'Wilmington's Lie' Author Traces The Rise Of White Supremacy In A Southern City Journalist David Zucchino says Wilmington, N.C., was once a mixed-race community with a thriving black middle class. Then, in 1898, white supremacists staged a murderous coup that changed everything.
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'Wilmington's Lie' Author Traces The Rise Of White Supremacy In A Southern City

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'Wilmington's Lie' Author Traces The Rise Of White Supremacy In A Southern City

'Wilmington's Lie' Author Traces The Rise Of White Supremacy In A Southern City

'Wilmington's Lie' Author Traces The Rise Of White Supremacy In A Southern City

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Journalist David Zucchino says Wilmington, N.C., was once a mixed-race community with a thriving black middle class. Then, in 1898, white supremacists staged a murderous coup that changed everything.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The American South in the post-Reconstruction era was a land of broken promises and brutal oppression for African Americans, as white leaders stripped former slaves of many of the civil and voting rights they'd won after the Civil War. But in the 1890s, the port city of Wilmington, N.C., was an exception. It had a thriving black middle class, a large black electorate and a local government that included black aldermen, police officers and magistrates.

That ended in 1898 with a bloody campaign of violence and intimidation by white supremacists, which our guest journalist David Zucchino calls America's first and only armed overthrow of a legally elected government. Zucchino chronicles the events in a new book called "Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy." David Zucchino is a contributing writer for The New York Times. He's covered war and civil conflicts in more than three dozen countries and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from apartheid South Africa. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, David Zucchino, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is an amazing story. And it's set in Wilmington, N.C., in the 1890s. It's a coastal city, then the largest city in North Carolina - right? - and remarkable for the status that African Americans held at that city at a, you know - which was a city in the Deep South. Give us a sense of where black citizens stood in Wilmington then.

DAVID ZUCCHINO: Wilmington was really an outlier. It was really a unique city in the South at that time. It was - first of all, it was a majority black city, and it was probably one of the very, very few major cities in the South that had a black majority. It was 56% black. There was a multiracial government at the time, where blacks served in positions of power, and that was extremely rare in the South at that time. There were three black aldermen. There were 10 black policemen. There were black magistrates. There was a daily black newspaper, which was very unusual in the South. There weren't that many because the white media really dominated.

This was, really, more than the white supremacists could bear. They had been in power in North Carolina since Reconstruction but had lost control of Wilmington and the state Legislature in 1894 through a combination of the Populist Party, which was made up of poor whites, abandoning the Democratic Party and going over to the Republican Party and aligning themselves with not only white republicans but black Republicans, and the blacks were the ones that had put the Republicans in power.

And so that's how they had reached this status in Wilmington with a burgeoning black middle class, with black doctors, black lawyers, black professionals. It was quite an unusual situation and, again, something that white supremacists were not going to allow to stand.

DAVIES: Right. And to remind people who may not remember 19th century politics as well, back then, the Democrats were the party of white supremacy; the Republicans were the ones that African Americans joined and supported. So you had this black middle class and meaningful representation in government. How did whites handle this? What were race relations like in the city?

ZUCCHINO: It was interesting. Take the black newspaper for example, The Daily Record, white businessmen bought ads in the paper. There were ads in the newspaper that appealed to both blacks and whites. Blacks worked in white businesses, with the whites clearly in charge but with fairly cordial relations. There was racial segregation at the time, but Wilmington was unusual in that a lot of the neighborhoods were mixed, where you had blacks and whites living together, even in the working classes, which was, again, a little unusual for a city in the South at that time.

DAVIES: Obviously, there were whites who resented this. And a plan arose to to retake Wilmington and much of the state from this combination of Republicans and populists, which had given African Americans a meaningful role in government. The violence occurred in the November 1898 election, but the planning started months ahead of time. What happened?

ZUCCHINO: It started in the spring, when the publisher of The News & Observer, which was the most powerful and influential paper in North Carolina, met with the head of the Democratic Party, a man named Furnifold Simmons. And they came up with a plan to overthrow the government in Wilmington, which was the largest and most important city. But they had a larger goal in mind, and that was to deprive the blacks of the vote and deprive them of the ability to serve in elected or appointed office ever again. And this plan was hatched over a period of several months during the spring, summer and fall of 1898, leading up to the elections in November.

And the way they did this was to set up sort of a military formation in Wilmington, where they had block captains and block lieutenants assigned. They brought in weapons from as far away as Richmond and Baltimore. Whites armed themselves with shotguns and Winchesters. They did not allow blacks, on the other hand, to buy any weapons. The merchants of the city bought a new rapid-fire Colt machine gun for the state militia.

And this was a very important point that people don't realize, that the white leadership had control of two state militias, the Wilmington Light Infantry and the city's naval reserves. These were both state militias that purportedly answered to the governor in Raleigh. They were basically the National Guard of the day. But they were made up of white supremacists, and they were controlled by the white supremacist leadership. And at the same time, the city's merchants would buy guns for poor whites who couldn't afford the guns. So the city was incredibly well-armed and prepared for the day when the leadership had set aside after the election to overthrow the government.

DAVIES: Right. So there were clearly preparations for a military assault. But there was a huge effort here also in propaganda, in information, in disinformation, fake news, if you want. Give us a sense of what kind of information was propagated which helped to create the atmosphere for this counterrevolution.

ZUCCHINO: Yeah. At the time, newspapers were the king of media. They were really the only media. And The News & Observer in Raleigh was the king of media in North Carolina. And Josephus Daniels orchestrated probably the most effective and impressive disinformation campaign up until that time. It was two-pronged. It focused on telling white voters that black public officials were incompetent and corrupt and utterly incapable of governing and utterly incapable of having the intelligence to vote and, at the same time, being sexually insatiable and on the prowl for white women. They even used a term for it - it was the black beast rapist.

And Daniels planted these false stories around eastern North Carolina, and particularly in Wilmington, of black men supposedly attacking and assaulting white women and without any protection from a police force that they said was run by black policemen. So this was very, very effective, and it was picked up by other papers around the state and particularly the papers in Wilmington. And they incited whites to attack blacks. And part of the plan was to make sure that blacks did not register to vote because blacks outnumbered whites in Wilmington, and they could overwhelm them with sheer numbers. So during the summer, as part of this campaign, the whites created a Red Shirt militia. These were gunmen who dressed in red shirts, went out at night into black areas and would break into black homes, yank men out and beat them and whip them and threaten them - threaten to kill them if they registered to vote.

At the same time, as part of this campaign, white merchants were told to find out whether any of their black employees had planned to register to vote or had registered to vote. If they had registered to vote, they were fired. If they hadn't, they were told that they would be fired if they did register to vote.

DAVIES: Another thread of stories arose about - stories of a black insurrection coming. People remembered the Nat Turner revolt, which would have been - what? - the 1830s, right? I mean, many, many years.

ZUCCHINO: 1831.

DAVIES: Right. But the idea was sold that blacks were planning an armed revolt, thus justifying arming and, you know, oppressing blacks.

ZUCCHINO: Yes, this was part of the whole newspaper campaign. I mean, day after day, The News & Observer in Raleigh and the papers in Wilmington and papers elsewhere in eastern North Carolina kept warning of a black revolution, of a black riot. They would print stories saying blacks were stockpiling weapons, when it was fact that - it was the whites who were stockpiling the weapons, that blacks were planning to kill white women and white children and take over the city, take over churches, burn them down, burn down white businesses and take over the town.

And in fact, some of the whites believed their own propaganda, and they set up safe places for white families to flee when the black riots started. They set up churches and places of business where they would take white families for protection. And in fact, in the days before the election and before the planned riot - which was two days after the election - a lot of whites sent their families out of the city for fear of this black uprising.

DAVIES: And we should just note here that it wasn't - blacks didn't run the entire government, but they had allies among populist whites. They had formed this coalition between populist whites and the Republican Party, which allowed them to win these elections, which were, you know, more tolerant of black participation and black voting rights.

ZUCCHINO: Exactly. And part of the propaganda campaign was really targeted against what they called carpetbaggers, which were northern - white northerners who had come down and scallywags, which were southerners who were called race traitors, and these were people who were in positions of power in the government. The newspapers railed against what they called, quote, "Negro rule," when in fact, only a very, very small proportion of public officials in Wilmington and in eastern North Carolina were black. Most of the power resided in their Republican white allies.

But the white supremacy campaign - and that's another interesting point. They actually called it the white supremacy campaign. I mean, they were proud of it. And they made it very clear that they were going to restore white supremacy as official government policy.

DAVIES: David Zucchino's book is "Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIRD WORLD LOVE'S "SEFARAD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with investigative reporter David Zucchino. His new book tells the story of the violent assault staged by white supremacist mobs in 1898 to take control of the city of Wilmington, N.C., at a time when African Americans there had real voting rights and significant representation in local government. Zucchino's book is called "Wilmington's Lie."

There was a very influential piece by an African American newspaper editor, Alex Manly, which played a role in all of these events. Tell us about this. Tell us about him, too.

ZUCCHINO: Yeah. Alex Manly was a very, very courageous, crusading black editor. He was, in fact, the grandson of a white governor, in fact, and he could have passed as white, which many people with white ancestors did, but he chose to live his life as a black man. And he advocated for black civil rights, and he demanded that the federal government live up to its promises of equality and citizenship and voting rights for blacks. And he did so through the pages of his paper, The Daily Record.

In August of 1898, he responded to a speech that was given by a woman in - a white woman in Georgia, who said the only solution to black aggression against white women was to lynch. And she said, I - she said lynch a thousand times a day, if necessary. And he felt like he had to respond to that. And I would like to read just a couple of lines...

DAVIES: Sure.

ZUCCHINO: ...From the editorial he wrote in August.

Quote, (Reading) Every Negro lynched is called a big, burly black brute, when in fact, many of those who have been dealt with had white men for their fathers and were not only black and burly but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them, as is very well known to all. Let virtue be something more than an excuse for them to intimidate and torture a helpless people. Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman. You set yourself down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women when you seek to destroy the morality of ours.

And as you can imagine, that had an incredible incendiary impact on whites not only in Wilmington, across North Carolina and across the South because the white newspapers reprinted the editorial in full to try to incite whites against blacks. And in fact, after the editorial ran, there were - the Red Shirts, which was the private militia of the white supremacy movement, wanted to lynch Alex Manly that day. And to show you how premeditated and calculated this white supremacy campaign was, they were ordered by the leaders of the campaign to wait until after the elections in November, three months later, when it would have greater political impact. So Alex Manly did survive up until just before the election, and then the Red Shirts rose up again and wanted to lynch him. He found out about it, and he fled Wilmington and never returned.

DAVIES: So November 8 is election day in Wilmington and across the state. What happened in Wilmington?

ZUCCHINO: In Wilmington, blacks tried to summon the courage to go out and vote. And some of them did manage to vote, but a lot of them were intercepted by these gunmen, known as Red Shirts, and either threatened or beaten or intimidated and driven away from the polls. And the Red Shirts also went to polling stations and stuffed ballot boxes with phony Democratic ballots and destroyed Republican ballots. And there were instances in several precincts where the Democratic candidate won with more votes than the number of total registered voters in the district. So it was a complete fraud, and the election was stolen. The Democrats did take over county offices in the counties surrounding Wilmington, and they took back the state legislature.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, the municipal officials, which included some African Americans and their Republican - white Republican allies, were not on the ballot that day. And there was a plan to deal with them, and that really meant constraining the white mobs who wanted to really do violence and burn the black newspaper. The plan was not to do that on Election Day. What was the plan?

ZUCCHINO: The plan was to wait two days until after the election and to use the newly empowered position that they had as a result of winning the election to overthrow the government. And this was very carefully planned. There was a mass meeting of white men the day after the election where they issued something they called the White Declaration of Independence. They said, from now on, black jobs will be given to white men. There will be no more black officials in public office or in appointed office. Whites will rule. This is white men's country, and whites will rule it.

And then they planned and organized for the next day for the Red Shirts to go out and, first, burn Alex Manly's Record newspaper because as I say, the Red Shirts had been just determined all summer to lynch Alex Manly. And they were given permission to do that that day. Once they burned the newspaper and returned, the smoke and the sound of the fire alarms just terrified black workers in the city, and they all fled their jobs and went back to their neighborhoods. And some of them congregated in a black neighborhood that was on the edge of a mixed-race neighborhood. They congregated on a corner. Some of them had managed to grab a few weapons to try to defend themselves, and there was a showdown with the whites who had just returned from burning the black newspaper. And a huge crowd of white armed men developed and confronted this small group of blacks on a corner.

And after some shouting and yelling back and forth, gunfire broke out. The whites fired first, and the riot began. And for the rest of the day, the Red Shirts and the two state militias rampaged through the streets, chased down black men, killed at least 60 black men and, at the same time, came up with a banishment list of some 50 people, black and white, who were to be banished from Wilmington forever. They rounded these people up and literally ran them out of town on a rail. They took them to the train station and put them on trains and told them never to come back, and not one of them ever did.

DAVIES: What about the women and children? The gunfire was directed at black men. What about their families? What became - what did they do?

ZUCCHINO: Black families were so terrified at their men being shot down in the street that they fled. Just hundreds of families just fled to the swamps, to a black cemetery where they figured whites would not enter, and hid in the woods for several days. This was in November. It was cold and wet at night. There were reports that some babies died during this horrible experience. Once the black families felt it was safe to come back to Wilmington several days later, in the weeks and months following the coup, more than 2,000 blacks fled the city. And a black majority city almost overnight became a white supremacist stronghold. In 1898, the black population of Wilmington was 56%, and today it is 18%.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with David Zucchino, a contributing writer for The New York Times and author of the new book "Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy". After a break, they'll talk about how Wilmington's white leaders passed discriminatory laws restricting voting rights for blacks in North Carolina that lasted for the next 70 years, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a recording that recently surfaced of saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS SEPTET'S "SUNFLOWERS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with veteran investigative reporter David Zucchino. His new book "Wilmington's Lie" tells the story of the violent assault staged by white supremacist mobs in 1898 to take control of the city of Wilmington, N.C., at a time when African Americans there had real voting rights and representation in local government.

DAVIES: This wasn't simply a change of government. It was a radical transformation of the lives of black citizens. You want to just talk about that a little bit? Some of - I mean, you know, they were successful attorneys and merchants who had real lives and stakes in the community and lots of black people who were employed in working-class roles. How were their lives affected by this?

ZUCCHINO: The leading - the black - the doctors and the lawyers and the funeral directors and the ministers were put on this list to be banished, and they were all confronted in their homes that night, the night of the riot, and told they had 24 hours to get their affairs in order and leave. And they were all put on trains and sent out of town, and not one of them ever came back. There was one man named Thomas Miller, who was one of the wealthiest people, black or white, in Wilmington. He was a real estate broker, a very shrewd businessman. He owned a restaurant. He had been a deputy sheriff. And he was so successful, he was seen as a threat by the white leadership. And he was dragged from his home by the militia - by the state militia - taken to jail overnight and, the next day, put on a train and driven from the city. And he, like all the others, never came back.

This was not only a coup. It was a revolution. I mean, this had reverberations across North Carolina and the South that inspired white supremacists across the South. The effect of the coup and the aftermath was that blacks did not hold elected or appointed offices in Wilmington or in eastern North Carolina for another 70 years. I mean, after they drove three black aldermen from office at gunpoint, no black citizens served on the city council until 1972.

The white supremacists also hounded the only black member of Congress in the country in 1898, a man named George Henry White who was from eastern North Carolina and represented North Carolina in Congress. They hounded him and his family, and he left after the coup, saying, I cannot live in North Carolina and be treated like a man. And from that point on, no African American citizen served in Congress from North Carolina until 1992. So this had major repercussions, and it was indeed a revolution.

DAVIES: You know, one little detail which underlined the permanence of these changes were that Tom Miller, this wealthy black citizen of Wilmington, the real estate broker who was banished from the city, years later asked permission to just come back to attend his mother's funeral. What happened?

ZUCCHINO: That, to me, was one of just the saddest episodes in this book. He begged. He wrote a letter to a white colonel he knew in the city who he thought he was a friend and just begged for permission. Just - I just want to come back and bury my mother. She's the oldest living resident of this part of Wilmington. And he was just refused permission, and he wrote this heartbreaking, plaintive letter where he just said he had been treated worse than a dog, that he had done nothing wrong. It was a terrible injustice. It broke his heart, and he died two years later just a broken man.

DAVIES: You know, this was an occasion of horrific violence inflicted upon blacks, and it was a stolen election in that all of these state offices went from Republican to Democratic hands in what were clearly circumstances of corruption and intimidation. But there's a third element of this. I mean, you say that this was America's first and only armed overthrow of a legally elected government, and that's because there were local officials who were not on the ballot; that, even after these horrific events, were technically still in office, legally elected - some of them African Americans. What happened to them?

ZUCCHINO: A mob of Red Shirts marched on city hall, led by a former Confederate colonel named Alfred Moore Waddell, at gunpoint, confronted the city councilmen and ordered them to resign. And they had no choice. They did resign. But the amazing thing was that they held an impromptu, quote, "election." And the mob leaders, the people who actually led the riot and had run through the streets killing black men, were appointed or, quote, "elected" to fill their positions on the city council. And Colonel Waddell was, quote, "elected" as mayor. So the mob leaders put themselves in charge, and they ran the city for years afterwards.

DAVIES: In the civil rights movement, it was the federal government that often was the difference-maker when local whites were in charge and denying blacks rights. There were efforts to get President William McKinley to intervene, both before these events and then to investigate afterwards. What became of that?

ZUCCHINO: Yes. During the whole summer and fall of 1898, George Henry White, the U.S. congressman from North Carolina, met personally in the White House with McKinley and warned him that whites were planning this revolution and that were planning to intimidate and kill black citizens. Black clergymen met with McKinley and warned him about it. Black ministers in Washington, D.C., held several meetings, mass meetings where they warned of the, quote, "race war" coming in North Carolina. After the coup and the massacre, McKinley was approached again by George Henry White. He met with a black delegation, who told him what had happened and begged him to send federal troops. But in order for federal troops to come in, they had to be requested by the governor. And Governor Russell was besieged in his mansion. He was terrified, and he wasn't about to call in the troops.

And at the same time, President McKinley, who was an abolitionist - he was a former union officer - had campaigned on bringing the nation together. And these events occurred during the summer of 1898 in the middle of the Spanish-American War, and that war had sort of reunited the North and the South 30 years after the Civil War. And I don't think McKinley really wanted to interrupt that sense of nationhood, even though there was a real undercurrent of jingoism there. And at the same time, like any politician, he was running for re-election, and he needed white votes from the South. And now, I don't think he wanted to antagonize whites, so he made a decision to stay out of it, and I could find no record that he made any public comment about the events in Wilmington, before or afterward.

DAVIES: As the election approached, through the summer and fall of 1898, you had white militias forming in Wilmington and surrounding communities, violence being inflicted upon blacks, lots of, you know, incendiary language being thrown around in newspaper editorials. Did this attract national attention?

ZUCCHINO: Absolutely. This was known as, quote, "the race war in the Carolinas." And newspapers from around the country sent their white reporters down in the spring, summer and fall of 1898 to cover this race war. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Evening Star, The Baltimore Sun - all the major papers of the day came down and covered it.

And what was really interesting was when these reporters would arrive at the train station, the leaders of the white supremacy movement would meet them and hand out cigars and whiskey and arrange for their lodging. And they would also arrange, essentially, for them, to use a modern term, to embed with them. They took them around the city and filled them with stories of how blacks were stockpiling weapons in black churches and were planning to rise up and riot and take over the city.

And the newspapers from the North repeated the talking points of the white supremacists almost word for word. So their stories were extremely slanted and even swallowed the white supremacy narrative that blacks were incapable of voting, that they weren't intelligent enough to vote and certainly were not intelligent or capable enough to hold office and had to be removed.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Zucchino. He's an investigative reporter. His new book is "Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy." We'll take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with investigative reporter David Zucchino. He has a new book which tells the story of the violent assault staged by white supremacist mobs in 1898 to take control of the city of Wilmington, N.C., at a time when African Americans there had real voting rights and significant roles in local government. His book is called "Wilmington's Lie."

So after this violence in 1898, what measures were - did the white leaders enact to make permanent the denial of voting rights for blacks?

ZUCCHINO: Even before the coup, white supremacists had instituted poll taxes and literacy tests. In poll taxes, you were required to pay a fee in order to register to vote, and this was intended to keep blacks from voting because so many blacks were poor. The literacy test was run after whites stole the election. The poll watchers and the people who registered people were now suddenly all Democrats. And they would impose these literacy tests on blacks and force them to do things, like recite from memory the preamble to the Constitution.

But the problem was that up to a quarter of all whites in North Carolina were illiterate and so they couldn't pass the literacy tests, and many whites were poor so they couldn't afford the poll taxes. So the leaders of the white supremacy campaign had been elected to the state Legislature, so they passed what they called a suffrage amendment, which contained a grandfather clause, which said that if your grandfather or any descendant had voted prior to 1867, you were exempted from the poll tax and the literacy test. Well, conveniently enough, blacks did not get to vote in North Carolina until 1868. So essentially, the grandfather clause eliminated almost all black men in North Carolina because very, very few of them - none of them, in fact - had an ancestor who had voted before 1867.

DAVIES: And that law, clearly discriminatory provision, stood for how long?

ZUCCHINO: It stood until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, so for basically 70 years.

DAVIES: You know, the name of your book is "Wilmington's Lie," which is an interesting way to set a focus on this; it's not just the events, but how they were remembered over the years. In the decades that followed, how were these violent events characterized by white papers, white newspapers and leaders in the South?

ZUCCHINO: Right. The first thing I should remind people is this was unique. There have been many so-called race riots in American history, both in the 19th century and the early 20th century, you know, such as Atlanta in 1906 and Tulsa in 1921. But these were spontaneous, and the spark was usually contact between a black man and a white woman. The coup in Wilmington was completely unique. First of all, it was not a race riot; it was a coup, and it was premeditated. It was calculated and planned for months, and there's never been another case like this in American history.

And after the coup, in the years following, the white supremacists were quite proud of what they did, and they bragged openly about it in letters and in diaries and in memoirs. But then, gradually, over the years, it was covered up. It was not taught in history books in North Carolina, and if it was mentioned, it was mentioned as part of this lost cause mythology of the South of whites rising up in defense of good government and eliminating incompetent and corrupt blacks from government. So that's the way it was portrayed for more than a hundred years. I went to high school and college in North Carolina, and not once was this ever mentioned in any history class.

DAVIES: Over time, in the late 20th century, attitudes changed, and people began to learn about it and consider the narrative of what happened in Wilmington in 1898. And then there was the approaching 100th anniversary, and that culminated in quite a debate about how these events were to be regarded. How did the community contend with this legacy?

ZUCCHINO: The University of North Carolina at Wilmington decided that the time had come to really burrow down and find out what really happened and to educate people about what really happened. And they decided to try to bring whites and blacks together, including descendants on both sides of people who had been involved in the events of 1898. It was a very, very emotional and painful time, but I believe they did accomplish something.

They had several symposiums. They - at one point, on exactly 100 years after white supremacists gave a speech before the election, vowing to choke the Cape Fear River with black carcasses, they held a joint black and white referendum where they signed what they called a declaration of black and white independence. They had church choirs from black and white churches sing hymns together. They came up with a definition of what had happened. And rather than a race riot, they decided that it was racial violence. The true story was told.

But there were still quite a few resentments on both sides. For the whites, there was an undercurrent of why are we dredging up this ancient history? This happened 100 years ago. Let's just let it die. And obviously, for African Americans, a great sense of loss. Their middle-class community was destroyed and, really, never rebuilt. They had suffered - their families had suffered for generations. There were calls for reparations, which created more friction.

But in the end, they created a memorial that was a block from the site of where the first gunshots rang out in 1898. They put up a plaque that told the true story of what had been called a race riot but was, in fact, a coup. So I believe, in the end, they did reach sort of an uneasy accommodation with the events of 100 years earlier.

DAVIES: You also spoke with descendants of some of the African American leaders at the time, including Alex Manly. What did you hear?

ZUCCHINO: I talked to Alex Manly's grandson, Lewin Manly Junior, who at the time was 85 years old. He's a retired dentist living in Atlanta. And he grew up - he knew his grandfather as a child for a few years. He knew Alex Manly's wife very well, his grandmother. And as he was growing up, he kept hearing these stories about Wilmington in 1898 and how his grandfather was directly involved. His family would not tell him anything. And it really pained him, and it bothered him that he could not get anything out of his family.

And he realized much later that this was such a painful and searing experience for the family that they decided they would never talk about it again. Alex Manly did not tell anyone the details of what had happened. He said very little about it. He said he wanted to let the past bury the past, would not talk about it up until his death in the 1940s. His grandson learned the true story of what had happened in 2006. This was when a state commission, which had been appointed to - investigated the causes and the impact of the riot, had spent five years investigating it, and in 2006, came out with a 400-page report that just detailed what had happened.

And Lewin Manly read this and was astonished, had no idea what had happened. And when I talked to him, I asked him, you know, can you ever forgive the whites for what they did to your grandfather 120 years ago? And he says, well, I'm not a religious man, and I can't forget, and I won't forgive. I hope they're burning in hell - all of them.

DAVIES: Well, David Zucchino, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZUCCHINO: It's great to be with you, Dave.

GROSS: David Zucchino is a contributing writer for The New York Times. His new book is called "Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy." After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will review a recording that recently surfaced of saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SELF-PORTRAIT IN THREE COLORS")

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