The last time I went to Wilmington, NC it was to take part in one of the worst days in the Atlanta Renegades Rugby Club’s illustrious existence… but that is another story. This second trip was much more enjoyable.
Having never been the star like Savannah or Charleston, Wilmington remains a little sleepy. Situated on the Cape Fear River, this southern port city has had its run with pirates, planters, ironclads, and exports. These experiences have given the town a depth of stories and tales but most of us miss them because we are busy hanging around the city’s two bigger sisters. I’m calling Wilmington the “Forgotten City”.
Forgotten Wilmington #1. The port and waterfront. Docked on the opposite bank of the river is the retired battleship USS North Carolina. It is forgotten because I have never heard of it, am too lazy to Google it, and it was on the wrong side of the river so I never went to see it. I’m sure it was worth seeing but the road didn’t take me there. Sorta like the interstate doesn’t go to Wilmington. Sorta like how most of the main street shops were hard to get to because of construction.
Forgotten Wilmington #2. William Gould.
William Gould was a slave owned by a peanut farmer. He was hired out as a skilled plasterer working on many fine houses in the city, including the city’s most prized home, the Bellamy Mansion. We know this because decades after Gould’s death, his signature was discovered under some moulding.
In 1862 William Gould disappeared and was eventually forgotten. Well, maybe just forgotten by those in Wilmington.
Turns out, Mr. Gould escaped via rowboat with seven other slaves. They were picked up by the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic and taken north. Gould joined the Navy and served honorably throughout the civil war, afterward put down roots in Boston, and raised a very successful family. While Boston knew about the family Wilmington may not have remembered till Gould’s great grand-son, the chair of the National Labor Board in 1994, found Gould’s wartime journal and published it as “Diary of a Contraband: the Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor.”
Wilmington has since remembered him as seen in the Bellamy Mansion as well as an informative marker on the spot on the riverfront where he launched his escape.
Forgotten Wilmington #3. Mural from the “Hudsucker Proxy”
Walking through a surprisingly high end indoor market I came across this interesting “mural” on the wall. The sign, attached with scotch tape, touted how the mural was featured prominently in the Coen Brother’s movie, “The Hudsucker Proxy”. I have never seen that movie and the idea that It hangs on the wall of a market with a piece of computer paper stuck to it with Scotch tape, makes me think not too many others have seen it either.
Forgotten Wilmington #4. The Coup d’ etat of 1898
When people say “race riot”, it usually invokes the idea that black people got mad at something and got violent. It is a shame how misinformed we are. In 1897, Wilmington not only had a large black population, but a politically active, thriving, black population. The local Democrats decided they were sick of it and came up with a plan.
They launched a year long, state wide, white supremacy campaign. Now when I say “white supremacy campaign”, I am not looking at the situation, interpreting it, and giving it a name; they called it that. They put up a list of candidates complete with a list of opponents who were warned to be noticeably absent on election day.
Once election day came around, things got a little wild. First, the black newspaper’s press was destroyed and building burned to the ground. Then a mob surrounded a warehouse where many black men worked, blocking the workers from going to the polls. I guess saying it was a “mob” isn’t quite right, maybe I should say, “a bunch of soldiers on leave who had a gatling gun mounted on a wagon.”
Another mob went to the black part of town. Tensions were high, shots were fired, and by the end of the day over 100 black people were dead, 2 white people, and a complete Democratic ticket was sworn into office with no votes ever being counted.
The Governor and President both knew about the event, knew who planned it, and did nothing. All the successful black people left alive were banished from town.
I had never heard of this and apparently neither had most people till a book and official state report was published in 1980. In 2007 the Democratic party finally admitted party leaders had done wrong. Maybe there are lots of things Wilmington wants to forget.