Even as we finally acknowledge the ghosts of 1898, long shadowed by ignorance and forgetfulness, some ask: Why dredge this up now, when we cannot change the past? But those who favor amnesia ignore how the past holds our future in its grip, especially when it remains unacknowledged. The new world walks forever in the footsteps of the old.
—Timothy B. Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” The News & Observer, Nov. 17, 2006
Though I was raised in Virginia and Tennessee in the 1990s and spent three years as an undergraduate in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 2010s, I didn’t learn about what happened in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, until the winter of 2016.
After Trump’s election, I couldn’t sleep for days. I deeply worried for Americans who were threatened by his divisive rhetoric and campaign promises (like building a wall, enacting a Muslim Ban, and repealing the Affordable Care Act)—and I couldn’t speak to my own father, a lifelong Republican who had voted for Trump despite my concerns. On November 10 at 3 a.m., driven by a near-manic need to do something to show up for my community, I created a Facebook event and called it Wilmington’s Gathering for Peace.
It would be free, outdoors, and welcoming to all. I hoped it would make me and the rest of the city feel somewhat whole again. An idealistic twenty-four-year-old white woman, fresh from a year teaching English in Poland, I’d moved to the Port City in 2015 to study and teach creative writing at UNC-Wilmington. Insulated by my on-campus community, I’d hardly met anyone outside the MFA program. Still, I invited everybody I knew.
Support poured in—strangers-turned-friends met up to design posters after work and on the weekends; longtime nonprofit leaders and organizers mentored me and helped recruit vendors; artists shared poems and drawings inspired by the event. Then, a local woman noticed the gathering’s location on the Facebook event page and posted a comment urging everyone to boycott it. I only knew Hugh MacRae Park as a spacious plot of land, lined with tall longleaf pines whose shadows I liked to run beneath when I needed to de-stress after class. I hadn’t known its namesake was a white supremacist who helped plot and execute the only successful coup d’état in American history, the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.
When MacRae loaned his land to the city in 1913, he insisted the park remain a whites-only space. Today many Wilmingtonians, among them members of the local NAACP and Black Lives Matter chapters, boycott the park and refuse to enter it until the name is changed. But because the family still technically owns the land, it’s up to them to rename it. No amount of petitioning, well-meaning editorials, or name-change movements has convinced them so far.
Facing a boycott threat for the peace gathering and realizing the implications of Hugh MacRae, I quickly changed the location to Maides Park, a modest park in a traditionally African American neighborhood, located on Manly Avenue. Back then, I didn’t know who Manly was either, but Wilmington’s racial history surrounded me whether or not I was aware of it.
Weeks later, on a brisk December day, hundreds of people showed up to listen to activists, poets, and musicians share messages of peace and hope at the gathering. Volunteers from local organizations stood at a line of tables to share community involvement opportunities, clutching coffee cups and huddling in winter jackets and sweatshirts. Children did arts and crafts projects under a nearby gazebo, and visitors perused a silent art auction whose proceeds benefited the local YWCA.
Although the event took place in a majority African American neighborhood, most attendees were white. African American and LGBTQIA+ community organizers, many of whom had taken me under their wing, emphasized the importance of representation. At the time, I was still coming to understand what that even meant—how I needed to give space to people whose words, stories, and even existence were so often left out, ignored, or erased. Khalisa, an African American woman, emceed. As a white woman, I gladly stayed off stage except for a brief welcome when she called me up.
When I moved to Wilmington, I assumed it had always been majority white. It was an easy mistake to make as a white transplant in a region submersed in historical silences. But before 1898, Wilmington was home to 11,324 African Americans and 8,731 white people. It was North Carolina’s largest and most bustling city, and much of its success was thanks to African American leaders and business people. They owned barbershops, restaurants, tailor shops, and drugstores. They owned homes and were civically engaged. They protected their city as policemen and firemen.
One hundred and twenty years later, Wilmington was in the midst of an economic depression that looked like it had no end. Students like me came in, lived out their years sequestered at the university, got their degrees, and hurried out. Strip malls sat empty. Signs for kratom and Suboxone lined the roadways, an everyday reflection of the Port City’s ongoing battle with pain. I felt an ineffable spiritual sadness. I’d lived overseas and moved a handful of times, but I’d never felt as displaced as I felt in Wilmington. I was so busy with school and work that I’d hardly put any time into getting to know the community around me. The gathering, I realized, was the first time I felt at home there.
I was standing in the crowd when Denny, a decades-long organizer, introduced me to Ronan1, a slender African American man who worked for a nonprofit that helped support the gathering. “You’ve gotta meet this guy,” he said. “He’s one of my favorite people in Wilmington.” We didn’t get to talk for long before I was distracted by another introduction, and then Ronan was gone.
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The next time I saw Ronan, he was looking for a place to lock his bike in Hugh MacRae Park on a chilly morning in March. As a volunteer for his nonprofit’s racial justice 5K, I was waiting for his instruction on where to report; despite the usual backlash over the location, the 5K remained in the park. “I don’t think boycotting any place is a good idea for African Americans,” he told me, citing Jim Crow laws and the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. In his research, he’d learned Black men run less than white men, and one reason for this disparity was a fear of racial profiling. Ronan had experienced this firsthand when he took up running as a teenager and moved from his neighborhood into a white neighborhood, where one woman even dropped her groceries to flee from him. By founding a weekly running group and annual 5K, Ronan wanted runners to cross racial boundaries together, in their neighborhoods and minds. That day, hundreds of people ran together in Hugh MacRae Park with a clear purpose: to fill the space MacRae never wanted them to touch.
After the 5K, Ronan sent me a Facebook message asking me out for coffee. He told me he was working on a book and wanted to talk about writing. He’d heard I was working on a book project too. We met at my favorite coffee shop, Folks Café, where I ordered tacos and black coffee and snagged the coveted booth in the corner before he arrived. After ordering his coffee, Ronan joined me. Having observed him as more reserved than others in our nonprofit circle, and not sure why we were meeting exactly—did he really just want to talk about writing? That’s rare!—I didn’t pop up for a hug, but stayed glued to my seat.
For all of his social justice know-how and experience, Ronan was soft-spoken. Over the din of coffee grinders and lively regulars, it was hard to make out his words. I tried to measure my responses, knowing I tended to talk at length and too loudly. But soon, we struck a rhythm.
I told him about the book I’d been working on for years, about my estranged brother and our broken family in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee. Ronan told me about his childhood in the projects of Philly, shifting between two households and surviving on imagination. For his book-in-progress, he was trying to solve a long-cold serial-killer case in which six Black girls had been snatched off of the streets and brutally murdered. In minutes, we exchanged years of our personal histories. I realized this was a date when he asked if I was seeing anyone. I told him I was single because of two words: marriage and kids, which no one I met seemed to want. He wanted them, he said, but he’d already helped his parents raise six.
Ronan was African American, I was white. On paper, we seemed to have little in common. But I felt an automatic connection to him. I learned he wasn’t just a nonprofit employee—he was an investigative journalist using his research skills to challenge injustices. For his next project, he wanted to have a historical marker for the Massacre of 1898 erected in downtown Wilmington. I told him I’d help in any way I could.
Soon after our coffee date, I attended an 1898 remembrance event at the local library to learn more about Wilmington’s history. I texted Ronan I’d be there if he wanted to meet up. We stood beside each other in the back. Afterward, he walked me to my car and asked if I wanted to get lunch sometime. I said dinner would be better.
So, a few days later, we got dinner. We talked until closing. And then, parked in front of his place, just as it began to pour rain, we hugged and—instead of pulling away—kissed. I felt myself falling for him, fast. But when he invited me upstairs, I refused his invitation, as much as I wanted to stay. As I drove home, I felt my whole body trembling. I didn’t understand, then, why I felt so afraid.
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Historians trace some of the roots of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 to an editorial that asserted Black men and white women were capable of falling in love.
Back then, white Populists and Black Republicans had formed a powerful Fusionist coalition and together took control of North Carolina state politics in the election of 1896. Enraged by their loss of power, the white Democrats’ leader, Daniel Schenck, swore the 1898 election would be the “meanest, vilest, dirtiest campaign since 1876.”
While the Fusionists worked together so both parties would succeed, this was a political agreement, not a bond of white–Black brotherhood. When white Democrats plotted to regain power, they banked on racial division and launched a full-blown propaganda campaign to stoke white fear for votes. They covered newspapers with caricatures of “black beasts” attacking virginal white women. In one image, a Black man-turned-vampire with negro rule emblazoned across bat wings clawed at white women in flowing dresses billowing down to their ankles. Another showed a large foot labeled the negro pinning down a white man with the caption “A serious question—How long will this last?”
The Wilmington Messenger further escalated the situation by reprinting a speech by Rebecca L. Felton, a woman from Georgia, calling for farmers to better protect white women from “the black rapist” and to “lynch those accused of miscegenation,” meaning sex and relationships across color lines. “I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary,” she railed.
Alex Manly, the man whose name I only knew from the address on our Gathering for Peace posters, was the mixed-race editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, the self-proclaimed “Only Negro Daily in the World.” In response to Felton’s speech, he wrote an editorial claiming “in the matter of clandestine meetings” white women meeting with Black men was no different from white men meeting with Black women. But he went further, proclaiming these encounters offered more than the allure of the forbidden:
Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big, burly, black brute’ when in fact many of those who have thus been dealt with had white men for their fathers and were not only not ‘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.
Despite elevating standards of white beauty and culture, Manly’s arguments demonstrated deep critical awareness. As the son of mixed-race parents, he knew firsthand that the clear-cut division of Black and white was a myth. But he also trampled the myth that when white and Black people got together it constituted rape. In asserting the legitimacy of interracial relationships, Manly undermined a central theme of the white power structure and white supremacy: love across color lines was a reality in Wilmington, whether or not Wilmingtonians wanted to admit it.
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After Ronan and I began dating, sometimes he wondered if people looked at us “too long.” I started to wonder too. After my white roommate met Ronan, she said to me, “He’s not really Black.”
“I’m pretty sure he is,” I countered. The conversation took a different turn, but later, I imagined myself launching into an explanation of what her words meant—of how wrong she was—but deep down, I knew exactly what she believed she was saying. Her tone was complimentary, her definition of Blackness as less-than, so her revocation of his given skin color was a good thing to her, an easing into whiteness. “He’s not Black” meant “He might as well be white” or “I feel safe around him” or, quite simply, “I like him.” I recognized her coded language because growing up in the whitewashed suburbs of Tennessee, when people said “Black,” they often meant “dangerous” or “bad.” To these people, goodness in the south was always the color white.
One night, sitting in the corner of Ronan’s living room, we listened to friends discuss what the word Blackness meant to them. Holding my hand, Ronan said that as a Black person, he owned the counter-narrative to the white lie of supremacy. He said that the way the world operated, this lie could feel real—that it destroyed Black lives as if it were real—but he knew white supremacy was ultimately a myth. With this knowledge, he owned the grace of empathy accessible only to those who had been oppressed. This, to him, was Blackness.
Sitting beside him in a room full of people of color, I wanted to believe that I didn’t have the heart of a racist. But I knew I had to look harder at the narrative I’d taken for granted for so long. I had to quiet my desire to define Blackness in my own terms and learn how to simply listen to those who knew an identity, story, and oppression I could never understand or experience firsthand.
Ronan said when he’d dated white women in the past, even really nice ones, they always came with assumptions. When I asked for examples, he just said they had certain expectations.
One night, a month or so into our relationship, when I’d had a little too much to drink, I told Ronan about the time I met an African American boy at the park when I was about nine years old. Looking back, he was one of the first boys I had a crush on. He had these long, beautiful locs. I’d never seen someone with hair like that before. We played at the edge of the river all day, building sandcastles on the beach until sunset. The memory of him made me tear up. Until then, I’d forgotten about him.
In truth, I’d never dated an African American man before. I was afraid of how Ronan would feel if he knew that. I was afraid of what that meant about me, who I was before I met him. I loved his long, perfect hands, his slender fingers and clean fingernails—so unlike mine: stubby, bitten. A listicle on interracial dating told me I was microaggressing, and I wondered, in horror, if I’d made him uncomfortable when I held them up above us, lying in bed together, telling him he had the most beautiful hands I’d ever seen.
My friend Michael told me he loved interracial couples. He was Latino and white, and his wife was white. “Every time I see them, I get excited, and my wife says, ‘What?’ Like it’s nothing. And I say, ‘I love them because they are telling the system to go fuck itself.’ And it can go fuck itself.”
It felt strange to me that my relationship was—or had to be—a political statement. I cringed to think that ten-year-old me had once told an African American classmate, “I don’t see color,” like that was a progressive thing to say. I hated that years ago I’d lost one of my best friends to an argument over my “white feelings” due my own ignorance of America’s complex racial history and systemic inequity, when I’d taken a “not all white people” stance.
I couldn’t believe that standing in the checkout line at CVS with Ronan, it took me a few seconds to understand that the African American child making funny faces at me was trying to play with me—not make fun of me. I had automatically seen a little girl as a threat before I realized I was wrong and smiled, making silly faces back.
Like every white American, I had a history with race deep inside me that required a daily struggle to combat. And when I read Manly and Felton’s words, I knew, even in 2017, I had to acknowledge it: I was falling in love with a man, and he had Black skin. Already, he’d changed the way I saw and experienced the world. I was ashamed, and ignorant, and still had so much to reckon with.
When Ronan started keeping shower gel at my apartment, my roommate moved it from the shower to my side of the bathroom counter. She asked if he was going to move in. She said it was fine, but if he was going to spend so much time there, he better start paying rent. Then she started limiting how many nights he could stay over.
His roommates, two African American women, tended to avoid us. Ronan had demurred when they offered to set him up with one of their friends months before he met me. And now he was bringing home a white girl. While they never said anything directly about it, we were tempted to think their standoffishness had something to do with skin color.
We spent most of our time alone. In moments of inspiration, sitting at a restaurant or standing in the corner of an open mic, Ronan typed poetry into his phone. In the first lines he read to me, he admitted they were strangely forward-looking. They came to him when he was wondering, in frustration, how people couldn’t understand why he wanted to be with me when he just did. He celebrated the beauty of our dreamed children, their “hard to convince hair” and skin “the color of strange teas,” which made me think of creation, of the original him and her. I fumbled through my journal for a line I’d written about us, too: “We will teach our children how to love.”
We talked about how many kids we would want. Maybe two—a boy and a girl. What would we name them? I asked. Was Justice too melodramatic a name for a girl? He’d always liked it. We daydreamed about a house with a garden and dogs, chickens, and goats. But after I told Ronan I loved him, four months into our relationship, the same conversation turned solemn. He told me that if we decided to build a life together, it was important that I understood the world would see our children as Black—and my life would never be the same. I told him I wanted him, and them.
In August 2017, we refreshed the news over and over again as neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting, “White lives matter and Jews will not replace us.” I cheered a year later when Durham protesters wrapped ropes around a Confederate statue and toppled it. My friends whispered about tarring and feathering the hulking statue of George Davis, Senator and Attorney General of the Confederate States of America, positioned at the center of one of downtown Wilmington’s busiest intersections. When I mentioned the idea to Ronan, he said he understood the desire but didn’t think it was the best way to go about making change. He’d already sent an information request to the city to see how much its upkeep cost. “Showing taxpayers how much money they spend on monuments is the only way you’ll get them to support their removal,” he said.
Trump, endorsed by David Duke, told white crowds that people like Ronan were “trying to take our history and heritage away.” In Kenansville, an hour drive from Wilmington, he said African Americans were “in the worst shape ever.” At an Alabama rally, he asked a crowd of white people if “people like yourselves” were as angry as him at “those people,” people like the “son of a bitch” Colin Kaepernick. The birther-conspiracy-theorist and longtime racist spoke as if advocating for the lives of Black people disrespected the nation. Of course, this was the same man who said, “You have got to be kidding,” the first time he heard the “very, very divisive” phrase “Black lives matter.” This was our president.
When we passed police cars, Ronan pointed them out like road hazards. My heart pounded every time. I had nightmares of them pulling us over and me asking them not to shoot the man I loved. For Ronan, of course, my newfound fears were a lived reality he was always prepared for. He showed me an app called Mobile Justice I could download to record videos and then immediately send them to the ACLU.
A year into our relationship, Ronan and I decided to move in together, find a rental to make our own. After we toured one house in a rapidly gentrifying Wilmington neighborhood, I noticed a police car parked at the other end of the block. “I’m driving five under the speed limit,” I said, knowing Ronan had seen it. Still, the cop followed us out and trailed us for a few blocks before turning down a side street.
We talked about how racism was alive and backed by violence. “When people call people N-words and N-word lovers, they’re saying, ‘We’ll revoke your humanity if you don’t comply,’” Ronan told me. “So, you can either ignore racism, comply, and save yourself, or you can confront it and place yourself in mortal danger.”
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In 1898, after Manly published his editorial asserting the legitimacy of love between Black people and white people, newspapers reprinted excerpts with headlines like “Vile and Villainous” and “An Insult to White Women of North Carolina.”
Senator Tillman of South Carolina railed at a crowd of hundreds of white supremacists, “Why didn’t you kill that damn [N-word] editor who wrote that? Send him to South Carolina and let him publish any such offensive stuff, and he will be killed.”
Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate officer, raged, “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
The Red Shirts, the paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, thundered through Wilmington on horseback, disrupting African American church services, breaking up political meetings, and terrorizing and attacking would-be voters.
Less than a month after Manly’s editorial ran, and two days after statewide elections of white Democrats, the white supremacists still were not satisfied. Wilmington’s city council remained biracial; the mayor and board of aldermen hadn’t been up for re-election that year. To deal with this, a group of white Democrats called the Secret Nine had organized armed militias and made lists of African American and white Fusionists to be banished or murdered in their post-election takeover. Hugh MacRae, the man whose name was emblazoned above the boycotted park, was one of the so-called Secret Nine who helped with this plan. In reality, it was no secret: the Washington Post published these headlines two weeks before the men gathered “A City Under Arms—Blacks to Be Prevented from Voting in Wilmington, N.C.—Prepared for Race War—Property-Holding Classes Determined Upon Ending Negro Domination.”
On November 10, 1898, white men assembled at the armory at 8 a.m. led by Waddell, wielding shotguns and rifles, white clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants, and others marched in military formation into the heart of an African American neighborhood. Their first destination was Love and Charity Hall, the Black community center where Alex Manly’s newspaper was printed. Manly had already been warned they were coming and had fled town. Rioters forced their way in. They destroyed the press that had printed the words fall in love, smashed furniture, knocked over kerosene lamps, and set the building on fire.
As Love and Charity Hall burned, white men took photos posing in front of their crime.
An ever-growing mob of some two thousand white men terrorized their neighbors, destroying African American–owned property and murdering Black people. A machine-gun squad rolled through the city streets and aimed at St. Stephen AME Church. African American men, women, and children fled into the Oakdale Cemetery on the edge of town, into the Cape Fear River, forests, and swamps.
The white mob stormed the city offices in Thalian Hall, forcing the Black mayor, board of aldermen, and police chief to resign at gunpoint. An entirely white leadership replaced legally elected African Americans. Waddell stole the mayorship, and MacRae elected himself alderman. All African American municipal employees were banned from the city, along with their “white [N-word] allies.” White mobsters pressed fixed bayonets to their backs and marched them to the train station to never return. As the Raleigh News and Observer reported, refugees lined the streets, “loaded with packs…fleeing in the darkness to make their home elsewhere.”
The violence and destruction lasted for days. North Carolina Governor Daniel Russell didn’t send any requests for aid. President William McKinley didn’t offer any. The Wilmington News and Observer publisher Josephus Daniels, a leading propagandist, celebrated the launch of a “permanent good government by the party of the White Man.”
The next year, Waddell was elected mayor with no Republican resistance. In 1900, a federal investigation of the coup, the “race riot” as they called it, closed with no indictments. No white people were documented as killed that day. Some historians’ estimates placed the death toll at a mere handful, but many contemporary historians now say hundreds of Black people were likely murdered in Wilmington. The number of Black lives lost remains untold. What is known is that after 1898 the once majority-Black city became a majority-white city. Today, Wilmington is 72 percent white, 19 percent Black.
Manly eventually resettled in Philadelphia, where he painted houses to support his family. He served as a leader of the Afro-American Newspaper Council and helped establish the Armstrong Association, a forerunner of the Urban League.
Now, the land where Love and Charity Hall once stood is a church parking lot. A historical marker for Manly reads:
Edited black-owned Daily
Record four blocks east.
Mob burned his office
Nov. 10. 1898, leading to
“Race riot” & restrictions
On black voting in N.C.
Manly got a marker, but he lost his home and livelihood, and historians still called a premeditated killing spree a “race riot.” This was a lie, of course. But white people believed it. In the words of white supremacists, the “race riot” was a chaotic uprising caused by Black people and shut down by order-loving whites. In truth, the massacre was an act of hate planned and executed by white people.
As of October 2019, this was the only historical marker related to the Massacre of 1898 you could find in Wilmington. A marker at Thalian Hall said nothing of the coup that took place there. It was easy to move through the city without seeing a trace of its dark history. You would have had to walk nearly two miles across Wilmington, to the edge of town, to visit the modest and, to most, hidden 1898 Memorial, which was erected in 2008.
A plaque in Hugh MacRae Park commemorated him as a “kindly and gracious son of the old South.” There was no mention of his murderous role in 1898, the root of the real estate, power, and wealth his family still maintains in Wilmington today.
Now, an underlying allegiance to white supremacist ideology still reigns visibly in Wilmington—in the names of its parks, in the history its monuments and historical markers choose to tell, in the Confederate flags our neighbors fly on their front lawn, even as Ronan and I walk our dogs down the same block.
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For the historical marker application, Ronan had to reduce the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 to eighty characters. He fretted over words like murder and massacre, but he wrote the history he knew to be true and applied to have it placed in front of the armory where the white mob first assembled. Then he sent it for approval, figuring it would be tweaked.
As I learned more about race and miscegenation, I found myself looking for the history that showed the world hated us because it hated Ronan. In 1963, Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and Black woman, were dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and imprisoned in separate cells for the felony crime of interracial marriage. They weren’t officially married until four years later, after they took their case to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t until 1971 that the first interracial marriage took place in North Carolina, and it wasn’t until 2000 that Alabama finally legalized it.
In 2014, an African American high school student who was dating a white girl was found hanging dead from a swing in Bladenboro, North Carolina, an hour away from Wilmington. His body was battered and bruised, but the police ruled it a suicide.
In 2015, nearly one in six new marriages were interracial, per the Pew Research Center. Yet the same Pew surveys showed only 38 percent of suburbanites said more people of different races marrying would be good for society. Opinions were the strongest against Black and white intermarriage. Fourteen percent of non-Black Americans said they’d be against a close relative marrying a Black person.
In 2017, hours after a White Lives Matter rally in Tennessee, white supremacists started harassing an interracial couple eating dinner in a pub. When they told the white woman to leave her Black boyfriend and sit with them, a fight broke out, and one of the men punched the woman. They insisted the injury was due to “de-escalation.”
In late February of 2018, Ronan and I watched an interview on the local news where one of Wilmington’s pastors, Diedre Parker, read a letter sent to her church, Speaks Temple AME Zion Church. “Creepy people. Lazy bums sitting on porches. Porch monkeys,” she read. “Big lipped ape men. Blue gummed people wandering around. A stench in the air illegitimate kids everywhere. Et cetera. Where are you? Hmm.” She paused. “And the answer… I don’t even want to say.”
Parker wouldn’t read the second half of the letter—it was too terrible—but she would say why she wanted to share it: “What happens when we remain silent is the people who don’t have to deal with racism don’t have to hear about it. And then they can pretend that it doesn’t exist. But it does exist.” I glanced over at Ronan. I thought I saw him wipe a tear from his eye. As much as we talked about race—pretty much on an everyday basis—I didn’t know what to say. We sat in silence.
Since the 2016 election, hate crimes have continued to accumulate in Wilmington: graffiti on cars, churches, and street signs, always, the same words and symbols. When you listen, it is hard not to hear a never-ending narrative of white hatred, one which seems to become louder and louder these days. But then, I have to ask myself the question I ask my creative nonfiction students when they begin writing about the political, the personal, the impossibly intertwined: “What message are you trying to send the world?”
The truth, I want to say. Hope, ideally, too.
Now, when Ronan and I pass elderly white Wilmingtonians walking through the historic district, when they seem to look “too long,” I let go of his hand and wrap my arms around him. I kiss him. Because of our skin color—and because of Wilmington—small, sweet displays of affection are political actions. But I do these things because I want to do them. I love him.
In early 2019, the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker committee voted unanimously to install the marker for the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 that Ronan proposed. They told him they had a few edits they wanted to make. They wanted to replace massacre with race riot. They wanted to change an untold number of Black lives lost to up to 60. I told Ronan I was angry. He said, “Good.”
The marker is only eighty characters. It’s something, but it still isn’t enough.
I can’t say what the ghosts of 1898 want, but I think they would want us to keep fully acknowledging their story. I think they’d want us to use the right words. Though many died or fled “in the darkness to make their homes elsewhere,” I think they would want Wilmington to be a place where Ronan and I feel welcome to teach our children how to love.
The names and identifying details of certain individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.