“Remember that hope is a powerful weapon when all else is lost.” Nelson Mandela


            I’m not sure why I always search far and wide for statues of women instead of looking close to home first, but with a few exceptions – Lady Justice, Waving Girl, Rachel Carson and the two historic makers in Raleigh and New Bern – that’s been my MO. But the other day as I was diverted into downtown Wilmington due to bridge work, I drove right past a local historic memorial and while it wasn’t a statue of women (or men either) I knew intuitively it was time to add this sculpture to the blog.

            TRIGGER WARNING: The story behind the sculpture is not pretty, although the statue itself is stunning. The problem is that the memorial makes us remember the 1898 riots which were steeped in racism and rooted in violence. It does not paint Wilmington, NC in a good light.

            DISCLAIMER: While I’m not originally from the south (born and raised in NY) I’ve been calling Wilmington home since 1994 and if I, as a resident, don’t take responsibility for past generations’ horrific acts, then history is doomed to repeat itself (I shudder at the thought). Especially now. Current national overtones and underpinnings are ripe for disaster. So listen, lean in and buckle up.

            BACKSTORY: While others have told this story better than I have (check out the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Wilmington Lie and the riveting middle grade novel, Crow). But I’ll do my best to convey the truth and not sugar coat the facts.

            After the end of the Civil war, many former slaves went to Wilmington to seek work, raise families and make something of themselves.  At the time, Wilmington was 56% black as well as the largest port for miles. Many former slaves succeeded and became productive members of polite society, becoming educated as doctors, lawyers and teachers. They held public office as elected officials. Their success angered many white males. The Civil War might’ve been over but the mindsets of many former slave owners hadn’t changed.  Tension arose. On Nov. 10, 1898,  “an armed mob of whites removed from office duly elected biracial government in what is considered to be the only successfully coup d’etat in the history of the United States” (from the inscription engraved on the wall of the memorial). Not Wilmington’s finest hour, to be sure.

            Black men were either killed or put on a train and told never to return. Women fled into the woods with their children and elderly family members. History is lax about the death count but fatalities were estimated to be between 10 and 300. One thing we do know for certain is that the violence was not accidental. It launched a statewide campaign which spread to other states in the south to regain control of the state government and disenfranchised blacks; and most importantly to create a system of legal segregation. The 1898 riots are said to have sparked the Jim Crow laws, some of which are still on the books. As I said, not a pretty story.

            The memorial has unleashed a renewed interest in this untold scandal.  To date, no one has ever been punished for this racial uprising. It’s been reported that President McKinley, a supporter of racial equality, knew about the coup but didn’t intervene for speculated bureaucratic/political reasons. Since then though, many statues of white men who most likely participated in the coup, have been either toppled or dismantled.

            THE 1898 MEMORIAL: The abstract sculpture, erected in Nov. 2008, consists of six elongated bronze paddles which honors water and symbolizes purification, renewal, rebirth, forgiveness, cleansing and wholeness. The Cape Fear River stands alongside the statue as a testament to a community, that 100 years later, finally has the courage to acknowledge the injustices of the past. The sculpture offers a future full of hope and reconciliation. The paddles remind us that through water, we can safely paddle from one world to the next.  We journey along the path in hopes that we “move forward together towards a society of greater justice and inclusion for all its citizens.”  

            While this story isn’t directly about women or feminism, it’s a knock on the white patriarchy and a reminder that we cannot let his kind of racism return.   

Hope in any form deserves to be written in stone, engraved in our souls for all eternity.