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The Hidden Past of Our City: encore book club takes on the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898

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by: Tiffanie Gabrielse

his past summer hosted many exciting days for me. Among them: the opportunity to show book-club favorite (and previous Wilmington resident) Shawna Kenney and author Cara Bruce my hometown of Boston. Like a good host, I picked them up at the airport promptly. They were hungry from a jam-packed day of flying, so we went to the best place for a true Sicilian dining experience—a place where owner and chef Franco Graceffa will yell at customers in Italian when they don’t finish their meal. Or, he’ll serenade them if he feels the ghost of Sinatra move within. Oh, and Dolce Vita Ristorante always serves great food, too. Aside from enjoying our meal together, the conversation eventually turned toward encore’s fall book-club selection. Somewhere between a few historic buildings

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and Boston’s back bay, Kenney noticed the street names dedicated to their local founders. She then filled me in on an ugly truth: The only coup d’etat—or at least the only one believed to take place on American soil—that happened right in our own Port City. I’ll admit: At first I chalked up Kenney’s story to be just another tale of racist violence, imaging a tiny squad of butt-hurt white men, with guns bigger than their private appendages, attacking a poor black community. I thought, If it was so huge, why had I not heard about this before? And why was it not more prominent around Wilmington? When our day in Boston came to an end, I researched the tale. I was stunned as I learned more information about the chain of events that led to November 10, 1898, when a 1,000 armed Caucasian cowardly men took to the streets and horrifically murdered an untold number of African-Americans. Everything was true and more extreme than I originally assumed. Finally, I decided I would take Kenney’s suggestion for a good club read. Thus, UNCW professor and author Phillip Gerard makes his debut on our fall list with “Cape Fear Rising,” full of emotional

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historical fiction. While the book is based on actual events, “Cape Fear Rising” tells a story of a Southern city’s racial nightmare at the bend of the century. Alarmed by an expanding black middle-class, a needlessly excessive command drawn from the white establishment plans to take back “their” city. Despite being labeled “historical fiction,” the pit of this novel takes hold of the heart of racial contention in America. More than a story about racism and freedom of expression, “Cape Fear Rising”

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brings to the forefront an embarrassing moment in United States history when democracy failed. Yes, the subject matter may be a bit heavy to deal with; I had the inner-argument for a bit about including it on our reading list. Yes, it is equally as serious as it is hard to believe. Yes, Gerard‘s depiction of a time when society’s construct broke down will tell us more than many of us want to know about our past and our legacy. Yes, swimming through such a significant historical story is bound to unearth many things about ourselves and our society we don’t like. But all of this makes up what’s most important about our book club: to learn, to evaluate and to try to understand life around us fully through reading. “Cape Fear Rising” will hopefully be the kind of story that, once we finish it, we will be obligated to keep it resonating in our minds. We need to know the motivations of the fundamental troupe. We need to witness the conditions that made the city burst with revolt and riot. We all need to understand what caused such a catastrophic municipal malfunction. No matter the color of our skin, it is time we confront the past. It is time we travel back together if we are ever going to move forward into the seasons to come.

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September 8, 2010  

Your alternative voice in Wilmington, North Carolina

September 8, 2010  

Your alternative voice in Wilmington, North Carolina

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