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About 30 members of WRPC, including three youth, went to Wilmington on August 4-6 to learn about Wilmington’s history from an African-American viewpoint.

Our first day in Wilmington began with a tour by WilmingtoNColor, a local tour of black Wilmington history founded and led by Cedric Harrison. He began by noting known African Americans from Wilmington, including Meadowlark Lemon, a Harlem Globetrotter, and Althea Gibson, award-winning tennis player. Wilmington was also the site of Williston High School, the first black accredited high school in the country. Martin Luther King was scheduled to speak there in 1968, but was summoned instead to Memphis for the sanitation workers’ strike, where he was killed.

Our first stop was the 1898 Memorial, featuring oars and waves, recollecting the arrival of Africans by boat to Wilmington. We were given a brief summation of the events of November, 1898 in Wilmington then continued our tour of the city.

Our tour guide, Mr. Harrison, gave us some history of Wilmington first. By 1898, Wilmington was the largest city in NC. Following the end of the Civil War and emancipation, about 60% of the population was black and Republican; there was black prosperity in Wilmington with doctors, businesses, schools, and other community involvement there. There were black NC representatives in the US Congress. In Wilmington by that time, there was a ‘fusion’ government comprised of white and black elected representation. Eventually, resentment by white Southern democrats in Raleigh and Wilmington led some white Raleigh officials and business owners to send a group of armed ‘Red Shirt’ troops to overthrow the elected government in Wilmington and throughout NC. The Southern Democrats sought a return to white rule in NC and the South.

On November 10, 1898, following Wilmington’s election of a fusion government, Red Shirts marched on Wilmington, seeking Alexander Manley, the black editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, to lynch him but did not find him. They burned the building housing the paper, which remains an empty lot to this day. Later that day, white residents returned home in Wilmington to find a group of black residents gathered, discussing the day’s events. They were told to disperse, refused, and the first shots were fired. The number of black residents killed varies from 21-300 residents; 3 white men were reported injured. Many black residents fled to nearby swamps; after the coup, about 40% of the population was black and Wilmington’s prosperity declined after 1898.

During the coup, elected representatives were required to sign over their seats to coup leaders. Thus, the activities in Wilmington constituted a coup, where representatives elected by local voters were overthrown by an outside unelected group.

After the WilmingtoNColor tour and lunch, we went to the Cameron Art Museum (CAM) in Wilmington. Our guide there spent much time with us at the USCT (US Colored Troops) memorial on the grounds. The sculpture, by Stephen Hayes, features representation of some USCT troops, modeled by descendants of the original USCT troops. The ages of these troops, numbering about 7,000 in NC alone and around 200,000 USCT throughout the country, ranged from 14 to 73, reflected in the faces, bodies and hands of the sculpture.

The site of this museum is near Forks Road, where a battle occurred that followed the Battle of Fort Fisher in 1864. Because Wilmington was so significant to Confederate troops for reinforcements, having 3 railroads and the last Confederate major seaport, the Union felt it was critical to take Wilmington. Because of the fighting of the USCT over two days, the Union was able to take Wilmington.

On Sunday, our group attended worship at Chestnut St. Presbyterian Church, the oldest black Presbyterian church in the US. Rev. Sean Palmer led the service and preached a sermon on ‘False Accusations’, following the church’s current theme of incarceration. The passage was from Genesis 39:17-21.

Following a brief reception after church, our groups went to the Wilmington waterfront for lunch then departed for Raleigh.

Many thanks to Kat Kussmaul, Terry Apter and others who organized this trip and saw to many details, making it run very smoothly and giving us great opportunities for learning and fellowship.


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