Johannes Lichtman on Revising the Revisionists


Lichtman unravels the history of a massacre and coup in a southern town @ The Rumpus.

I suffer from the primary carpet-bagging compulsion of the northern writer living in the South: I long to appropriate southern tragedy for my own personal gain. It is unseemly, I know, but ever since I moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, I’ve wanted to write about the 1898 Wilmington massacre, in which the white gentry murdered scores of African Americans and overthrew the liberal local government, in the only successful coup in American history.

But I have kept the impulse in check. For a century and a half, outsiders have come to the South to explain what’s wrong with it, which is of course very annoying to southerners. Think about it: If you hear someone saying nasty things about your hometown, you’ll likely find yourself defending it, even if you hate your hometown. I think this natural defensiveness at least partially accounts for the post-Civil War lies that dominated the 20th century—and which have been incredibly detrimental to southern race relations—so for three years, I refrained from writing about the massacre. But a few months ago, something happened.

As the end of my stay in Wilmington drew near (I would soon be moving west for work), I started taking long walks around the downtown part of the city. You can live in a city for years without really seeing it, unconsciously navigating the familiar blurs for days on end, but once you know you’re leaving, everything rushes into focus. Wilmington is a tourist-heavy city of about 100,000 in southeastern North Carolina, bracketed by the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a very walkable riverfront area, and as the city was never shelled during the Civil War, old architecture is the norm. Protestant churches with arrowed towers and antebellum mansions quartered into three-bedroom apartments line the sidewalks of Market Street. The riverfront area is home to several brick warehouses converted into bars, restaurants and boutiques, and a little north of downtown, tunnels of trees shade the roads past traditionally segregated graveyards.

But as I walked the city, the most distinct characteristic that kept popping up wasn’t old buildings—it was the signs that mark the old buildings, telling the history of the structures.

During one of my walks, I strolled down a block on 2nd Street in which eleven of the fourteen houses have official plaques from the Historic Wilmington Foundation. One of the three remaining homeowners had put up their own plaque, which reads: “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” Interestingly enough, most of the official plaques—of which there are nearly six hundred—tell similarly uneventful stories. In front of the Dickinson House on 2nd Street the plaque reads: “Neoclassical Revival style house built as rental property for Charles R. Dickinson (1877-1956), native of Beaufort, N.C., insurance agent, and wife Lillian Walker (1879-1904), native of Brunswick County, N.C. This house is one of a pair of mirror image dwellings; other house, demolished in 1969…”

The more plaques I read, the stranger I found it that none of the plaqued homes had housed anyone involved with the 1898 massacre, which thousands of Wilmingtonians had participated in.

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