By CORBIE HILL
For a few years in the late 1800s, one corner of eastern North Carolina looked more like Marvel Comics’ Black-ruled Utopia of Wakanda than the Jim Crow South.
That’s how Michael Betts II M.F.A. ’20 describes Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1890s. The coastal city had a legally elected multi-racial government. There was substantial Black political, economic and social power. Betts, who is Black Indigenous, grew up in North Carolina and was amazed that a city like it existed in the post-Reconstruction South. It was – and is – hard to imagine.
In the latest season of Scene on Radio, the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Peabody Award-nominated podcast, co-producers Betts and John Biewen explain how the Wilmington of that era came to be—and how all its progress was destroyed in a violent coup d’etat.
On November 10, 1898, a mob of self-described white supremacists overthrew said multiracial government, killed Black residents, burned a Black-owned newspaper and forced deposed leaders into exile. Afterward, word of what became known as the Wilmington massacre and even the memory of Black excellence and political will in that city was suppressed, basically through a PR campaign enacted by white supremacist leaders.
“They sold this to the world,” says Betts.
We spoke with longtime “Scene on Radio” host Biewen, who is the Kenan Institute director of storytelling and public engagement, and Betts, an assistant professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Corbie Hill: What can you tell me about the current season of “Scene on Radio”?
John Biewen: It touches on big themes that “Scene on Radio” has spent time on over the last seven, eight years – white supremacy and how it functions in this country, the flaws and weaknesses in American democracy. Michael brought this project to me and asked me to be part of it.
CH: Let's get into the environment where the coup happened – Wilmington in the 1890s.
Michael Betts II: It is a dramatically different vision of most of the South in the 1890s. We have been told stories that erased that from reality.
Wilmington, as [historian] David Cecelski tells us in the first episode, was a complex, incredibly cosmopolitan place and a sophisticated political space for Black individuals. The port that existed there was run by Black people. You had Black individuals from all over the world.
JB: From early on, Michael and I were marveling at the fact that Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 still had a functioning multiracial democracy 20 years after it had been shut down in most of the Deep South.
MB: We had three Black banks in Wilmington. We had all kinds of restaurants. We had barber shops. We had Black everything when we talk about Black economic power, Black social power and Black political power being real things. It was the labor of white supremacy that overturned that. It's just really important to acknowledge how much work it is. It's laborious for white supremacists to maintain white supremacy.
CH: Didn’t they also work to erase 1898 from public awareness?
MB: The namesake of the social sciences building at UNC Chapel Hill is a guy by the name of Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton. He was a member of the Dunning School, which was a group of historians that wanted to frame slavery and Reconstruction as something that it was not. He's very much an apologist for the antebellum South.
He was a very prominent historian in the state. He gets interviewed in the ’30s about whether or not they should put a marker up to say what happened in Wilmington, and he's like, “No. If it offends the elite whites in North Carolina, those elite white families, we shouldn't tell that history.” [Historian] Dr. William Sturkey does a phenomenal job of kind of laying that out for us.
That's one of the ways that that thing goes away. Another is immediately following the coup. There's a newspaper campaign by elite white men who were part of the actual coup and massacre itself. They start writing national news organizations all over the place saying, “Hey, I read your account and I just want to correct your narrative.” They wrote a very specific narrative that said Blacks fired first, that said they reluctantly were charged to put down these rowdy Black people, that they had been living under this oppression. That oppression was that there were Black banks and Black education.
CH: Michael, you've got a foot in Wilmington. Let's talk about the diligence that you're doing, being among that community.
MB: [John and I] are not parachute journalists. We show up as a member of the community, if that's possible. We are very accountable to the folks that we interacted with. For me to be an assistant professor in that space actually made space for me to develop relationships with folks.
For me, these are friends. These are family. That's who these folks have become. I see the labor that they've done to get the story and keep it alive and make sure that it's getting into the ears of more people – folks like Bertha Boykin Todd, who is 94. She came in as a library specialist and has been a community historian for a long time. She's been there for seven decades. There's a real diligence about making sure that that labor of telling this story moves forward.
You have folks like Cedric Harrison. You can take a tour called WilmingtoNColor. He wants to tell you both about the good and the bad of Black history in Wilmington. There's plenty of folks on campus that I work with that are doing the same kind of labor.
One of the things that was really important was to show up in twos. So John's white. I’m Afro-Indigenous. The ability to tell the community that we were serious, in a multiracial way, communicated the necessity, communicated our seriousness.
Read more about the Kenan Institute’s work in Wilmington in our summer ’23 story about the America’s Hallowed Ground program.