Magazine article The New Yorker

American Coup

Magazine article The New Yorker

American Coup

Article excerpt

American Coup

On November 10, 1898, a coup d'etat took place on United States soil. It was perpetrated by a gang of white-supremacist Democrats in Wilmington, North Carolina, who were intent on reclaiming power from the recently elected, biracial Republican government, even if, as one of the leaders vowed, "we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses." They had a Colt machine gun capable of firing four hundred and twenty .23-calibre bullets a minute. They had the local elite and the press on their side. By the end of the day, they had killed somewhere between fourteen and sixty black men and banished twenty more, meanwhile forcing the mayor, the police chief, and the members of the board of aldermen to resign.

The new government remained in control, of both the town and the story. Subsequent generations of white residents knew about the events of 1898 as a "revolution" or a "race riot," if they knew about them at all. In the black community, the episode remained a suppressed trauma. "It was just, like, something we talked about on the porch, like a folk thing, but it wasn't really in the mainstream," Christopher Everett, the director of "Wilmington on Fire," a new documentary, said not long ago. Before Rosewood, before Tulsa, press materials for the film note, there was Wilmington--"a massacre kept secret for over one hundred years."

Everett, who is thirty-three, was standing on Market Street in Wilmington, in front of a Greek Revival building that had served as an arsenal for the white conspirators. He had driven down from Laurinburg, North Carolina, where he was raised by his grandparents, a wire-plant worker and a nurse. In 2010, he was living in Atlanta, working in graphic design, when he saw a reference to the coup online. He got interested, and downloaded a report that the State of North Carolina had published several years earlier, to try, belatedly, to reckon with the legacy of the incident. That year, he was laid off. He moved back in with his grandparents, and put his unemployment money toward making the film.

"I was, like, a hundred pounds lighter then," Everett said. "I had done some acting and modelling"--his first gig was a Japanese clothing commercial, starring Kate Moss--"so I had a network." After three years, he ran out of money. An N.B.A. player who prefers to remain anonymous, having seen a clip that Everett posted on Facebook, gave him the fifteen thousand dollars he needed to finish. …

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