SCREENING LOCAL HISTORY: ‘Wilmington on Fire’ documents new testimony about the 1898 race riots

Wilmington Coup D’état. Wilmington Massacre. The Race Riot of 1898. While there are multiple ways to reference one of North Carolina’s most infamous and bloody events, the story remains the same: On November 10, 1898, a heavily armed mob of white citizens (with the support of the NC Democratic Party) left many dead or exiled from what was a thriving African American political leadership in Wilmington. It’s known as one of the only successful coups in United States history—a leap into the white supremacy movement and Jim Crow segregation laws of the American South.

ON FIRE: Director Christopher Everett uncovers history and missing legacies in ‘Wilmington on Fire.’ Courtesy photo.
ON FIRE: Director Christopher Everett uncovers history and missing legacies in ‘Wilmington on Fire.’ Courtesy photo.

Though books have been written on it—and even the 1898 Memorial Park erected at 1018 N. 3rd St.—“Wilmington on Fire” is the first full-length film made about the history-making event. It’s also one of the most locally relevant and important documentaries to be shown at the 2015 Cucalorus Film Festival. “Wilmington on Fire” will make its debut on Sat., Nov. 14 at Thalian Hall.

Director Christopher Everett walks viewers through the events preceding that fateful fall day and highlights its lasting impact on victims’ families. Many people killed were business and property owners, who lost their land to the white people who overthrew them. Elected black leaders were replaced with white leaders, and direct descendants were left with a politically and economically altered future.

Everett includes interviews with historians and researchers, including LeRae Umfleet, who presented her own book, “A Day of Blood,” about the coups at the Bellamy Mansion in October. Everett also included testimonies from victim descendents, like Fay Chaplin.

Granddaughter of Thomas C. Miller, Chaplin sees and walks along Wilmington property today, knowing it was once her family’s—but more so should have been hers. It’s one of many testaments as to why it’s time to consider restitution owed to these families.

“I want people to walk away after viewing this film to realize what happened back in 1898 and how that event shaped the future we live in today, and hopefully, they will see why compensation is important,” Everett says. “Other things should be tangible to African Americans in Wilmington, such as the creation of a business district, access to resources and capital to start businesses and create infrastructure, schools, etc. But that is my dream that may never happen.”

The impetus to create “Wilmington on Fire” began with the personal desire and need to tell the story from the perspective of the African American victims and their families. Everett believes their views have not been considered.

“Most of the writings aren’t from that perspective,” he verifies. “I also knew there was more to the story; I wanted to really show people the process and steps that the coup leaders took to pull off this event and how it just wasn’t something that happened in Wilmington, but took place all over the state of North Carolina.”

At the time of the coups, Democratic and Republican parties were completely different from today in values and tenants. Republicans were the liberal party of the time and Democrats were conservative. “Even though they are different today,” Everett adds, “they are still similar in regards to turning their backs on the African American community when they need them the most.”

The government’s role at the time is often questioned and referenced throughout the film, which is why Everett doesn’t see memorials as enough to close the chapter in history. Though he had to cut it from the theatrical version of the film, discussions pertaining to the 1898 Memorial Park and the memorial’s rectifying power (or lack thereof) will be on the DVD’s bonus features section.

Everett relates 1898 to current politically charged issues, like voter ID laws, which many believe target low-income African Americans. “But the effects are not just with voting,” he says, “it’s also with economics. Look at African Americans in Wilmington and the amount of businesses they own: It’s very little. It’s not just in Wilmington; look throughout North Carolina.”

Though some people, especially Wilmingtonians, may see the events of 1898 and their dirty details as common knowledge, Everett learned otherwise through his research and interviews. Of the three descendents he interviewed, none of them really knew what happened to their grandparents or great-grandparents until they got older.

“This event and story pretty much was kept hidden from them,” he says. “The lack of curriculum in schools is one of the reasons why most may not know about the event today. They may have heard things, but they really don’t know the real deal and the factors involved in it.”

One contributing factor highlighted was the propaganda and misleading journalism of the time. Negative portrayals of the African American community laid the foundation for the coup. According to one interviewee, propaganda perpetuates the belief that victims of police brutality and the like “deserved what they got.”

It’s a stark parallel to what we see today in news headlines, a la Ferguson and Baltimore. “Media hasn’t changed at all—especially as it relates to the imagery of African Americans,” Everett adds. “The same stereotypes fueled by media back in 1898 are still going strong in the media today.”

Original and often graphic illustrations are used throughout “Wilmington on Fire.” Everett invited Charlotte artist and illustrator Wolly McNair to help complete the story. “While putting this documentary together, I wanted the visuals to be a little different but mixed with archival materials,” he says. “One of the main reasons for doing it also was that some of the things we highlight in the film [didn’t have] archival photos, such as people getting killed, dead bodies, women hiding in the cemetery, etc. They were important to the story and I wanted people to have a visual of certain events.”

Everett wants to incorporate more art to contribute to the film, such as an exhibition held in tandem with screenings. He also worked with executive producers Sean “OneSon” Washington and Ja’Nese Jean on the soundtrack to the film.

“I pretty much used my own money to fund this film and did a couple of crowd-funding campaigns,” Everett tells. “I got the rest of the finishing funds earlier this year from a private investor, but I pretty much put everything I had into this project, from top to bottom.”

A partial showing of “Wilmington on Fire” will also play on Wed., Nov. 11, 7 p.m. at International Longshoreman Association (1305 S. Fifth Ave.). For the Record: In Memory of the Victims of the Wilmington, NC Massacre of 1898 will include music, guest speakers, artists, poets, and more. For more, visit

Wilmington on Fire
Cucalorus Film Festival
Saturday, Nov. 14, 3:45 p.m.
Thalian Hall Main Stage
310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $10-$20
Passes: $45-$300

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