This year marks the 115th anniversary of the riots that rent this city on November 10th, 1898. On that date, a mob of up to 2,000 whites roamed the streets downtown Wilmington armed with rifles and rapid fire machine guns and killed an unknown number of African-Americans. They were protesting the rise of black political power and affluence in the area. The mob overthrew Wilmington’s current government and replaced government leadership with white supremacists. It was the only successful coup d’ etat in U.S. history.
Though most local historians, clergy and leaders agree on the wrongs of the event, they can’t always agree on how to mark it. This year organizations in the city are hosting three separate commemorations. Last Saturday, Boots on the Ground hosted a citywide prayer marhc and walk, as well as a praise in the park.
On November 9th at 2 p.m. (702 Red Cross St.), the Central Missionary Baptist Church and the N.C. Black Leadership Caucus will host the 1898 Statewide Observance, called “Reverse the Curse, Heal the City.” The event commemorates the role Central’s pastor, the Rev. J. Allen Kirk, had in 1898. He provided in writing, “The Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot of Wilmington, NC Of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States,” the only clergy account of the riots. Speakers will include Michael Thornton (one of the organizers of the Nov. 2nd march) and the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., former executive director of the national NAACP and pardoned member of the Wilmington 10.
On November 10th at 3 p.m. at the St. Stephen A.M.E. Church (501 Red Cross St.), the Ministerial Roundtable, a group of local black and white ministers, will have a religious service to commemorate the events of 1898. “Remember and Teach—Remember and March” will include a talk about the new film “Racial Taboo,” by Brian Grimm, music from B’nai Israel Synagogue’s KavaNotes and speakers Bertha Todd and William Boykin. After the service, the group will march the half mile to the 1898 Memorial.
While the intent of all three services focuses on unity, groups disagree about how 1898 should be remembered. Members of the Ministerial Roundtable disagree with the use of the word “curse” in the name of some of the events.
“I question the idea—who is cursed?” Imam Abdul Rahman Shareef, religious leader of Tauheed Islamic Center, asks. “For me, as a Muslim, I can’t be involved in something like that. I don’t want to get caught up in projecting the wrong idea.”
The Quran prohibits Muslims from cursing or being associated with a curse, even cursing a sinner or an unbeliever.
Michael Thornton, the outreach pastor for Global River Church and an organizer for the Reverse the Curse event, said the name’s intent was not to offend but to convey the need to come together to combat the current problems of poverty and gang violence in downtown neighborhoods. (The clergy-led Boots on the Ground regularly holds prayer walks through downtown and works with Wilmington police to reduce violence.)
“The curse would be of poverty, sickness, violence,” he said. “Prior to 1898, African-Americans thrived, but after that they did not. I don’t think this city has ever fully recovered from 1898. This history has been tucked away a long time, and I think a major goal of this march is racial reconciliation. White pastors and black pastors coming together.”
The imam believes blaming events 115 years ago for today’s issues is not the way to go. “In the 1970s, we (African-Americans) were making good strides financially,” he said. “We’ve slid back a little. And we gotta stop blaming others for our situations. No one forgets about the Civil War or the Alamo, but people forget what was happening here in 1897 before the riots.”
Sonya Bennetone, whose great grandmother was a founder of Central Missionary Baptist, said calling 1898 a curse is appropriate. “To me, if you have a problem with that, you don’t understand what 1898 was and how white supremacy affected the community,” she said. “I think there should be this many events every year.”
Bishop James Utley, pastor at The Love Center Church, said all groups commemorating 1898 need to have a clear objective in mind. “We’ve been living with it and the undercurrents of this atrocity all these years,” he said. “But a curse remains with you, and I don’t see it as a curse remaining with us.”
Thornton said he knew one march wouldn’t solve Wilmington’s problems. “But I see God using this history as a rallying point for us to come together and heal these wounds,” he added. “We need to pray for the Lord to open the well of revival over Wilmington. We were meant to be together. And the opposite of a curse is a blessing. We want to reverse the curse with a blessing.”
1898 Riots commemoration
11/9, 2 p.m.: Reverse the Curse,
Heal the City
Central Missionary Baptist Church, 702 Red Cross St.
11/10, 3 p.m.: Remember and Teach—Remember and March
501 Red Cross St.
Amanda Greene is the editor of Wilmington Faith & Values at WilmingtonFAVS.com. Do you have a volunteer opportunity to highlight? Email her at Amanda.Greene@ReligionNews.com or call 910-520-3958.