It seems most appropriate to begin by reciting names and the nine who are unknown, as recognized by the New Hanover County Community Remembrance Project (NHCCRP). The group consists of Wilmington citizens who want to memorialize victims of the November 10, 1898 Wilmington race massacre. It’s a day when white supremacists overpowered the African American-led government in Wilmington, NC. While looking at the list of names who perished during the massacre, I am struck by several thoughts.
The first is the echo of Tab Ballis’ voice, talking about the hate crime that was Talana Kreeger’s murder in 1990. At the time the perpetrator’s name was in the news constantly, but Kreeger’s barely was a footnote. It led Ballis to put together “Park View,” a documentary about Kreeger’s murder (which I will discuss in the February 19 Live Local, ahead of its February 22 screening at Church of the Good Shepherd).
My next thought centers around the power of Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Israel) and the Hall of Names—or the attempt to identify by name each of the 6 million Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust. At present, a little over 4,800,000 have been identified. Since one of the aims of the Final Solution was to wipe the earth clean of Jews and undesirables, putting the victims back into the world as people with names, birthdays and photographs is a very real way of reclaiming the lives the Nazis tried to erase.
Next, my thoughts turn to a question I’m asked weekly during the Literary History Walking Tour: How many people were killed in the 1898 Massacre? Each time someone asks that question I find myself saying over again, “We will never have exact figures.” How many died from environmental exposure, hiding outside of the city in winter—or how many actually fled? When running for your life on a cold November night, you don’t stop to pack a bag and bring blankets. The elderly, the young and the sick perish first in such conditions, but no one is immune to the impacts of cold, hunger and fear, let alone bullets.
What is unfortunate is how tightly the perpetrators have controlled the narrative of these events. The people of color we discuss most in reference to 1898 are the Manley family: Frank, Alex and Carrie, who owned and operated The Wilmington Daily Record, the African-American newspaper in town. Very few people of color are discussed or addressed by name—certainly not the victims.
Perhaps that is why my attention was riveted when I was handed a piece of paper with 13 names printed on one side and an announcement the NHCCRP is seeking information about their lives and possible descendants still in the area.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was founded in 1989 to provide legal representation to people who might be without economic resources, to attain a fair trial or good court representation. The founding of EJI is the focus of the film “Just Mercy,” based upon a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, which follows the true story of Walter McMillian, who appeals his murder conviction with Stevenson’s help. Stevenson is a truly remarkable human being who has blended a dedication to social justice with an ability to bring together a group of people to share his vision and work toward deep change. In addition to legal defense work, EJI founded The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The museum has identified over 800 counties in the United States where a lynching as an act of racial terror occurred. Names of the victims are engraved within the museum.
“In the 6-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent,” according to the EJI’s website. “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”
Sadly, it comes as no surprise New Hanover County is one of the counties with a marker at the museum. “I’m with a small group of people who started meeting recently to work with the Equal Justice Initiative on a local project,” NHCCRP member Jim Downey announced at a panel following the screening of “Just Mercy.” The small group is now known as the New Hanover County Community Remembrance Project. They decided to host the screening of “Just Mercy” and to formally announce their efforts to launch the project and claim the marker from The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The panel included Dr. Kim Cook of the sociology and criminology department at UNCW; Frankie Roberts, executive director and cofounder of LINC, an organization that provides residential support services for people transitioning from prison; and Lettie Shumate, a historian and founder of the “Sincerely, Lettie” podcast. Dr. Cook opened comments by noting the film had left her very emotional.
“It’s a hard movie to watch, particularly for me,” she said. “I know these people and I love these people.” Through her research, she came to know many of the people onscreen in real life.
Roberts nodded in agreement, noting he had read the book twice and was prepared for the impact of the film. Still, it hit hard.
The panel discussed a broad overview of the history of mass incarceration, wrongful convictions and struggles of re-entry following incarceration.
Shumate drew the clearest line between the use of racial terror lynchings and the correlations with the death penalty for people of color.
“Bryan Stevenson and EJI have put together a program that requires a lot of community input,” Dr. Cook noted about the process to claim the marker for New Hanover County.
One of the steps is to collect soil samples from each lynching site. Since 13 victims were all lynched on the same day, November 10, 1898, as part of the massacre unleashed on the African-American community during the bloody government coup, NHCCRP plans to take soil samples on November 10. Beforehand, all of the sites must be identified. Moreover, details of the victims’ lives need to be filled in, and descendants located and involved in the process.
There are so many pieces of 1898 we seem unable to resolve. We have never seriously addressed the political repercussions of the coup d’etat. We are fundamentally unable to discuss the economic pieces—both the cause and effect. Within that we haven’t seriously discussed reparations of any kind. On a larger and harder-to-define plane, we have no way of wrapping our minds around what we as a city lost from the contributions of citizenry who were murdered or exiled. Like The Shoah, it is not just the immediate loss of life, but the loss of succeeding generations and what each person would bring to the world. So naming and locating the victims—rather than making it entirely a discussion about Hugh MacRae, Alfred Waddell, William Kenan, and James Sprunt, with Frank and Alex Manley as their unwitting antagonists, is long overdue.
And it is not going to be an easy process.
The panel assures it is a necessary and important one—and I believe it, too. For Roberts, bringing the marker here is especially important. “We don’t do storytelling as much anymore,” he explains. “If that marker were here, it would be a place I could take my son and grandson and tell that story.”
Specifically, it’s a story involving real people with real lives that were senselessly taken. Naming them rather than sweeping them under the rug as “victims” remains necessary.
Though a big-budget feature film like “Just Mercy” can spread the message to a broader audience, Dr. Cook noted after the film, “I’m worried people are going to view it as entertainment. It’s not; it’s a call to action.”
There is a lot of action that is necessary. Perhaps a starting place is with the NHCCRP project. “We cannot ignore how we got here, if we’re ever going to have a racially equal and diverse, welcoming society. We have to start honestly digging deep into the truth of how we got here,” Dr. Cook added. “And it’s people who look like me who have to do the hardest part of the work—which is to acknowledge what we have done, and what our ancestors have done, and that’s hard to do.”
Anyone who would like to join the NHCCRP or have information regarding how to contact relatives of the 13 people whose loss we seek to acknowledge, visit www.facebook.com/nhccrp. As a community, we can take the next step to reclaim the narrative and putting faces and names to an important part of our city.