Reckoning with 1898 in a 21st Century Civil Rights Movement

Jul 28, 2020


It’s been 122 years since a mob of white supremacists took to the streets of Wilmington, burning down Black-owned businesses and murdering dozens of Black citizens. The aftermath of that event still lingers -- in city street names, in racist language uttered by police officers, in voter suppression and racial health disparities. Now, a new movement of racial justice is forcing city leaders and citizens to confront Wilmington’s past -- and visualize a more equitable future.

“Wilmington was the last stronghold of the Confederacy. And I think some of that bad blood kind of lingered on.”

That’s Hollis Briggs, Chairman of the MLK Celebration Committee in Southeastern North Carolina. He spoke with me over the phone and explained that the 1898 coup d’etat essentially erased the achievements of Black Wilmingtonians -- paving the way for fewer resources, fewer opportunities, and decades of discrimination.

“Our history was taken away and the history of the Confederacy was put out, you know, for everyone to see. And that's not how the city was built. The city was not built on a Confederacy. This city was a bustling city that had about 85% African Americans who were doctors, lawyers. They owned lots of property and looking at the property ownership change from the fifties to now, you'll see that African Americans owned almost 60% of the property in Wilmington, and now certain families own all of that land. 

They didn't buy it from them. They took it. All that labor that African Americans provided for cheap or nothing has turned into some of those people becoming millionaires and billionaires off the backs of African Americans in this area. That's not fair.”

"So obviously a lot of different ideas are being brought up regarding addressing Wilmington's history and racism. When you think of long-term tangible change in the city, what specific issues are at the top of your priority list?"

“Economic development.”

Briggs explains that there needs to be some mechanism that allows the middle class to learn trades not just in college, but at an early age, like 13 or 14. And he thinks the city’s lack of blue-collar jobs and opportunities play a role in driving crime up.

"A lot of advocates are arguing that a different allocation of city funds -- less towards police departments and more towards community resources -- can lower crime as well, and improve the lives of those who are underserved. Do you look at this as a potential solution?" 

“A lot of things that the police have purchased -- and the city council gives them a green light to purchase anything that they need to provide safety for the citizens of the city of Wilmington -- a lot of those things were not necessary. Some of that military equipment that they bought was actually not necessary. They could have put that money into the community center. 

I don't think deep, total defunding of the police is the right thing. I think we need to -- I'm going to change the wording -- we need to allocate the funding more properly.”

"There's also been talk and some action specifically about names of parks, schools, city streets that are named after Confederate figures and white supremacists who played a role in 1898. A Black Lives Matter mural has been proposed. And I know there's been discourse about whether or not these changes would be meaningful, or simply symbolic and maybe a distraction from greater potential change. What is your perspective on that?"

“Well, I lived in the city of Atlanta when those historic mayors started changing street names that were named after Ku Klux Klan members. The city of Atlanta systematically started changing the names of streets and naming them after civil rights leaders. It gives people a sense of pride, more so than anything else to live on a street named after a civil rights leader.”

Street name changes probably won’t be happening here anytime soon -- thanks to a city moratorium put into place in 2019 to update and improve the current street-naming policy. Still, I asked Briggs about his hopes for Wilmington’s future:

“You know, as a child, I knew how bad racism was here in Wilmington. And I left, and I went to school in Atlanta. And once I got to Atlanta, I saw a brand new America. And it was one that I fell in love with. So I've seen it work.”