Friday, June 02, 2006

Hate not Heritage: Fear and loathing on the Cape Fear River.

Yesterday the WaPo reported:

"North Carolina should provide economic and social compensation to victims of Wilmington's 1898 racial violence, said a panel that also concluded the attack was not a riot but rather this country's only recorded coup d'etat."

On November 9th 1898 whites in Wilmington, (populated by 9,000 whites and 11,000 blacks at the time) rampaged through the black sections of town buring, looting and lynching. The next morning the 1898 Foundation reports:

"Literally at gunpoint, Mayor Wright and all of the members of the city council who were presented were forced to resign, and a new city government was formed. Captain John Melton of the city police had also been arrested and he and all of the other members of the city police department were also forced to resign, and Edgar Parmele was made chief of police. There was no resistance. Wright, Melton, and the others were happy to escape with their lives. In addition to the white Fusionist leadership in the city, many African American leaders were also arrested and/or driven into exile."

The race riot in Wilmington was unique from other race riots in the South "...precisely because it was carried out as the overthrow of what was perceived as the "black" government, [it] marked the beginning of the Era of Segregation in North Carolina. The Wilmington "white supremacist revolution" had declared war against African American political and economic equality, and had taken up arms to put blacks back in the status of quasi-slaves. They were successful."

The WaPo reports:

"Wilmington likely became a "catalyst" for the violent white-supremacist movement around the country, with other states taking note, lead researcher Lerae Umfleet said. Later violence -- in Atlanta in 1906; Tulsa, Okla., in 1921; and Rosewood, Fla., in 1923 -- mimicked that in Wilmington, and some white leaders called on the North Carolina violence as an example to incite fear in blacks. "Jim Crow had passed in a few other states," Umfleet said. "But the whole white-supremacy campaign in North Carolina was watched around the country. People built on what happened in Wilmington."

How proud the defenders of Wilmington's civil war legacy must feel! I lived down in Wilmington for about four months back in 2004 and many folks down there still felt like Wilmington was a shinning example of Southern resistance. After all, during the "war of Northern aggression" Wilmington was the only port on the US coast that was never entirely blockaded by the US navy because of the Cape Fear River's daunting physicality of estuaries and swamps which favored the blockade runners. (Fort Fisher was the last Confederate stronghold on the east coast to fall in January of 1865.) Southern cotton went out to European markets to feed their hungry factories and guns for the Confederate army came in. The city experienced an economic boom that attracted such a large number of ruffians, scoundrels and prostitutes that most of pre-war population who could moved elsewhere to wait-out the war. A yellow fever outbreak towards the end of the war put an end to the boom and filled up the local graveyards with Confederate and Yankee soldiers, which can still be seen today down on Seventh Street, between Wooster & Queen.

The city never fully recovered its ante-bellum glory, which was based on the cotton economy of the Southern Planter aristocracy, but it's a veritable museum of mansions built on the backs of the ancestors of the city's black population. (For a graphic illustration of this, go to the Post Office down on Front and check out the huge mural inside, it's pretty amazing.) You don't hear too much about that from the people down there, though. What you do hear is the myth recounted of the depredations exacted on the people of the South by the radicals, carpetbaggers and scalawags of the reconstruction era.

I went into a used book store down on Front street and bought a copy of "the Era of Reconstruction" by Kenneth M. Stampp and got an unsolicited lecture on the subject by the old 'Southron' gent who owned the store. 'Things were pretty bad here then,' he said. He made sure to let me know that the South was unfairly punished by the North after the war. It was ironic that Stampp's book that the old guy sold me was a refutation and debunking of the myth that reconstruction was what Southern writers years after the fact called "The Tragic Era," the Dreadful Decade" or the "Age of Hate."

The fairytale created by those that had lost their plantations and slaves ---and therefore their fortunes and positions of undemocratic power --- was that the North came down and put ignorant blacks into position of power which bankrupted the South through corruption and incompetence. Stammp writes that there were a number of historical reconstructionists who disseminated the false picture of the reconstruction era, foremost among them one Claude Bowers whose book "the Tragic Era" was the most read title on the subject when it came out in 1929.

Stammp writes: "For Bowers reconstruction was a time of almost unrelieved sordidness in public and private life; whole regiments of villains march through his pages: the corrupt politicians who dominated the administration of Ulysses S. Grant; the crafty, scheming northern carpetbaggers who invaded the South after the war for political and economic plunder; the degraded and depraved southern scalawags who betrayed their own people and collaborated with the enemy; and the ignorant, barbarous, sensual Negroes who threatened to Africanize the South and destroy the Caucasian civilization."

In reality, he writes that the so-called "radical" constitutional conventions that were formed to write new constitutions for the defeated Southern states, between 1867 and 1877, were hardly radical documents at all, they were quite conservative in fact.

"In states of the Southeast, many offices that have previously been appointive were now made elective, the country government was taken out of the hands of the local oligarchies. The rights of women were enlarged, tax systems were made more equitable, penal codes were reformed and the number of crimes punishable by death was reduced. Most of the constitutions provided for improvements in the state systems of public education and the facilities for the care of the physically and mentally handicapped and of the poor." (Obviously, things have been going in the other direction ever since.)

Imagine putting into law the notion that government had an obligation to educate all its citizens! Stampp writes that before the war Southern planters weren't too much interesting in educating poor whites, and blacks got no education at all. He points out that, "In Florida between 1868 and 1876 the number of children enrolled in public schools trebled: in South Carolina between 1868 and 1876 the number increased from 30,000 to 123,000." And new universities were opened, where before the war there were only three in the entire South! Pretty radical stuff there, I can see why the people of Wilmington back then had to resort to such drastic measures to regain their freedom. Of course, mandating that the state pay for public education for black and whites costs money, which the landed gentry weren't about to put up with.

After 1877 reconstruction ended and the conservative takeover began, which led to the Jim Crow era, notably helped along by the white riot in Wilmington. Yes, it's all about heritage not hate, isn't it; and what a heritage! Kudozs Wilmington!

[Note: I really appreciate the much talked about "Southern hospitality" that was shown to me by the one-armed librarian at the New Hanover County main branch. On the last day I was in Wilmington, before I went back to civilization in DC, he banned me from the library for using my girl friend’s library card to use the internet. Clearly, such a serious violation of library rules had to be handled with Nazi-like efficiency. He hauled me out very loudly of the computer room and demanded my ID and then told me I was banned for two weeks. With great satisfaction I was able to tell him I didn't need his stinkin' library card any more...And you know where you can stick that hook, jackass!]

[Note: Thanks also to the Post Office for regularly losing our mail and the good people at the unemployment office who did exactly nothing for me. And a special 'thank you' goes out the Christian bitch at the social services office who decided we were ineligible for any emergency assistance ---even though we had just been both laid off from our jobs and had no income---because the "economy was in such great shape," and we had no jobs. If we had jobs, she said, we could get aid, but since we didn't, we were SOL. We tried to explain to her that if we had jobs we wouldn't be asking for help, but we got nowhere with that line of reasoning. She suggested that we go get some handouts from Grace Church, which gives out stables on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is George Bush's faith based initiative in action, I guess: the state has the money to help the poor but doesn't spend it, they send the poor to be saved instead. What really pissed her off, I think, was that we were living in sin, which obviously is illegal in North Carolina. (No sense in giving taxpayer money to people going to hell.) So enjoy your new notoriety Wilmington, it's well deserved!]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A crime was committed," said Thomas, a Wilmington native who has pursued the issue for years. "Irregardless of the race issue, you'd have to come to the conclusion that somebody lost property and someone needs to be compensated."

"Irregardless" is not a real word, regardless of its usage in quotable remarks; the [sic] annotation needed to be used by the editor here.

2:42 PM  
Blogger bushmeister0 said...

Thanks for that Mr. or Ms. Smartypants. Was it the one-armed librarian comment that inspired your correction? I'm just wondering.

By the way, I think you should probably take this issue up with the WaPo, since their editors actually get paid for catching those types of errors.

Thanks for your imput!

3:50 PM  

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