The Wilmington Massacre of 1898, the only successful coup d’etat on American soil, is social and economic baggage we’ve yet to really begin to unpack in North Carolina. On November 10, 1898, a heavily armed mob of white citizens (with the support of the NC Democratic Party at the time) left many people dead or exiled from what was a thriving African-American political leadership in Wilmington. It’s Wilmington’s own strange fruit; a story often manipulated (if not forgotten), from which Rhiannon Giddens hopes to find beautiful music. The founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is in the beginning stages of writing a musical based on the events of 1898.
“I think you can tell stories and gain ears with art,” she says.
The recent MacArthur Grant recipient has multiple projects in the works at the moment. Like most of her creations, she hopes this one ultimately will raise awareness to an important social injustice.
“It’s not that I was looking for a musical to write,” she clarifies. “I heard about [the coup] and I went, ‘That’s a story that needs to be told and that’s the medium I need to tell it in.’ Based on the time period and people involved, music seems to be an intricate part of the story and way to tell it. . . . I also think there’s a beautiful project in there.”
The time period lends itself to Giddens’ brand of folk storytelling, played with the pluck of her banjo, which she learned while attending Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. However, what Giddens, like so many of us, didn’t learn through her primary education at home in Greensboro, NC, was about the coup in her home state.
“It’s a blind spot and something that has been repressed and not talked about, and you have to talk about why,” she notes. “Why was it repressed? Why was it not talked about? Why has there been resistance to labeling it correctly? All of that stuff has been relevant to what happened then, and what’s happening now.”
One problem with the lost piece of history is for years, even those aware of it would tend to use words like “insurrection” and “riot” to describe what happened. However, it was a well-planned uproot of power. Many people killed were business and property owners, who lost their land to 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.
“Even recently there was an article that called it a ‘race riot,’” Giddens remembers. “That’s frustrating: the ignorance out there. On the other hand, while there are some things to dispel and correct, there’s not a well-known view of it that we have to overturn. So you kind of have to take that as positive as you can.”
At the moment Giddens is working closely with local writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, who is providing meticulous research. In fact, Giddens—who is playing at UNCW’s Lumina Festival of the Arts this Wednesday—is planning to come to Wilmington for an extra couple days to work with Sullivan. As well, she is looking to make connections with other local experts on the matter—who have reached out in support of the project.
“I’m very interested in involving as much of the local knowledge base as possible,” she explains. “I’d like to tell a story that resonates with people, but I also want to tell a story I see. There’s a lot of folks who have been working on this a lot longer than I’ve known about it; I want to honor that and honor people in Wilmington who want that story told.”
Giddens is dependent upon research Sullivan and others who have done and will continue to dig up the facts—such as finding registry deeds, tracking down families, holding interviews, et al. However, there is not a lot of definitive work out there about 1898.
“[Sullivan has] been able to uncover some intriguing things that aren’t common knowledge,” she notes, “but we’re still waiting to have a complete picture to see the shape of the story.”
One contributing factor often highlighted about the coup of 1898 is the propaganda and misleading journalism leading up to the events. Negative portrayals of the African-American community laid the foundation for white supremacists to act without consequence. Blatant triumph after the fact seemed to hide atrocities in plain sight. In fact, the coup was seen as almost an “Independence Day” for whites.
“It was seen as a very positive thing,” Giddens affirms. “So when you mess with society’s reality like that, when you say something enough people start to believe it and I think blatancy goes to that: it’s an erosion of what is right and just. . . . It’s like pop music. Studies have shown a song might be an OK song, but if you play it enough times, people start to catch on to a hook and they love it. Even though the first time they heard it, they thought it was crap.”
Giddens continues to tour in support of her last album “Freedom Highway” (February 2017). Wilmingtonians can expect her to play a mix of tracks from previous records in her set on Wednesday at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium.
“I’m always happy to come back to North Carolina, but now there’s an extra energy and push to be in Wilmington,” she continues. “It’s a very cool town, even with all of this we’re talking about. It’s a very interesting mixture of things, which is what North Carolina is for me: a mixture of races and classes, in a way I think other places don’t have.”