Dreams of Wilmington’s Past: Community Confronts History through Art
“Here’s the biggest mistake that people make when they’re writing a monologue,” the poet and playwright Howard Craft said to a group of people furiously taking notes. “It’s not a monologue: it’s a dialogue.” He explained that every character giving a monologue is talking to someone, and to write a good monologue, you have to figure out who that someone is.
Craft was sitting in a lounge at DREAMS, a center for arts education on the north side of Wilmington, North Carolina. He was one of eight artists giving free public workshops on March 4 on topics ranging from poetry to podcasting to songwriting.
Workshop participants included local artists, teachers, community members, and a group of under-caffeinated Duke University students, who piled into a van to ride to Wilmington during the early hours of the morning. They came as part of a class taught by documentarian Charlie Thompson and theater artist Mike Wiley, who organized the workshops with DREAMS as part of their ongoing project America’s Hallowed Ground.
A program of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, America’s Hallowed Ground works with communities who are using art as a means of confronting and contemplating painful histories. In the case of Wilmington, that history was a traumatic and politically consequential event: the massacre of 1898.
During the November election of 1898, an organized mob of white supremacists took control of the city. They forced Black elected leaders to resign, set the office of a Black newspaper on fire, and murdered Black people in the streets. Many others fled.
Despite the significance of the event — the only successful coup d’état in American history — it is still not widely known in the United States, or even in North Carolina.
“I didn’t hear anything about it in my regular schooling,” said Alana Austin, a workshop participant.
Austin grew up in rural Jacksonville, North Carolina, about an hour’s drive northeast of Wilmington. She said she first learned of the coup through Battle of the Books, an extracurricular reading program, when “Crow” by Barbara Wright was on the reading list.
“I read that and was shocked that this event had even happened, let alone in Wilmington, which was like two seconds from where I was,” said Austin. “It honestly was sort of surreal.”
“In the city of Wilmington, so many people don’t know about 1898,” said Mahlaynee Cooper, another participant. “When you have a group of people who don’t recognize your humanity, your history doesn’t mean anything because you don’t mean anything.”
Cooper is a poet from New York who has lived in Wilmington for over 12 years. She performs spoken word under the stage name Carrie Assata. She also runs Speak Ya Peace NC, a community showcase for poetry and artistic expression. Speak Ya Peace NC partners with arts organizations to draw attention to issues like dyslexia, child abuse, and racial bias and discrimination. She is a teaching artist at DREAMS.
When asked why she attended the workshops, Cooper said she wanted to cultivate her own artistic impulse. “When you’re always giving and teaching, you’ve got to get something that’s going to feed you.”
Currently a communications and development coordinator with Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, Austin heard about the workshops from a sister attending Duke. She said she joined out of a desire to connect with the Wilmington community.
Austin described her experience during a workshop with muralist Cornelio Campos, who led participants in creating a mural that depicts the 1898 coup.
“I was really able to collaborate with the people that were there, and learn a lot from the professor,” she said. “The product that we made at the end was not only beautiful, but it was really powerful to see different people’s expressions of the event.”
Painted on four large canvases, the mural combines imagery from archival sources with expressionistic colors and the image of a bird flying across the sky.
“It was such a treasure to sit with these artists and glean from them,” Austin said.
Cooper participated in the playwriting workshop with Howard Craft. She took up his challenge to write a monologue from the perspective of a historic structure witnessing the 1898 coup. Cooper chose St. Joseph’s AME Church, which was built in the 1860s.
At a sharing session following the workshops, Cooper was the first to step up to the microphone, reading in a subdued but powerful tone.
They say I survived, but what does survival mean
When you see with the eyes that I’ve seen?
Been standing in this ground rooted for over 100 years
My backbone is strong, built brick by brick
By the freemasons, freed enslaved,
And those who couldn’t write their names.
After Cooper finished her poem, ending with the lines “Wilmington, I call out to you / Lead with love, or 1898 is coming right back to you,” the room burst into applause.
“I was nervous getting up on stage,” Cooper later said. “You just hold those things back because you know that your message is greater than your fear.”
During the sharing session, participants presented what they’d learned or created during the workshops, like how to audio-record an interview, or how to write a song based on a meaningful object. Some performed a series of choreographed movements with partners, evoking destruction, sorrow, and rebirth.
Workshop leader Jaki Shelton Green, the Poet Laureate of North Carolina, reminded the participants of the aphorism that “art is not finished until it is shared.”
Coming together in community to create art, Green suggested, can help repair historical and ongoing wrongs: a form of “relational reparations.”
“I am foolish enough to believe that we the creative makers can turn this around,” she said.
America’s Hallowed Ground will continue its work in Wilmington and in other communities across North Carolina and the United States. The next site is Cherokee, North Carolina, where the Cherokee Historical Association memorializes the Trail of Tears.