acknowledged the possibility of seeing Giddens bring Carrie Manley to life as enticing. He and Giddens have been working tirelessly to turn the 1898 stories into a possible musical.

“I think she has lived Carrie Manley’s story in a lot of ways,” Sullivan paralleled to Giddens: “classical training, the ability to move back and forth across high/low boundaries musically, and growing up in North Carolina as a mixed-race woman.”

The other character to appear in the show will be Frank Johnson—“the most important black musician in America at the time,” according to Sullivan. The one scholarly reference he can find for Johnson describes him as white because no black man could have held Johnson’s accomplishments during the time.

“He was a Wilmington figure,” Sullivan noted. Johnson is buried in Pine Forest, the African-American area within Oakdale Cemetery off 15th Street. “It was the biggest funeral,” Sullivan continued. “There were 2,000 people marching in the funeral parade, black and white. ‘Old Frank Johnson is dead.’ That’s a beautiful scene: the firemen march, the fraternal orders [march], women marching black and white, bands playing, the funeral carriage, it’s just wild.”

From inspiration to polished stage production is a long road. Cucalorus is privileged to have a work-in-progress of “When the Battle’s Over: Songs of 1898,” shown first in the very theater, Thalian Hall, that existed within a few blocks of the egregious massacre. A lot of the songs Sullivan and Giddens will play were popular in 1898.

“It’s a way of being able to hear what they were listening to,” he explained, “the music that was coming out of their phonographs that year. What they were singing in church. One of the sources mentions a song being sung back in the woods behind Pine Forest where the people were hiding.”

Sullivan referenced the refugees who hid in and around the cemetery during a cold November night, driven suddenly from their homes with no preparation, no blankets, no warm clothing.

Imagine for a moment fleeing a massacre within your own neighborhood, scooping up your small children and elderly relatives to hide amongst tombstones—not knowing whether your spouse is dead or alive. No medical help is available for the wounded—nor enough food. Imagine holding on to the meager hope of just making it through dawn. Yet, the fear of the unknown still punctures: Will help or resources be available—or will dawn only bring more horrors? A song passed in the night from one scared person to another begins, and in that moment, the loneliness lifts.

“Rhiannon is learning that song,” Sullivan nodded.

When the Battle’s Over:
The Songs of 1898
Sunday, Nov. 11, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $20

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