“For something like Wilmington in 1898,” Cecelski continues, “it’s hard to describe the level of indoctrination. In the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, they bragged about [the coup]. After that, they backed off but it stayed in the history books and they talked about it as an unfortunate but necessary event.”
In fact, part of how historians have pieced together the real story of the Wilmington massacre is by looking back at newspaper archives—from towns all across North Carolina, not just Wilmington—where similar violence was coordinated that day. “They burned down black newspapers all over the state,” Cecelski says. “They shut down entry to the city from blacks and Republicans... It’s important not to forget that this was a planned thing. This wasn’t two people getting in a fight in a street corner and sparking underlying racial tensions or something like that.”
But state officials solidified their grip on power by promoting that very fiction: They originally called the 1898 incident the “Wilmington Race Riot,” with the implication that the event was instigated by a riot from blacks and quelled by Waddell’s fighters.
After open celebration of white supremacist violence lost favor, a sort of bland sanitizing of history dominated recollections. That lasted until around the time of the centennial of the massacre, in 1998, when scholars and the descendants of the Wilmington black community that had been nearly destroyed in 1898 began to push for recognition of what really happened. The state’s acknowledgement of its 70-year reign of white supremacy during the “Solid South” period followed the same pattern. Men like Charles B. Aycock, an agitator of the Wilmington riots who three years later was elected governor on a platform of white supremacy, were revered in the state until recently—and, in some cases, still are.
Glenda Gilmore, a North Carolina native and a professor of history at Yale, refers to the whitewashed period as a “a 50-year black hole of information.” According to Gilmore, the bloody history of white supremacy was largely unacknowledged in the state’s educational system. “Someone like me, I had never heard the word ‘lynching’ until I was 21,” she says. “This history was totally hidden from white children. And that was deliberate.”
But now that history is being uncovered and spread. Aycock’s legacy has been reconsidered, and the collection of buildings and landmarks named after him in the state has dwindled. The Wilmington Massacre is widely acknowledged as a coup and as a foundational moment in creating a white-supremacist state.
North Carolina Republicans have helped uncover that history as well, although some of their acknowledgments of the legacy of white supremacy have come with partisan strings attached. In 2007, back when he was a first-term state General Assembly representative, Senator Thom Tillis blocked a state resolution formally apologizing for the massacre. He’d supported the nonpartisan resolution with the caveat that it include an amendment from him that “would have acknowledged the historical fact that the white Republican government joined with black citizens to oppose the rioters.” When that amendment failed, the resolution died with it.