Tucked away in the southeast corner of North Carolina is Wilmington, also known as the Port City. Scenic beaches, wonderful cuisine, and historic monuments bring thousands of visitors every year. Many tourists and residents alike are unaware that these very monuments pay tribute to traitorous men and a violent history.
“Wilmington on Fire” documents the events of the 1898 massacre of the Wilmington City government. The takeover by white supremacists of a prosperous city filled with educated black entrepreneurs and government officials is the only successful coup d’état in American history. A militia of three hundred white men killed unknown numbers of black citizens and exiled the others, promising death to those who dared to return.
I talked with Director Christopher Everett about the film.
He first heard of the event while living in Atlanta when the state of North Carolina released their “1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report” in 2006.
Everett: There was a lot of talk throughout certain areas of North Carolina about the 1898 massacre. Once I started seeing that online, I thought, this reminds me of Jon Singleton’s Rosewood. Why is this the first time people are really hearing about this? I started researching to see if anyone had made a movie or documentary because I wanted to buy one. When I saw that no one actually did an in depth full documentary on the project, it made me want to do it. I thought the story was important, and it needed to be told, but I didn’t think it’d get the success it has gotten so far. I just wanted to make a good film and get the story out there.
White: In the film Kent Chatfield mentioned seeing weapons from the attack as a child. Does it surprise you that they’d still exist?
Everett: Not at all, because you go to any museum and they’ll have these things around. I noticed this just researching and doing this film. In the White community, they preserve a lot of this stuff, whether it’s good or bad history. They preserve weaponry, they preserve clothing, like the Klan hoods and all that. The documents and everything.
I notice in our community, we don’t persevere anything. That’s why it’s been hard to find a lot of stuff from the African American community in Wilmington. A lot of times with us, our great grandmother or grandfather might have some old photos, but we don’t know the value of these old letters or photos and we could be cleaning out their house after they die and just throw it out with the trash.
White: That’s not something our people are very good at.
Everett: That’s a dream of mine, to build a black archive museum when people across North Carolina can bring their stuff and we’d preserve it, digitize it. That’s a dream of mine, one of these days.
White: Your film shed light on atrocities from over one hundred years ago, but as I hear it, there’s more footage. Is there more to tell about these events?
Everett: There’s a lot more to the story.
“Wilmington on Fire 2” is going to go more in depth with what happened to the African American community in Wilmington and NC after the massacre. Once the 1900 election and the Jim Crow movement, where did they go? What it was like for the people that stayed here as well. A lot of people don’t know that there was a town created in NJ called Whitesboro as a safe haven for not only people from Wilmington but throughout NC. I actually filmed there for the first movie, but I could only fit in about 5 minutes of it, so I decided I wanted to make that story for the second one. A lot of the people up there know that connection with Wilmington and NC. They know why their ancestors had to move up there around 1905-1910. A lot of them know the story and their history. It’s going to branch out of NC a little bit to focus on the Jim Crow laws that were created and the effects on the African American community.
“Wilmington on Fire” is a powerful film and it boasts an equally great soundtrack with styles from Jazz to Hip Hop and poetry. The film has won several awards: best local film at the Wilmington Best of 2016 Encore Awards, Best Documentary at the North Carolina Black Film Festival and tied for Best Documentary at Raleigh’s filmSPARK festival.
The DVD will be released on November 10, 2016 on the anniversary of the massacre.
For more info about the film, reserving your copy, or screenings in your area, follow the links below.
Official 2006 NC report