© 2021 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local

Bloodied soil, holy ground: Descendants of 1898 Wilmington coup victims gather to mourn and remember

Joshua Halsey's descendants honor him in a soil collection ceremony. The ceremony involves taking soil from the ground where each victim died and giving it a place of honor.
Kelly Kenoyer
/
Joshua Halsey's descendants honor him in a soil collection ceremony, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2021. The ceremony involves taking soil from the ground where each victim died and giving it a place of honor, in remembrance of the victims and the violence that took their lives.

On Saturday, citizens from Wilmington and from across the US came together to remember the victims of a coup that took place 123 years ago, which killed an unknown number of Black people in the name of White supremacy.

The wind and rain held off for much of the day Saturday, though the clouds hung over the memorial like a funeral shroud.

Attendees from across the country came to the 1898 Memorial Park to remember and mourn those killed that year in the coup d'etat in Wilmington. That event led to the deaths of untold Black residents, and the end of the racially integrated Fusionist government that was violently replaced with an explicitly white supremacist organization.

Elaine Cynthia Brown, a teacher in Berkley, California, came to memorialize her ancestor who was killed in the coup. “We're representing Joshua Halsey, he was my second great grandfather," she said. "His wife, Sallie Halsey, raised my grandma who raised me. So I grew up on the stories of 1898.”

Elaine Cynthia Brown, 1898 remembrance
Elaine Cynthia Brown performed poetry for the gathered attendees in remembrance of her great great grandfather, Joshua Halsey, who was killed in the 1898 coup in Wilmington.

Scores of mourners honored Halsey and seven other victims in a ceremony of soil collection. Soil gathered from Halsey’s home, and other places where named victims died, were placed in jars with their names along with one other jar simply labeled "unknown," for the unnamed and undetermined number of additional victims who died during the violence.

The true number of dead will likely never be known, as the white supremacist government that took over Wilmington hid the truth from reporters who came to town — while also being actively supported by local white-owned newspapers.

Brown said she grew up hearing about 1898, “Grandma Sally, we know that she was a survivor, because she lived to tell it, and the hardship that our family endured.”

Family members took small jars of soil home to remember their ancestors, some weeping as they filled them. Larger jars will go back to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, as part of a project by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

EJI representative Trey Walk explained the meaning of the soil collection ceremony. "This soil, we think it represents, something. That the mob at that time ,they intended for this soil to be bloodied, and today we're saying this soil is holy ground.”

But Cynthia Brown, the historian for St. Stephen’s AME Church, founded in 1866, said that remembering alone isn’t enough.

"My father always reminded me that a wound on a wounded patient will never heal, if the physician doesn't lance that wound and get to the core of the sickness, the bacteria, the infection out," she said. “The infection of hate, the infection of white supremacy, of any race feeling supreme over another to the point of injury, killing, maiming. And so all of us have a dual responsibility to work together to disinfect the wound that has festered in Wilmington for 123 years. Because if we do not, and if we do not cleanse that wound properly, Wilmington will never heal.”

A horse-drawn casket carries a casket representing Joshua Halsey to Pine Forest Cemetery in a day of remembrance for victims of the 1898 Coup.
A horse-drawn casket carries a casket representing Joshua Halsey to Pine Forest Cemetery in a day of remembrance for victims of the 1898 Coup.

Once attendees had filled it, Joshua Halsey’s jar was placed in a casket in a horse-drawn carriage and taken through the wind-swept streets of Wilmington to the Pine Forest Cemetery, where Black residents of town hid from marauding Whites on November 10, 1898.

Members of the Masons and Shriners formed a solemn, white-gloved procession, bringing the soil to rest by Halsey’s graveside. More than a hundred people gathered to mourn as the weather turned cold and stormy amongst the gravestones and pine trees.

Members of the Shriners and the Masons accompany Joshua Halsey's jar of soil to his graveside in Pine Forest Cemetery, November 6, 2021.
Members of the Shriners and the Masons accompany Joshua Halsey's jar of soil to his graveside in Pine Forest Cemetery, November 6, 2021.

Several local elected officials — all Democrats — spoke during the event.

The keynote speaker, Rev. William Barber, drew a clear line from the lynchings and violence of the past to politics in the modern era.

“Joshua was murdered by a system and others like him were murdered by a system. It was not just a group of white supremacist acting on their own. To remember this history like that is to remember it wrong," he said.

Barber compared the coup in 1898 to the insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6.

“Who killed him? He was killed by a charismatic, racist orator... In other words, he was killed by a man that had rallies and would rip people up at their rallies with his lies," he said.

He wasn’t the only speaker to draw attention to modern struggles; others addressed mass incarceration, voter suppression, and the fight against teaching racialized history in schools. And several attendees of the memorial events spoke directly to the need for reparations — especially for the victims of 1898 and their families.

Barber ended his remarks with a prayer, and a call to action.

“But as we commit these ashes and lay him and so many others' memory to rest, we prayed, and we will not rest. In our stance against injustice, our stance against evil, our stance against lies. Our stance against meanness, our stance against greed, our stance against political violence and modern-day insurrection. Because in the name of God and in the memory of Joshua, we who believe regardless of what color is: red, yellow, black or white, young or old, from the south from the north, gay or straight, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Cannot rest. Cannot rest. Amen.”

Joshua Halsey's grave, alongside soil gathered from the site where he lived and where he was killed.
Joshua Halsey's grave, alongside soil gathered from the site where he lived and where he was killed.