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Excerpted From: Sandra L. Rierson and Melanie H. Schwimmer, The Wilmington Massacre and Coup of 1898 and the Search for Restorative Justice, 14 Elon Law Review 117 (2022) (644 Footnotes) (Full Document)

RiersonAndSchwimmerLong before domestic terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, another violent attack on a democratically elected government occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina. This one succeeded. On November 10, 1898, White supremacists orchestrated a coup d'état in Wilmington. They shot and killed Black people, burned the offices of the Black newspaper, and ousted Black elected and appointed government officials and their allies, all of whom were replaced by White members of the Democratic Party. The leadership of the Black community was banished from Wilmington. This astonishing act of domestic terrorism, which constituted an ethnic cleansing of the Black population in the city, ushered in the Jim Crow era in North Carolina. Even today, North Carolina's Black population suffers from the ripple effects of the violence and intimidation, racial segregation and discrimination, disenfranchisement, and pervasive economic oppression inflicted on the Black population during this era. This trauma was enabled, perpetrated, and concealed by the local, state, and federal government, all of whom share responsibility for the death and destruction that occurred on November 10, 1898, and its aftermath.

Restorative justice for the victims of the Wilmington Coup is long overdue. Although some progress was made when the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission issued its findings and recommendations in 2006, not enough has been done to repair the damage done. Moral, as well as financial, reparations--both individually and collectively--must be paid to achieve reconciliation and social reconstruction of this community. Failure to take these crucial steps leaves open wounds, and, as demonstrated at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the distinct possibility that history will repeat itself.

In Part I of this article, we give a brief history of the events that occurred in Wilmington in 1898, explaining how the forces of White supremacy used “men who could write, men who could speak, and men who could ride” to overthrow a democratically elected local government and decimate the Black community in Wilmington. Part II describes the context in which the Wilmington Massacre and Coup occurred. The violence inflicted on this Black community in 1898 was not unique. Rather, it was part of a systemic backlash by White Americans who used violence and political fraud to smother Black citizens' economic and social progress after the Civil War. In Wilmington, these assaults amounted to an ethnic cleansing of the Black population. We propose a restorative justice framework for righting the wrongs inflicted in 1898, as a way forward. Reparations, an essential step in the path to restorative justice, are long overdue for the victims of Wilmington and other instances of systemic, racialized violence in the United States. Part III of the article examines the work that has already been done in Wilmington to seek justice for the victims of 1898, focusing on the path-breaking work of the Wilmington Race Riot Commission and the report that it issued in 2006. We conclude that, although some progress has been made in Wilmington and throughout the state of North Carolina, these advancements in the cause of racial justice are currently at risk and, in some contexts, under attack. We offer several proposals to continue the pursuit of restorative justice in Wilmington and, more broadly, throughout the state. The work has only just begun.

[. . .]

Over a hundred years have passed since White North Carolinians committed atrocities against their Black neighbors in Wilmington, but the passage of time has not, and will not, heal the wounds that were inflicted on that day. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in regard to slavery, observes, “[S]till we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

The need for restorative justice in Wilmington is acute. For all the reasons discussed, the failure to take sufficient steps towards healing--including the payment of individual and community-wide reparations--has had disastrous results. Black voting rights in the state are, once again, under attack. White parents do not want their children to attend school with Black children, so New Hanover County's public schools are segregated (again). White police officers in the Wilmington Police Department--who steadfastly contend that they are “not racist”--casually use racial slurs to refer to Black citizens, and at least one eagerly anticipates “slaughtering” Black people with an assault rifle in an upcoming “civil war.” The list goes on. These regressions would not likely happen in a society that had fully acknowledged the scope of its former atrocities and taken concrete steps to repent and repair the damage it has done.

Going forward, Wilmington must come to terms with its past if it wishes to embrace a better future. It started the process under the leadership of the Wilmington Race Riot Commission in 1998, but too many of that Commission's recommendations have languished on the vine in the years since. To achieve the reconciliation that is the goal of restorative justice, both sides must “come to the table” and do the hard work that is required to rebuild relationships and restore communities. Some of this work focuses on the individual (e.g., payment of reparations to survivors); other strategies may be political (such as voting or lobbying for redistricting reform). But the victims cannot receive justice by repairing themselves. The harm was inflicted--not by one or two individual people--but by a society, and therefore the society has an obligation to repair it.

Sandra L. Rierson, Visiting Associate Professor of Law, California Western School of Law; Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California.

Melanie Hope Schwimmer, Amherst College Class of 2023.

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