CoastLine: Philip Gerard, 1955-2022: "My defining identity has always been American."
Philip Gerard contended that the unhealed wounds and unresolved issues from the Civil War were a major driver of today’s Great American Divide. His next book idea, Toward a More Perfect Union: Why America Lost the Civil War and How to Win It Now, will remain unwritten. But he offers some of the ideas that would have gone into that book in other places. We take a closer look at his consistency and courage in this remembrance of a rich, well-lived, albeit abbreviated life.
Philip Gerard: We're no longer people who grow up and live and die in the same county. Most people move several times in their lifetime. I've lived in, I think, five different states and, but I think of myself as an American, Yes, I'm a North Carolinian, than the way I was a Chicagoan, the way I was a Vermonter for a short time and a Delawarean by birth.
But my defining identity has always been American.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Philip Gerard died suddenly and unexpectedly November 7, 2022. You may know his voice from CoastLine or other programs on WHQR. For years, he wrote and recorded commentary for the station. He was instrumental in building one of the crown jewels at the University of North Carolina Wilmington: its creative writing department.
His own body of work was considerable: 16 books – both fiction and nonfiction. Countless essays and short pieces for esteemed publications – including Our State magazine. He served as co-editor of the literary journal, Chautauqua, with his wife, Jill. In 2019, he received the North Carolina Award for contribution in literature. It’s the highest civilian honor in the state.
But when we spoke in June of 2022, he told me he was doing the most important work of his life: guiding the launch of the North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center in Fayetteville.
PG: It's a North Carolina thing, but it also speaks to the entire nation. I mean, this is the, in many ways, the foundational event, the Civil War of modern America, such as we have it. Ken Burns famously said we went from being these United States to the United States. And I think he was partly right. But I think so many of those issues as you suggest were not really resolved in the manner that they should have been by such a cataclysm.
So the attempt of the center, and it is a center more than a museum, even though it will have some artifacts. But the idea is to tell the story, which, and my role in that was to initially identify a timeline of events and the people who either caused those events, participated in them or were in some way affected by them in important ways…
And the idea is to forget all the preconceptions; to start with events, people, facts on the ground.
RLH: What any good and principled journalist would do --
PG: And to, instead of, uh, overlaying them immediately with some kind of ideological or partisan or whatever, philosophy to say, let's just look at what happened. Let's get it right. Let's actually go back to original documents. Let's look at what people did and what they said. Let's find out where things happened. Let's create maps of all that. Let's do this in a way that before we make any decisions about interpretation, we actually have a really, really good, authentic, authoritative sense of the facts and the people, what was said, what was done, when it was done, you know, and whom it affected.
Because it was Philip Gerard’s contention that the unhealed wounds and unresolved issues from the Civil War were a major driver of today’s Great American Divide.
We’ll hear why he believed that later in this episode.
But right now, to get a sense of how he told stories, and why history fascinated him so deeply, we’re going back to his first appearance on CoastLine. It was the spring of 2015. He was just talking about places to visit in North Carolina. His criteria for what makes a good road trip though, is telling.
PG: Well, when I go on a road trip, I like to do something physical, if possible. I like to learn something that I didn’t know before – cultural, historical, whatever, if possible, and I like to eat well, if that’s possible. And I like a place that has a story to it. I just spent a couple weekends up in Kinston of all places. You don’t think of Kinston as a destination – you know it’s an hour and twenty minutes up the road from Wilmington. And we stayed at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge, which is this beautiful – it wasn’t beautiful until it was rehabbed, but it was an old motel and the guy that owns it has rehabbed it into a replica of The Tropicana Motel from the movie Catch Me If You Can.
Kinston has in its DNA the friendliness gene. They’re just so nice. Maybe they’re all mean as snakes when we leave, but they’re really, really nice people pretty much wherever you go.
But staying there, within a block of that, you can eat at The Chef and The Farmer restaurant. You’ve got the Mother Earth Brewery. You’ve got this great civil war museum there that has the actual hull of the CSS Neuse, this ironclad that was raised from the bottom of the Neuse River. And indoors with the superstructure ghosted in piping it looks like a battleship and it’s quite stunning. And there’s a full-scale replica on the street outside. You can actually crawl through.
There’s a water park where you can get kayaks. I think they’re free – first-come, first-serve. And there’s hiking trails.
And then the added icing on the cake, because there were several fairly important actions during the civil war there, there are battlefields, and there’s a guy there, Dennis Harper, who will take you out and give you tours and the visitors’ center will kind of help you with that.
And you can go out and he’s a marvelous storyteller, so that gives you this great story that goes with it all.
So that’s one of the places I’ve discovered recently which I really love.
RLH: Kinston, North Carolina. Philip Gerard has a couple more gems to tell us about, though.
PG: I also wanted to recommend Raven Rock State Park which is about two hours from here and you can drive there and you can camp overnight there. You can just drive there and day-hike it. Miles of trails of all levels of difficulty. I think there’s something like 20 species of warbler that nest in the park. There’s every other kind of imaginable animal there along with this just amazing riot of wildflowers and whatnot.
If you want to get there by canoe, you come down from Lillington and you first have a really great barbecue from Howard’s Barbecue by the river and you walk about 40 feet and there’s Cape Fear River Adventures. And they do guided tours, they do floats, they do sunset things. Or you can just simply rent gear and you can go down through the rapids and the Lanier Falls just about Raven Rock. And you can actually canoe camp there.
If you’re out near Lake Lure – gorgeous, gorgeous little place and there are a lot little towns that you can kind of just travel around. There’s Bat Cave and other towns near.
If you go to Lake Lure, you want to take the little boat trip and, you know, my wife is a fan of the movie Dirty Dancing. They filmed the famous scene with Baby coming down the stairs at Lake Lure and the boat captain will take you right over there and show you, you know. It’s sort of campy but it’s fun and it’s just sheer beauty.
We’ve spent a lot of time over the years at Wild Acres which is a retreat up on the mountain near the Blue Ridge Parkway near a place called Little Switzerland. We would go there for the writers’ retreats, writers’ conferences, but they also would do things for potters and musicians, what have you. And so it’s sort of a learning vacation kind of summer camp for grown-ups. There’s great hiking and then up on the Blue Ridge you’ve got all that and then a little store at Little Switzerland that has the best homemade pies I think I’ve ever eaten.
RLH: Philip Gerard says he and his wife, Jill, liked to plan their travel around festivals.
PG: There’s the mountain heritage day up at Western Carolina. That’s sort of late. I guess it’s in September now. And they’ll have three stages of bluegrass bands going on. They’ll have old-fashioned kind of lumber operations. They’ll show you how to make moonshine. We would go up there, spend the night in a bed and breakfast, go to the mountain heritage day, spend another night and then drive home. And the beauty of all that that we’re talking about is that getting there really is part of the fun.
The roads are beautiful, you know, the driving, the walking, whatever you’re doing. It’s not just a question of getting there and nothing happening until you arrive. Along the way, there’s a lot to see. There’s always roadside attractions. There’s everything from fresh produce to somebody selling antiques by the side of the road.
And all the little towns out there – Burnsville and Bakersville – they have their own little festivals. So one thing to do is go online and find out and sort of plan around those.
Mount Airy has a great music festival in the fall. And that’s another city that has that friendliness gene kind of built in. Everybody is so nice and you think, okay, they know something I don’t.
He also loves West Jefferson, North Carolina.
They have a Literary Festival called On The Same Page and sometimes if you’re lucky, the big antique market will be there the exact same weekend and you can do both.
But this day trip from Wilmington is one of his favorites. Drive to Sunset Beach in Brunswick County.
And you go to the fishing pier there and you walk about one and a half miles or a little less south along the beach. The beach is very deserted. It’s beautiful. It is full of, as you might imagine, because you’re ending on a place called Bird Island, full of all kinds of birds, but when you get to the end – which is the northern end of the Little River Inlet there, you come to a mailbox. Right in the dunes.
And the mailbox is labeled “Kindred Spirit.”
And it was put there almost 40 years ago. And what people do is they walk down there and they leave letters in the mailbox. And they confide the deepest secrets of their hearts. They talk about mourning loved ones. They thank the lord for blessings they’ve got for their family. They thank individual people – old teachers – I mean, you can sit there and read letters for an hour and a half, and then carefully put them back in the box and of course you can add your own.
It is as much a range of emotional experience as you can get and then you have that walk back up the beach to kind of let it all settle in and then you can go have a great seafood lunch.
RLH: He felt things deeply and didn’t shy away from that fact. It is, of course, one the reasons he was such a compelling writer.
He also had to process some strong feelings over the long-dead people he wrote about in his 2019 book, The Last Battleground, in which he explored North Carolina’s role in the civil war.
RLH: Can you just talk a little bit about why this was such a deeply emotional book for you to write?
PG: Oh, I spent initially four years and then two more years researching and writing this first of a series of magazine pieces and then kind of knitting them into a book editing, re-reporting and all that. And I felt very much at the end of that time a kind of a, almost a kind of a grief. Yeah, I'd gotten to know these people through their letters, through reports about them, you know, much of it in their own words. I knew kind of how their lives had ended in many cases. And so I came home as if I had lost, you know, friends, people that I knew.
And the other part of that I think was a sense that this war, this amazing cataclysm that took the lives of as many as, you know, 35,000 North Carolina soldiers, many more civilians, free Blacks, enslaved Blacks, and now they're saying as many as 800 or a thousand Americans total, that should have settled some existential questions about the role of race, about the role of civil rights, about the role of all those things. And it didn't.
And you feel great frustration and sorrow that that great expenditure of blood along with treasure, along with opportunity, along with all the other things America could have been doing during that four year conflict, resolved in a certain sense a lot on the battlefield, very little in the political spectrum.
RLH: You’re listening to CoastLine. UNCW Creative Writing Professor Philip Gerard died unexpectedly the night of November 7, 2022. He was in the middle of multiple projects – including shepherding the North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center into being.
After this short break, how the unresolved issues from the Civil War show up in 21st century America.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Philip Gerard wrote 16 books in his lifetime, as well as countless essays, short stories, and WHQR commentary.
He helped to build UNCW’s creative writing department into one that is recognized around the country for its quality.
In 2019, he received the North Carolina Award for significant contribution in literature.
But it was his work on the North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center that he told me was the most important work of his life. So much of his prior research and writing had led him to exactly this place.
In 2020, we spoke about his book, The Last Battleground, in which he explores North Carolina’s role in the Civil War and why it was so complicated.
Philip Gerard: North Carolina was a reluctant signer on to the secessionist cause in fact, the first secession convention didn't get enough votes to happen. And it was only after Lincoln had said, well, we need to get troops from the various states to go down into the south and quell this rebellion that for their own purposes, North Carolina legislature, convened, uh, a secession conference at Congress and it voted to secede, but there was never much enthusiasm.
If you think of North Carolina divided into thirds, one third, you know, pro confederate, one third pro-union, white both. And then the other third is enslaved Black people, for the most part, with about 30,000 free Black people. So clearly two thirds of the state was not signing on to the secessionist cause. But the ones who did, did so out of their own personal reasons -- loyalty, kinship, later on they were conscripted.
Sometimes it was because their uncle was the guy raising the regiment and they were too embarrassed not to join it.
But in any case, there was a great hoopla once secession was declared.
And one of the things that happened in little towns all across North Carolina, was that ladies associations, and in the case of the Guilford Grays, the Ladies Seminary gave these wonderful, beautiful silk flags with all kinds of heroic sayings on them and all kinds of beautiful heraldry in order to celebrate the regiment going off to war.
And as I say in the book, nobody remarked the fact that North Carolina was unable to manufacture those flags because it did not have the machinery. They were all bought in Philadelphia and New York and elsewhere.
So this is the Guilford Grays going off to war – 180 of them:
[READING FROM THE LAST BATTLEGROUND]
“The NC volunteers are cocky, thrilling for adventure, immortal.
“One writes, ‘all we want is a pure open field fight and we will fight three to one. Our colonel says we will whoop them. And I do not doubt it at all.’
“Another boasts, ‘few in number, but though I say it myself, we have the best drilled regiment in the South.’
“They have not yet heard of such far off places as Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, the wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Gettysburg. They have not yet starved in a country of farms or walked barefoot in frozen mud or seen their fine uniforms rot on their backs. They have not yet been ordered to shoot healthy horses pulling gun caissons in order to immobilize the enemy's artillery or to sharp-shoot teenage drummer boys to disrupt the enemy's command and control on the battlefield. They have not yet felt the concussion of a cannon ball that takes off a man's head or charged into a hail of grape shot that mows down a dozen men at once.
“They have not yet watched the surgeons sawing off legs and arms for hours on end at the rate of one every 15 minutes with nothing to dull the pain.
“They have not yet held in their arms a young comrade dying of fever or served in a burial detail to shovel sand over a mass grave of their boyhood friends. They have not yet watched their comrades caught trying to return to their suffering families tied to posts and shot for desertion.
“On the home front, liberty has not yet given way to conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus by the Richmond government, plenty has not yet yielded to starvation. Their fine silk banners have not yet disintegrated to tatters on their staffs, replaced by sturdier, plainer, wool, bunting flags, trophies to be captured on the field of glory and slaughter.
“The 180 sons of Guilford have not yet been reduced, through death and dismemberment, to just a lucky 13 whole, surviving heroic spirits. They are not yet veterans, but for that distinction, they will not have long to wait.”
RLH: There is so much death and dismemberment and grief and poverty and struggle in this war. When I read your afterword and you talked about this being a really difficult book to write, it seems like some of your grief would have come from walking through that, from the writer’s point of view. The daily tragedy…But help us understand how conflicted North Carolina really was in terms of its lack of complete support for this war.
PG: Sure. North Carolina was several different states at once. There was the coastal territory where the rivers come out and the Cape Fear, the Roanoke, the Neuse, the big rivers along which there were plantations. So they were basically slave cultures and the railroad, which ran up and down the coast and it used a lot of slaves. The steamboats, the landings were built by enslaved people. They were maintained by enslaved people.
So that whole economy for a broad swath, pretty much the corridor which we would think of from I-95 onto the coast.
And then up in the Piedmont, it was sort of mixed. And you get into Raleigh, which was such an unreliable Confederate city that one contemporary observer wrote that the troops are stationed here not to fight the Yankees, but to make sure that the people don't rise up against us.
And then you get into counties like Guilford and Forsyth and the rest, and you get into places where there are Quaker belts, where there are Moravians. These people are not enthusiastic about any war, let alone this war. Most of them are not slave owners.
RLH: Quakers and Moravians were not typically slave owners.
PG: Right. And the Moravians, the Moravian Church actually owned slaves in a communal way, believe it or not. But there was not --
RLH: More of that strange white ambivalence--
PG: Exactly. Very ambivalent. And so you've got a swatch of North Carolina about the size of Connecticut, just west of Raleigh, which is unreliable in terms of the Confederacy. They're the people that are already holding peace rallies as early as 1863.
And then you get into the mountain counties and you have a mixture. You have a lot of Unionist counties, and right next door you have some that are very pro-secessionist.
And in some ways, that was the worst part of the war. That was the part of the war that was a civil war within a civil war where the fighting became an excuse for vendettas to be reenacted, for people to get back at something because their grandfather did something to my grandfather, you know, 30 years ago.
There were repercussions from that that went up into the 19-teens where people were still hunting down people who had committed atrocities against their families, on both sides.
And then you add into that you have the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee. They decide early in the war under their white chief, the only white chief they've ever had, William Holland Thomas, to actually declare war on the United States of America. And Thomas creates this legion of highlanders and mountaineers to guard the mountain passes from eastern Tennessee where there's a Union occupation fairly early in the war.
RLH: This is counterintuitive. You would think the Eastern Band of Cherokees would be on the side of the Unionists… right?
PG: You might -- unless you go back in history and you see who was the person who was the chief architect of Cherokee removal. You know, you’ve got the general and chief of the Union Army at that time – Winfield Scott. You’ve got them afraid that the United States government will actually be their enemy whether they want it to be or not.
And in the meantime, the state of North Carolina has pretty much ignored them and let them be, largely because William Holland Thomas had the good sense to buy the land.
The Cherokee Nation in North Carolina never was a reservation tribe. They always owned their own land, one way or the other. And so it was very hard legally to actually say you’ve got to get off this land.
So for a variety of strangely complicated reasons, they went to war against the Union soldiers. But even among the Cherokee, there was famously at least one Union soldier who came back. We know that because he brought smallpox back with him.
So you wind up with all of these communities and within every community, there were dissenters of one kind or another. And then add into the mix, that right that territory just to the west of Raleigh rises an organization ten-thousand strong called the Heroes of America – existed only in North Carolina. They ended up establishing a branch office in Washington, D.C. to communicate directly with the Federal Government.
RLH: These are underground Unionists –
PG: Yes, some of them are actually in the legislature. And they’re doing everything from reporting, spying, and that kind of thing to fomenting a call for a separate peace – the idea being that if they make peace with the Federal Government, the Federal Government won’t invade and do to them what it’s doing to certain other places in Virginia or what have you.
Some of them are actively sabotaging and they’re destroying railroad depots or grain depots – you know, there’s all kinds of stuff going on and they’re loosely aligned. They carry a red thread in their lapel. They have counter signs like the Masons.
RLH: Reading about this, I couldn't help but draw parallels between the purple nature of North Carolina today. Not that the causes are the same, certainly, but, still--
PG: I would argue that a lot of the causes there are not all that different.
RLH: I'll let you make that argument.
PG: Well, the argument only between, there's always an argument between haves and haves nots. And who do you define as, as the haves and what do they have and what do you define as the knots and what do they not have that they want?
And sometimes that crosses racial lines. Sometimes it crosses religious lines or political lines, or in the case of North Carolina, often geographic lines. So you have wealth concentrated in cities closer to the coast. You don't have it out in the mountain counties where people are pretty much subsistence farmers.
RLH: But when we talk about the Cape Fear region, I mean, you lay out New Hanover County in Wilmington during the Civil War as half the population was enslaved. Half the population!
PG: Sure. And in certain other counties it was way more than half.
RLH: And what did that do to the dynamic?
PG: Well, it had always created this idea of fear of slave rebellion or slave uprising. And it was one of the great things that drove the Draconian, the terrible laws about how you could treat a slave in North Carolina, how you could treat a free Black person in North Carolina. And it was because of this large concentration.
The weird ironic exception to this was Wilmington because it was a port, because it understood -- the merchants there who ran the city understood immediately that if you have the United States Navy sitting on our doorstep at the mouth of the Cape Fear, we're done.
RLH: There’s no viable economy if the port isn’t functional, Philip Gerard explains. And that, he says, is one of the many reasons people in Wilmington were reluctant to participate in the Civil War – although they eventually went along with it for many other reasons.
You’re listening to CL.
Philip Gerard, UNCW Creative Writing Professor, prolific author, musician, and mentor to many, passed away suddenly in early November. He appeared on CoastLine at least five times, and we’re taking a look back at his profound contribution.
His 2019 book, The Last Battleground, examined North Carolina’s role in the Civil War. And this war, to Philip Gerard, was far more than just American history. He believed the issues that drove the Civil War are the same factors driving today’s Great American Divide.
More on that soon – but first – as a musician himself, Philip Gerard was fascinated by the role of music in the war.
PG: So many of the books I’ve read on the civil war are like silent movies. And even when you see a documentary or a movie like Gettysburg, there’s music but it’s the soundtrack. And you don’t get the sense anybody in the actual story was playing music.
Music was hugely important in the 19th century in America. Everybody belonged to some kind of choral society or a choir or a barbershop quartet.
And among the soldiers, because you have to realize what soldiers do is they fight five percent of the time and ninety-five percent of the time they’re either marching or sitting around waiting to be sent into battle.
They need things to do. They sing. They give concerts. They listen to concerts. The battlefield musicians often served as command and control. The fifers and drummers and buglers.
They had an elaborate reveille ceremony. They had music to play on parade when there were visiting inspectors. They had music to play on the march to keep the group step going. They had music that they actually literally played into battle.
There’s a famous battle across the Cape Fear River Chris Fonvielle writes about where you have one band inside the entrenchments playing and then another band playing right behind the guys that are trying to storm those entrenchments.
And it’s literally a battle of the bands. You have that going on the whole time.
My favorite anecdote is after Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, as those broken men, the survivors of the fifteen-thousand or so who’d gone across the field and been slaughtered come limping back, in the tree line where they left from, there’s a brass band playing Nearer My God To Thee.
Which, when you hear that in your head and you pair that with the historical moment, it just adds a dimension of emotionality you can’t get in any other way.
RLH: Philip Gerard’s contribution as a journalist and historian doesn’t capture the fullness of his creative expression – which is impossible to do anyway. But I have to acknowledge the role music played in his own life.
In 2018, we spoke about his collection of short stories, Things We Do When No One Is Watching. And I struggled to capture the breadth of his musicianship in my introduction:
RLH: He is also a musician, but of course he doesn't confine himself to one instrument across a landscape of bluegrass, Americana, folk, and original songs. He plays among other instruments -- I'm not going to get them all here -- guitar, keyboards, banjo, harmonica, he sings, and what else, Philip Gerard? I know there are other instruments in there.
PG: A little bit of pedal steel, a little bit of hammered dulcimer, you know, some, some regular old steel slide guitar and whatnot. So it's fun.
RLH: Nothing this guy doesn't do. He's produced a solo album entitled American Anthem, and he plays with a band called Whiskey Creek.
In the title story, Things We Do When No One Is Watching, one of your characters, a behavioral psychologist, blurts out, “We look back longingly on our childhood as if they hold some key to who we are,” but she calls childhood dead and gone. Cheap memories. And you, I don't think Philip Gerard believe this.
PG: Well, I think that, kind of the older we get, the more longingly we look back on childhood and, and there's a key back there to the things that we're most interested in, that most define us, that come to – they kind of flower as we grow older and as we learn and, and do things. And I think she is exactly wrong about that.
The other character in there who is a high school history teacher, he understands that to be a kid is to live in a whole different world. And that what you can’t do as an adult is forget the complexity and dangers of that world.
RLH: And there's so much in your short story collection about what happens when people misunderstand or misperceive events,
PG: Which I think in one way, life is about that. Life is about people jumping to conclusions that often turn out to be wrong or misreading in some way just to the left or right of what the truth is, basing further action on that. And you know, in navigation, when you change one degree or two degrees in your bearing, you wind up way far away from the place you intended to be. And I think that's often what happens in life.
People make a very small miscalculation and keep on that course, and then they wind up in the wilderness and say, how did I get here?
RLH: You teach both creative nonfiction and creative writing, and so you're in this really interesting position of navigating these worlds between, you know, entirely fiction and imagination, and then needing to be anchored by facts and reality.
PG: I think you have to make a decision when you begin a project at the point where you get serious about it. Am I going to be telling the truth, being truthful, to the events and the people and, and the rest of it? Or am I going to draw on truthful things to create an imagined scenario?
In all these stories, I would say most of the characters one way or another are either me, my brothers, my old friends from when I was a kid, people I knew along the way, people I encountered stories that I saw unfolding before me as I kind of went through my formative years. So there's a lot of actual truth in the books.
Gloriana, for example, was a ghost story. I named her, but the ghost was in my old neighborhood. And people used to talk about this ghost the way you would talk about the kid down the street.
It wasn't like an apparition at all. It was like, oh, yeah, that ghost used to play on our swing set, and then we took it down and we never saw the ghost again, kind of remark.
And so as a fiction writer, you take the germ of something that really stuck with you, and then you build on it and say, okay, well that happened, but what's the most interesting way it could have happened?
RLH: Is there any part of your adult self that finds it harder to give yourself permission to go into those areas of fantasy? I mean, you talk about making this conscious decision at the beginning of a project.
PG: This is where music comes in, in a way, because music is a whole different set of creative muscles. And you don't think very hard about fact when you're playing music. If you're writing a song, you might start with fact, but there's no way you can stay with fact because you have to think about all the considerations for the limitations of how music has to be written. The verse, chorus, bridge, what have you.
The other thing is that I have, all my life, dreamed very vividly and in color. And so there's a story in here, for example, about a guy who dreams of playing in a Yankees game, all nine innings going, I think two for three at the plate, or whatever it was.
And that's based on the dream that I actually used to have. And so you know, the story's different. The story's built around the dream, but I actually had that dream.
RLH: Philip Gerard might be best known for Cape Fear Rising, a fictionalized account of Wilmington’s 1898 coup d’état. The book came out in the early 1990s – before the event was widely or openly talked about – especially among white people.
Going forward with that book was an act of tremendous bravery; as we’ll hear. He received threats, and he nearly lost his shot at tenure at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
RLH: The late Philip Gerard published Cape Fear Rising in the early 1990s – a dramatization of Wilmington’s actual white supremacist coup d’état. The real-life massacre effectively erased the wealth and power base of what had been a thriving Black professional population.
Around the 25th anniversary of the book’s original publication, we talked about the repercussions for him of writing the book. We also explored why he started using the term “coup d’état” to describe the November 10, 1898 slaughter and exile of the Black population in Wilmington.
PG: I think may have been the first one to call it that.
RLH: Before that it was widely called, and it's still sometimes called, the Wilmington Race riots.
RLH: Which is a misapprehension—
PG: It carries the wrong connotation for one thing. There was nothing spontaneous about it. For another thing, it was done by white people. So they bear the brunt of the responsibility and the implication of the other, the unspoken implication is always that somehow the Blacks were involved and, uh, that was not the case. They were totally victims. They were blameless here.
RLH: And you're also writing about some pretty prominent families who still live here.
PG: Right. Many of whom at that time were on the board of trustees of my university, where I did not yet have tenure and, and was nearly denied tenure over this. I only found that out in the past year.
RLH: Do you think based on what you've learned with all your research about that, that there are still moral decisions to be made today by people who are alive today?
PG: There are huge ones. I mean, we are seeing it, all in our politics right now. I mean, the the degree to which white supremacists have resurfaced in a very public way. Yeah, these decisions don't go away.
RLH: What about what's left over from the actual coup d’état here in Wilmington? Is there still work to be done?
PG: There's plenty of work to be done. Whenever I read in the paper about school redistricting or about whether or not all city council should be elected at large or about which road is going to be repaired and which one is not, there is the subtext of what happened in 1898.
And if you look at everything through that lens of history, you realize you're not acting in a vacuum.
When you say, we're going to close this school or enlarge that one, you go back to the days when all sorts of those decisions were made in a most, the most blatant kind of racial way.
And it didn't stop in 1898. It happened again in 1970 and 71 with the Wilmington 10 and the closing of Black schools. So you have to understand that, uh, history is a kind of palimpsest -- all these layers.
It's like you're looking at one of those old fashioned overhead projectors with all the layers projected on it. And when you start to peel away the layers, the one down at the very bottom is slavery, which was huge in the Cape Fear region.
And then not too far beyond that is the year of the Nat Turner Rebellion in the 1830s and the atrocities that were committed here to keep slaves in their place.
And then you come to 1898, well, the Civil War intervenes -- kind of a biggie -- then 1898. And all of these layers create a context in which all these current decisions matter a great deal more than they would matter if you were just building a city from scratch.
RLH: Philip Gerard remembers the atmosphere in Wilmington when Cape Fear Rising came out in 1994. He says he doubts the white people alive in that generation really knew the whole story.
PG: I think they knew some received version of a family story. I mean, George Rountree talked in public about this, and he gave a very brave appearance in the Wilmington In Black and White series in which he said, you know, I never really knew about this much, and I've looked into it since. And then he said what he'd found out.
So you know, anybody who has a, a grandfather, a great grandfather involved in this, you know, this is not on them. This is on those people who lived, you know, a hundred years ago or more. And they're not responsible in any way for that, obviously anymore that I'm responsible for something my grandfather might have done.
But I do think you need to acknowledge the story.
RLH: You’re listening to CL. It’s a remembrance of journalist, historian, musician, and creative writing Professor Philip Gerard, who passed away unexpectedly on November 7, 2022.
He faced real threats – both to his career and his person -- over the publication of Cape Fear Rising.
Here, he describes a breakfast meeting to which he was summoned by one of UNCW’s Trustees.
PG: And he basically sat me down and lectured me about what a terrible thing it was that I was doing to the university -- costing money and fundraising and whatnot. And I finally said, what do you want me to do?
And his answer was change the names. Don't use real names in the book.
And this was before publication and it was once.
RLH: And so you could have at that point.
PG: Well, actually, I think at that point it probably was in galley, so it would've been a fairly expensive thing to do. I suppose, yeah, you could always yell, stop the presses at any point before the book is actually on a bookshelf somewhere.
But my argument is when you're writing about historical characters, and there's a long tradition of the historical novel that goes back to Tolstoy and Dickens and other people -- that if, if you write about the charge at Gettysburg on the third day of the battle and you have Bill Smith instead of Robert E. Lee giving the order, it just doesn't track.
And so when you read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, he doesn't know what all those people said to one another, but he does know all the material they left behind. He knows what they wrote about, what they did, what other people, contemporaneous observers wrote, and observed, and what they did. And he knows pretty much what the action was. A
nd then you can say, okay, at this point he must have said, okay, guys charge. You know, there's a logic to how you can reconstruct that. You kind of, it's reverse engineering in a way. And you may not have the exact wording, but if you are, if you know that the idiom of the time and you can cast it in the kind of language they would've used and you know what is on their mind, I think you get pretty close.
RLH: So you are talking about a decision based on the best outcome for the book and what makes the most sense from a writer's point of view.
But you were also facing some pretty serious pressure. You had to think about your career. You had to think about, or perhaps you didn't really understand the precipice at which you were standing.
PG: I think the latter is probably the truer. People have asked me, could you have done this book better had you been living here longer? And my answer is, I wouldn't have done it at all.
I think coming in, I was so gobsmacked by the level of segregation and the secrecy around this thing, when I would ask about it. Even the reception I would often get as I went to research it, that I understood this was some kind of a family secret. This was the thing in the attic they don't want to bring down into the light of day.
I wasn't aware - until it's only been less than a year, I think, our former chancellor, James Leutze, confided to me that, and he's been quite open about it, that the board of trustees met, I had not achieved tenure in ‘94.
I was coming up for tenure, a process by which you first are evaluated by your peers in the department, by your chair, then by a committee at the level of the college, then by the dean of the college, and then by a committee at the level of the university, then by the provost.
And then the chancellor signs off. So there are about, I don’t know, seven or so levels of review.
And typically the trustees, their job is to rubber stamp it because they don't know. I mean, they're not professionals in any of the disciplines and they have to count on all the people in the process below them who've either approved or not approved.
But when it came to mine, apparently, as much as Jim argued for me, they were going to deny it.
And apparently at the 11th hour, Owen Kenan, the late Owen Kenan, who I never met, and never got to thank, told them essentially, you can't call yourself a university if you deny this guy tenure based on a book he wrote.
RLH: Now he was a member of the board of trustees.
PG: He would've been one of the trustees at that time. Yeah.
RLH: Was he a relative [of one of the perpetrators of 1898]?
PG: He was a relative, yeah. And so that apparently carried weight and I got my tenure, but it also, I've been at the university, well that was ‘94. I'm still there. So it's, you know, I sort of replay in my head everything that's happened since. And what, if anything, you know, has been a result of that would've been invisible to me.
The trustee who summoned me to breakfast not only didn't ever get disciplined for that, I reported it to the provost. He ended up becoming a member of the Board of Governors. And many of the trustees who were around at that time were around for a long time. So it wasn't like a kind of a one off.
RLH: And was this the same person who told you that the university had a $10,000 gift on the hook and then that gift was withdrawn when they learned of your book?
PG: Exactly. Yeah.
RLH: Do you think that's true?
PG: I don't think so, but I know that Bill Anlyon, who was then Vice Chancellor for Advancement, he made it a point to seek me out and say, look, we do things with integrity here and if we, if we get money with strings attached, we don't want that money.
RLH: In this same conversation, Philip Gerard reveals that a friend who worked for the Sheriff’s Office at the time told him to get a shotgun and install motion-sensor lights at his house – to prepare for backlash from the book.
PG: So I did actually put up the motion-sensor lights. I did not buy the shotgun.
RLH: He says he received creepy phone calls, got heckled at readings, and was looking over his shoulder more than usual. But in the end, the positive outcome outweighed all the rest.
PG: The very first big reading I did was at the old Wilmington market before it was finished. And so it was just an electrified open space full of candles. There must have been 50 or 60 candles and people filled in the room and then filled in the kind of gallery outside and more came in as I was reading. And there were these, for the first time in my experience, in Wilmington, black and white faces together in the same room lit up.
RLH: Philip Gerard says the conversations stretched beyond Wilmington – down to Charleston, South Carolina and all the way up to parts of New England.
Which leads us back to his more recent work and why he called it the most important work of his life.
Those issues that led to the Civil War are the same issues, according to Philip Gerard, that drive America’s vitriolic divide today.
And his ideas about how to heal, unsurprisingly, stayed consistent over the years.
This was back in 2019:
RLH: So when you talk about putting a memorial to this coup d’état at Third and Market, you know, really the opening to the heart of downtown in Wilmington, North Carolina, are you talking about leading with the ugliest, the worst part of this city's history?
PG: No, I think what you have to think about the built environment as, and built environment is what, when you name everything from bridges and buildings to plazas to the kind of statuary you put up, you want to use the moment to educate.
So the Vietnam War memorial in Washington's a great example. It is a heartbreaking, depressing thing. And you know, you go there and you watch the people tracing their hands on the wall and you see the objects left behind and the people who are just distraught, remembering what happened in that war.
And yet it has created beauty and remembrance out of something that was horrifying and full of loss and grief. And I think our job is to create beauty and remembrance out of something that was horrifying.
RLH: He helped to secure funding for the North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center. He also wrote the narrative on which the entire project is based.
And he believed there are some basic structural issues that never quite allowed Americans to become a united group of states.
PG: It’s important to remember if you have a majority, then you have to create the system by which the will of the majority can prevail. And we're not living in that system right now.
RLH: And explain why.
PG: Well, we have the senatorial system. So you have 50 senators that are Democrats who represent 41 million more people, more Americans than the ones on the other side of the aisle.
But you have, you need a 60-40 vote for the filibuster, which is a rule invented and used largely to keep civil rights off the table.
So you have to figure out a way politically, and you've got to find the will for it to create a sense in which the majority will actually prevails.
The Electoral College is another example. You know, so you've, you've got presidents who lose the popular vote by millions and are still president because of the Electoral College, which is this arcane cobbled-together system that was sort of done after, you know, weeks of, of an exhausted congress trying to figure out how a convention, trying to figure out how to make this thing work. And they said, well, we'll put this in. Somebody will fix this later. Well, nobody ever did. And they're trying to, they've been trying to.
So there are things that, that can happen to let the majority actually rule. And if we had that, I think then, then the ship of state would right itself in a really important way.
RLH: You also think that having something like a national driver's license, not a state-by-state driver's license situation, would contribute to healing this great divide. What does a driver's license have to do with the divide?
PG: I think that the short answer is we need to be thinking of ourselves more as Americans and less as Texans or New Yorkers or Californians or North Dakotans. That the, the guiding principle should be we are Americans first and everything that does not move in that direction -- every time you have to re-certify yourself to teach in a different state or to nurse in a different state or to practice architecture in a different state, then all those things are simply accentuating the divides.
We're no longer people who grow up and live and die in the same county. Most people move several times in their lifetime. I've lived in, I think, five different states but I think of myself as an American. Yes, I'm a North Carolinian, the way I was a Chicagoan, the way I was a Vermonter for a short time and a Delawarean by birth.
But my defining identity has always been American.
And I think those small things go a long way toward the kind of cooperation and sometimes they're much more important than say a national driver's license.
We have 18,000 police departments of one kind or another in this country. Some of them are trained really well; some of them aren't trained at all.
And it would be useful to have, at the very least, a national standard for training to say, if you're going to be a cop in America, whether it's FBI or local sheriff or whatever, you're going to have to actually learn how to do some things. And you're going to have to have some training in ethics and law and all the rest of those things that are going to be important to you.
So that if I'm arrested in Montgomery, Alabama or Binghamton, New York or wherever, I can count on the same level of expertise and the same professional standards that I would expect from say, I don't know, a United States Marine, someone who has had the basic training that, that they're going to have and share.
That doesn't mean that nobody's ever, you know, going to go astray, but it does mean that certain things ought not to be cobbled together by state.
RLH: He had other ideas he wasn’t ready to talk about publicly -- ideas that he put into a book proposal called Toward a More Perfect Union: Why America Lost the Civil War and How to Win It Now.
His widow, Jill Gerard, says she’s certain he wouldn’t mind putting it all out there now. And while this is not the right time or place to go into depth on his unpublished work, it is worth ending on the central idea for the last chapter of his book.
Philip Gerard writes that there was a brief moment during Reconstruction when the full weight of the U.S. Government was aimed at crushing violent white supremacy. We have the laws to do so again in a sustained and successful way, he writes, if we can find the political will.
Jill Gerard has created a scholarship in her late husband’s name for students of creative writing at UNCW. You can find a link in the resources section below.
Philip Gerard, scholar, journalist, creative writer, civil rights advocate, musician, mentor, adventurer, a man who gave so much during his short time on earth, 1955 – 2022.
Rest in peace, Professor Gerard.
CoastLine is a production of WHQR Public Media.
Ken Campbell is CoastLine’s Technical Director. Jonathan Furnell engineered this episode.
Resources & links:
In lieu of flowers, Jill Gerard is requesting donations to the scholarship fund set up in Philip Gerard’s name:
All monies will be used to fund scholarships for students in the Department of Creative Writing.
Philip Gerard’s website:
The North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center: