On November 10, 1898, a group of white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina—upset by the results of a local election and angered by the writing of the local black press—violently overthrew the newly elected government and installed their own supporters instead. This is known as a coup d’état—and it’s the only such event in American history.
These men left a trail of destruction in their wake: During the coup, they burned down the building that housed the black press and massacred at least 60 African American citizens. Very few history books for kids mention this important and tragic event, but one great work of historical fiction does—Crow by Barbara Wright
In observation of this anniversary, we’ve invited Barbara Wright to join us for our November 11th meeting of the Reading into History Family Book Club to discuss Crow, a fictionalized account of the Wilmington coup d’état. Readers will have a chance to discuss the book, ask Wright questions, and then head up to our exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow for a special guided tour of objects related to book’s historical content.
Barbara Wright recently shared some of her insights on this history and on her writing with us. Check out her interview here and we’ll see you at our book club meeting on November 11th.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: You wrote Crow back in 2012. How do you think the novel’s message resonates today versus then?
Barbara Wright: I wish the novel’s themes of racism, inequality, and the importance of the vote had the shelf life of mayonnaise, but unfortunately, they are even more important today. Since the novel’s publication, society has witnessed increased police killings of unarmed black men and an alarming resurgence of voter suppression efforts following the 2013 Supreme Court decision withdrawing federal voting oversight. Racists now broadcast their hatred, given license by the anonymity of social media and the rise of partisan politics, starting with the president’s divisive Twitter feed. Sadly, race relations seem to be moving in reverse.
DCHM: You are actually from North Carolina. What did you learn about the Wilmington coup d’état growing up there?
BW: I did not learn about the Wilmington riot until the North Carolina legislature released a report on the long-suppressed incident in 2006. My reaction was—how could I not have known about this? We didn’t study it in school. I began to dig in, and the result was Crow.
DCHM: Our protagonist Moses is very proud of his father’s work as a reporter at the Wilmington Daily Record. Were you able to read copies of this publication while conducting research for this book? If you did, what about these papers left the biggest impression on you?
BW: All back issues of the Daily Record were destroyed when a white mob set fire to the newspaper after the 1898 elections, wiping out a large swath of African American history. The loss is incalculable. To this day, 120 years later, the lot in Wilmington where the newspaper stood has remained vacant.
DCHM: When white supremacists start to terrorize Wilmington at the end of the book, Moses’s father is afraid that he taught his son the wrong lessons about history. Moses doesn’t know what a lynching is until the horrors of the massacre come to his town, but his family also doesn’t speak about slavery or the Civil War. How do you think our young historians should learn about the more difficult, ugly periods of American history?
BW: In the novel, Jack tries to protect his son from the uglier aspects of racism, but realizes that this rosy view has left his Moses ill-equipped to deal with the reality as it unfolded during the race riots. Young historians need to take a clear-eyed view of all periods of our history because, as the philosopher George Santayana reminded us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
DCHM: The history of voting and voting rights plays a huge role in Crow. Given that we will be discussing Crow in book club a few days after the midterm elections, what do you think Moses and his family would say to voters today?
BW: The right to vote was particularly important to African Americans in the late 19th century because they had been denied that right for so long. I think Moses and his father would say to voters today to never take the right to vote for granted. As a citizen, it is the most effective way to make your voice heard.
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe
Family Programs Educator, DiMenna Children’s History Museum