By Sydney Trent
WILMINGTON, N.C. — Cynthia Brown woke at 5 a.m., more than an hour earlier than she had planned. She was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, but her 65-year-old body was coursing with adrenaline.
It was Oct. 15, the first day of early voting in a state considered pivotal in the presidential race, and Brown and her husband, Phil, were determined to show up in person, despite the pandemic. After she downed her coffee and got dressed, Brown slipped on a pair of brown loafers with embossed monarch butterflies — a symbol of the political transformation she so desired.
At 7:30, the couple headed out to join the record number of North Carolinians who have been voting early across the state. Many, like her, are African Americans who have long been the target of voter suppression efforts, from literacy tests during the Jim Crow era to the state’s 2013 passage of a strict voter ID law that was later struck down by a federal appeals court.
But 2020, Brown said, felt different.
“There was something about this election, all the talk of voter suppression, all the paranoia about mail-in ballots, that was driving me to be present,” she explained as she and her husband stood masked in a long line outside Cape Fear Community College’s north campus.
For the retired human resources professional, the election wasn’t just about the future; it was also about the past.
“I thought about my great-grandmother Athalia,” Brown said, “and what happened here.”
On Nov. 10, 1898, two days after a contentious election, Athalia Howe, the 12-year-old granddaughter of prominent Black builder Alfred Augustus Howe, had crouched fearfully in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery as armed white supremacists stormed the city. The mobs massacred dozens of African Americans — the true number will never be known — dumping their limp bodies in the winding Cape Fear River. They seized prosperous Black people and their White allies and forced them onto trains out of town. After publishing a “White Declaration of Independence,” the marauders took over the county Board of Aldermen — the only coup d’etat in U.S. history.
Wilmington’s African American community, a shining post-Civil War model of Black upward mobility, has never recovered.
Until relatively recently, the devastating events of 1898 were largely lost to history. In 2000, the state General Assembly appointed a special commission to investigate the violence, resulting in a 2006 report with recommendations for restorative justice, some of which have been heeded, others not. A separate push for reparations has not gone anywhere.
Meanwhile, waves of young, White and often liberal newcomers have been arriving in the beachside city, renovating charming period houses, filling trendy restaurants in the gentrified historic district and making New Hanover County harder for President Trump to win a second time.
About three-quarters of Wilmington’s nearly 125,000 residents are now White. Many of them, Brown said, know little or nothing about the racial terror unleashed in 1898.
“I’ve seen so many people come here and think it’s a fun-in-the-sun place, and they operate as though the playing field is level for everyone,” Brown said. “They drive by underprivileged neighborhoods, and it’s like, ‘Ho-hum.’ … Not knowing the history can be destructive to a community. When people have no sense of the ground they are standing on, they just keep perpetuating what has already occurred.”