Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 - The 1898 Centennial Commission

The 1898 Centennial Commission

By the early 1990s, many residents and officials of Wilmington thought that the events of November 10, 1898, needed to be commemorated and discussed openly. Different groups in the city told and understood different histories of the events. Similar to public efforts to acknowledge destructive race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921) and Rosewood, Florida (1923), commemoration organizing began at the grassroots level. In 1995, informal conversations began among the African-American community, UNC-Wilmington's university faculty, and civil rights activists. The intention was to inform residents fully about what really happened on that day, and to agree on a monument in remembrance of the event. On November 10, 1996, the town of Wilmington held a program inviting the community to help make plans for the 1998 centennial commemoration. Over 200 people attended, including local state representatives and members of the city council. Some descendants of the white supremacy leaders of 1898 were opposed to any type of commemoration.

In early 1998, Wilmington planned a series of "Wilmington in Black and White" lectures, which brought in political leaders, academic specialists and civic rights activists, as well as facilitators such as Common Ground. Word spread that George Rountree III was to attend the discussion to be held at St. Stephen's A.M.E. Church. As his grandfather was known to have been one of the leaders of the violence in 1898, Rountree attracted a large crowd. Following a speech by John Haley, a noted African-American historian of race relations from UNC-Wilmington, Rountree rose to speak. He started by making known his personal support for racial equality. He talked of his personal relationship with his grandfather, saying that he "refused to apologize for his grandfather's actions, as the man was the product of his times." Other descendants also felt they owed no apologies as they had no part in their ancestor's actions.

Many listeners argued with Rountree about his position and refusal to apologize. Some said that, "although he bore no responsibility for those events, he personally had benefited from them." An African American, Kenneth Davis, spoke of his own grandfather's achievements during those times, which Rountree's grandfather and others had "snuffed out" by their violence. Davis said that the "past of Wilmington's black community…was not the past Rountree preferred." After much debate among the listeners, backed up by countless people giving "muffled shouts of approval," Davis rose to thank Rountree for speaking at the event.

Recognizing that the black community had suffered economically following the insurrection, the state Commission grappled with a response. It adopted a two-part approach:

the "first was the creation of an economic development committee to explore the possible economic benefits of black-heritage tourism, a concept that was strongly endorsed by a number of African Americans within the organization. The second approach, accomplished through cooperation with the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, was the creation of the community-based Partners for Economic Inclusion, which sponsored a major conference in September 1998 to address "the issue of inclusion of the black community in the greater business environment."

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Famous quotes containing the word commission:

    The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct. On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal which told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith of Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached.
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