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Film on Wilmington massacre of 1898 draws criticism

White supremacists burned the building that housed Wilmington's only Black newspaper, the Daily Record, before murdering hundreds of Blacks in a shooting rampage in 1898.
White supremacists burned the building that housed Wilmington's only Black newspaper, the Daily Record, before murdering hundreds of Blacks in a shooting rampage in 1898.

It’s been over 125 years since hundreds of African Americans were killed in Wilmington by white supremacists, who feared the success of the port city’s thriving Black middle class on the political and economic fronts. They staged a successful coup to force numerous Black elected and appointed officials and white officials who did not share their racist views from their positions.

The conservative John Locke Foundation has produced a short, fictional film, "In the Pines," on the massacre that is attracting criticism.

The 1898 massacre happened at a time when Wilmington’s predominantly African American population was well-educated, owned businesses and shared power with white people in a city that was surprisingly integrated. White supremacists intimidated Black voters in the 1898 election to win seats in the state legislature — but that still left Black elected officials in local offices. So the white supremacists devised and carried out a murderous plan that started with the burning of the building that housed the city’s Black newspaper, the Daily Record.

Historian Lynn Mollenauer teaches at UNC Wilmington and leads various research and other 1898 initiatives.

She describes the massacre:

“You’ve got this mob of armed white men who’ve just burned down a building and this mob has been whipped up into a frenzy,” Mollenauer said. “Then the mob marches off towards the majority Black neighborhood and they begin to shoot people, starting at the intersection of Fourth and Harnett. You have Black folks who are fleeing into churches, looking for sanctuary. Some ran into the Black cemetery to hide.”

Dr. Lewin Manly, 91, is the grandson of Alexander Manly, the owner and editor of the Daily Record. Alexander Manly escaped before his offices were burned. Dr. Manly says his two great-aunts related the horror of that day to only a few people.

“They were in school the day this happened and their older brother had to go to the school to bring them home,” Manly said. “They saw the mayhem in the streets as they went home, people being shot down, the bloody mess that was occurring. And, apparently, they suffered from post-stress syndrome for the rest of their lives. I tried my best to get them to talk about it and they would not. They would just freeze up.”

A marker in Wilmington denotes a white mob's burning of the city's only Black newspaper, the Daily Record, owned and edited by Alexander Manly. Hundreds of Blacks were murdered by white supremacists in the 1898 Massacre in Wilmington.
A marker in Wilmington denotes a white mob's burning of the city's only Black newspaper, the Daily Record, owned and edited by Alexander Manly. Hundreds of Blacks were murdered by white supremacists in the 1898 Massacre in Wilmington.

Many of the survivors of the 1898 massacre were forced to leave Wilmington, losing their homes, land and businesses — generational wealth.

Several documentaries and books have depicted the horrors of the 1898 massacre in Wilmington. But a new fictional account of the bloody massacre, "In the Pines," produced by the John Locke Foundation, is drawing lots of criticism. It’s billed as being based on true events, but it does not show the slaughter of Black residents. It focuses mainly on the romance of a white couple.

“The film was not designed to be a comprehensive history of the events in 1898, which as you know is very involved and complicated,” said Locke Foundation senior fellow Troy Kickler. “But I do believe it does make history interesting in a way that documentaries don’t quite appeal to the general public as a short film may do. The cinematic creativity was to have that love story in there to try to keep the film interesting and entertaining and motivate people to learn more about this complicated past.”

The foundation’s creative director Greg de Deugd explains why they decided to leave the violence in the background only.

“The story was the girl from one side falls in love with the guy from the other side,” De Deugd said. “We felt like if we disconnected the history a little bit, (produced) a palatable story that people are used to seeing like a love story, it would be a way that we could get that truth out to people where nobody’s gonna say, ‘Do you wanna go see that story about hundreds of Black people getting massacre?’ It might not be as effective as ‘Do you want to see that movie? It’s a love story.”

Mollenauer saw the "In the Pines" trailer and says she found the love story theme offensive.

“The story of 1898 is not a story that can be told through the eyes of two young lovers, who are white,” Mollenauer said. “It is not a story of thwarted love, but is an American story. We do not do it justice by shielding the audience from its horrors. I wonder how we can learn anything about ourselves and past events if they are not represented in a way we can comprehend it.”

Elaine Brown is the great-great-granddaughter of Joshua Halsey, who was shot 14 times by white supremacists with a rapid-fire Gatling gun during the massacre. Brown is appalled by the film.

“You know, when you’re talking about a love story in 1898 versus a massacre and people being murdered — my grandfather being one of them — how does that fit in a love story? It is a story of survival,” Brown said.

De Deugd, who is from North Carolina, says he had never heard of the 1898 massacre before a colleague sent him information on it. He says he was intrigued when he learned that the white supremacists behind the massacre were Democrats.

“We read about the lead up to it, the Democrats' white supremacy campaign, and we’re like this really happened, holy cow,” De Deugd said. “And we thought this is a good candidate for getting people interested in North Carolina history, like, something really significant. That's the genesis for the film.”

To be sure, during the late 1800s, most Democrats were from Southern states, staunchly conservative and white supremacy supporters. The Republican Party was more liberal then, but that slowly flipped over the years.

Editor and publisher of the Daily Record, Wilmington's only Black newspaper in 1898, which was burned during a massacre that left hundreds of Blacks murdered by white supremacists.
Editor and publisher of the Daily Record, Wilmington's only Black newspaper in 1898, which was burned during a massacre that left hundreds of Blacks murdered by white supremacists.

"In the Pines" is narrated by the role of the fictionalized Black newspaper publisher’s daughter. She talks to fictional documentarians about Wilmington’s Democrats.

“My father’s paper was the only one standing up to the Democrats and their lies,” she says in the film. “The Democrats violently overthrew a sitting government, hundreds of Black people were slaughtered.”

At this point in the film, she is asked to repeat herself, using the word white supremacists instead of Democrats. To which she answers, “I was there, and they were Democrats.”

“It's about what they wanted to show people to shift people's opinions today,” said North Carolina Democratic state Sen. Graig Meyer. He says he saw the trailer for the film and described it as biased propaganda.

"I hear this frequently from conservatives in debates about race and politics, they want to say, 'Oh well, you know it was Democrats who did all of these bad things.’ And sure, that's historically true, but it sure seems like a cover-up for where the two parties are related to race today,” Meyer said. “Democrats are trying to address the legacy of historic inequalities, and Republicans are trying to sweep it all under the rug. There’s so much misinformation in the world now and this film feels like a willful extension of that misinformation, just extending into the lane of history.”

Locke Foundation officials deny those charges. Senior fellow Kickler said they would like to expand the film to make it more comprehensive. He says they will make more concrete information available on their website in the meantime.

“NorthCarolinahistory.org is a website that the John Locke Foundation has and we are going to have some more about the events in Wilmington in 1898," Kickler said. "A good inclusion is to have a recommended bibliography going back a few years after the events occurred to the most recent publications for further reading.”

That’s not going far enough for Dr. Manly.

“The part I saw (of the film) was a worthless piece of history,” Manly said. “If he would have mentioned Manly, my grandfather, I guess I’d talk to a lawyer. I wouldn’t want his name associated in any form or fashion (with the film).”

"In the Pines" has been shown at about 30 film festivals outside of the country and in some North Carolina cities. It has not been shown in Wilmington. Upcoming viewings include Wake Forest on March 1 and Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 31.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
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