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June 4, 2006
Wilmington, N.C., Revisits a Bloody 1898 Day and Reflects
By JOHN DeSANTIS
WILMINGTON, N.C., June 3 Nobody will ever be certain how many people died the night of Nov. 10, 1898, on the streets, in the marshes where some ran for safety, or in the swift, wide current of the river that has always defined this port city.
"The Cape Fear River could be dammed up with black bodies, but we have no way of knowing just how many," said Lottie Clinton, a retired state port supervisor and 1 of 13 members of a state-appointed panel that studied the night's events for six years. "A lot of people, nobody ever heard from them again, so you just couldn't know whether they ran away and never came back or were killed."
The panel, officially called the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, concluded in a report released this week that what happened was not a riot, but a well-planned insurrection by white businessmen and former Confederate soldiers, mostly Democrats, against a lawfully elected government of fusionists and Republicans, who were mostly black.
Now that the story is told, the report says, somebody has to pay, and it offers broad recommendations for reparation by government and businesses. They include incentives for minority business development in areas that were affected and the easing of barriers to minority home ownership.
Newspapers accused of inflaming tensions at the time will be asked to provide scholarships for minority students, and to help distribute accounts of the story, which for so long was sheathed in awkward silence.
A local paper once known as The Morning Star is now owned by The New York Times Company and is called The Star-News. The others are The Washington Post, The Raleigh News and Observer and The Charlotte Observer.
The executive editor of The Star-News, Tim Griggs, said the paper "will do everything it can to report on both the lessons learned from 1898 and the commission's findings."
Mr. Griggs continued, "The paper will also work with other state media to address the commission's recommendations."
The rebellion, panelists noted, was the only successful overthrow of a municipal government in American history and laid the foundation for the Jim Crow laws and voter disenfranchisement that followed in North Carolina. It also tore the heart out of a thriving black community of professionals and artisans who disappeared and never returned.
The commission, which included black and white members, also asked that New Hanover County, which includes the city, be placed under special federal supervision through the Voting Rights Act. The story of the rebellion, panelists said, must be told in various venues and media, and monuments should be erected.
The investigation was modeled after inquiries concerning racial violence in Rosewood, Fla., and Tulsa, Okla.
The final report tells how tensions rose during Reconstruction, then moves forward to the Nov. 8, 1898, elections.
The violence began two days later with the destruction of the office of the town's black newspaper. Roving bands fired guns into the homes of blacks, and government officials were forced to resign.
Once one of the Confederacy's most important ports, Wilmington today is a city of 100,000. Its quiet streets are the backdrop for the television show "One Tree Hill." Transplants from the Northeast are swelling its population and contributing to a construction boom.
Mayor Spence Broadhurst said the report was a "powerful thing" that would unite rather than divide a city already making great strides toward equal economic opportunity.
"If the state legislature and the governor's office choose to send us more resources to continue to implement our plans, we would more than welcome it," Mr. Broadhurst said.
The next step in the process is for legislators to decide whether to formally accept the report's findings and any or all of the recommendations.
Commission members said that until that happens, they were glad the truth was finally being told.
"People ask, 'Why do you want to remember the past? This will hurt a lot of people,' " said one member, Kever Clark, a retired educator, who is black. "But can it hurt a lot of people more than it hurt families of those people who were killed? How can it hurt any more than that?"
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company