By Rachel Walman
For the last month and change, the Reading into History family book club has been learning a bit about what life was like for African Americans after the Civil War. During the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877), the federal government and the general public took steps to reunify the country. During this time, African Americans made huge economic, social, and political gains; but when Reconstruction abruptly ended, many of those gains were thwarted by white Democrats and vigilante groups like the Red Shirts and Ku Klux Klan, which arose precisely to keep African Americans from gaining equal footing with whites.
November 10th was the 116th anniversary of one of the post-Reconstruction era’s most violent and shameful events, the 1898 Wilmington Massacre of Wilmington, North Carolina. In that year, white rioters burned down the offices of an African American newspaper, killed and wounded many African Americans, and forced African American politicians to give up their political offices.
Our book club is reading a moving work of historical fiction based on these events as seen through the eyes of a fictional eleven-year-old boy, Moses, whose father works at the real-life newspaper involved in the Massacre. We’re going to meet this coming Sunday, December 7th to discuss the book and the Massacre in detail, plus we’ll get to see fascinating documents from our library collections. On top of all this, author Barbara Wright will join us to discuss and sign her book! We interviewed her, so please read her thoughtful words below and come to the meeting to ask her your own questions!
Barbara Wright: I grew up in High Point, North Carolina. As a kid, I was a big reader. I was also a tomboy and spent time from morning to night roaming about the neighborhood, climbing trees, damming up the creek across from my house, searching for crayfish, trying to horn in on basketball games with my brothers. I rode my bike to piano lessons, the swimming pool and tennis courts. The world seemed so enormous to me as a kid, but then one time, as an adult, I walked with a friend to all of my favorite haunts, and we were easily able to cover the territory from one end of the town to the other on foot. That was a revelation.
DCHM: What is your favorite time period in American history? Why?
BW: The period before the Civil War fascinates me. I was raised a Quaker, and North Carolina Quakers have a long history of activism against slavery, starting in 1776 when slaveholding became a disowning offense in the Quaker Meeting. My ancestors were involved in educating slaves until that became illegal in 1830. Family lore has it (without proof so who knows?) that my ancestors also helped with the Underground Railroad.
DCHM: What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen at the New-York Historical Society?
BW: As a fiction writer, the physical world is very important to me. I like to know what things look like in order to be able to recreate them in a way that will make the reader feel as if they were on the scene. Recently, I was writing a short section about the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which took place ten days after Gettysburg, and seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation. Irish immigrants, who were competing for low-level jobs with African-Americans, became enraged at being drafted into the Union army. Mobs went on a three-day looting spree, starting with the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd Street.
The draft was conducted by means of a lottery. When I read about this, I envisioned a kind of roulette wheel with a ping-pong sized ball falling into a slot. But on the internet I found a photo in the collections of the NY Historical Society. The object is more like a barrel on its side. Someone turns a handle, reaches inside the barrel via a small door, and pulls out a number. That person is tapped to be in the Union army.
DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York City? Why?
BW: I love West 20th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. On one side is a lovely row of Greek Revival houses from the 1840s. On the other side, you can peek through a fence into the General Theological Seminary, with its ivy- covered brick buildings, arching trees and green lawn, so unexpected in the city.
DCHM: What made you want to write Crow?
BW: I spent my childhood summers at Holden Beach, which is 40 minutes from Wilmington, a lovely town on the Cape Fear River with drooping Spanish moss and well-preserved historical neighborhoods that look much as they did in 1898. When I read an op-ed in the New York Times, after the North Carolina legislature released its report on the riot, I was shocked at my ignorance. How could I not have known anything about such an important event? I have a bi-racial grandson, and thought: What if he had been a kid in 1898? All his talent, intelligence and potential would have counted for nothing, because of his race.
DCHM: What 3 words best describe Crow?
BW: Tragic. Heart-breaking. Hopeful.
The Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.