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CoastLine: New research on 1898 Wilmington coup leads to descendants of victims, clearer picture of the 19th century port city

from the Cape Fear Museum
Cape Fear Museum

More than 120 years after Wilmington's coup d'état targeting Black elected officials and citizens, historians, researchers, and genealogists are still piecing together what the 19th century port city was like, who the victims of 1898 were, and where their surviving family members migrated to rebuild their lives.

If you’ve listened to this station or to CoastLine for any length of time, you’ve probably heard us talk about the coup d’etat that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898. We’ve described it for years as the only recorded coup d’etat in American history. We know now, thanks to the work of Third Person Project, that’s not accurate; similar campaigns of violence, led by white supremacists and directed at Black Americans, happened throughout the South and beyond for decades after the end of the Civil War.

The goal of these campaigns: to stop Black citizens from exercising any influence – in government or the larger culture -- by making it difficult and dangerous to vote, by driving them out of town, and often by killing them.

Historians, researchers, genealogists are still, more than a century later, piecing together what happened in American cities and towns as a result of violence directed against people of African descent – including how it contributed to the migration of Black free people over decades to the northern states.

What we know about the Wilmington death toll from November 10, 1898 has been limited. That was the day armed white men forced Black elected officials from office and many Black citizens from their homes. We don’t know how many died on November 10th or in the days to come as terrified Black citizens hid in frigid marshes around Wilmington near the Cape Fear River.

It’s the gaps in the narrative that have haunted historians for years. But a handful of research projects are unearthing new evidence. One effort is finding descendants of those victimized by the coup and documenting family stories. Another is uncovering new information, new in the form of old newspapers.

In this episode, we’ll hear from the lead researchers on two separate projects.

Third Person Project is a nonprofit documentary research group focused on the Black history of Wilmington, NC.
Third Person Project
Third Person Project is a nonprofit documentary research group focused on the Black history of Wilmington, NC.

Segment 1:  

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Guggenheim Fellow and Writer for the New York Times Magazine, co-founder of Third Person Project, a nonprofit documentary research group focused on the Black history of Wilmington

Joel Finsel, co-founder Third Person Project, author of two books including Franz Kline in Coal Country; his work has appeared in numerous publications, including Cosmopolitan and The Oxford American

Segment 2:

Tim Pinnick, genealogist, lead researcher, New Hanover County Community Remembrance Project

On Nov 6, 2021, the NHC Community Remembrance Project will hold a Soil Collection Ceremony from 2-4 PM in the 1898 Memorial Park.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.