WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Inez Campbell Eason looks upon an empty lot next to the church she attends on Sundays.
“This area is where the Daily Record actually stood,” Campbell-Eason said, pointing to the small plot of land next to St. Luke’s Church at 709 Church St.
For her, it’s a place of reflection because what happened there led to a chain reaction that forever changed the lives of her family members.
1898 was a year that changed the trajectory of Wilmington. Until the coup d’etat, Wilmington was a great place for people of color after slavery. By 1898, black people made up more than 50 percent of the population, prominent in both the business community and city government. It was a biracial government.
Then, on the morning of November 10, 1898, about 2,000 white supremacists stormed the streets of Wilmington with one goal: to take over the city.
The white men armed with military-style weapons began the coup, or coup d’etat, by burning down the black-owned newspaper called the “Daily Record.” Then a bloody massacre ensued.
Black residents, many of them business owners, were forced out of town. Those who refused to leave were killed. Records show anywhere from 60 to 300 black people were killed, but some historians believe the number is much greater.
Campbell-Eason’s great, great grandfather was one of the business owners who survived even though his son was forced out of town. Isham Quick lived through the massacre, but he lost his business as a wooden coal dealer and his land. He was a man of prominence.
"He was on a charter for the black owned bank here called the Metropolitan Trust Company and that was chartered in 1893,” Campbell-Eason said. “I can only imagine the degradation that they went through—seeing their possessions taken—seeing the businesses that they had stolen.”
Quick, like many blacks who had evolved from slavery proudly worked as a free man to provide a good life for his family. He made his way to Wilmington, N.C. in his early 20s from Anson, S.C. because it was a good place for black people to live.
“They were very literate—well-educated," Campbell-Eason explained. "Many them were artisans as far as skills and had various trades—you know masonry, welding.”
She believes her family and other black descendants who endured that massacre should receive reparations in the form of tax breaks or no-interest loans.
"I don’t have the schematics in terms of how I could create a dollar amount, but it has to be some type of amount where families don’t have to pay taxes maybe for over 120 years or local taxes or county taxes—state taxes, because the state was involved. They knew about what happened. Even our federal government knew what was happening because the information went all the way up to President McKinley. So, I believe the entire nation—from the state level, federal level, local level—they all have a responsibility of correcting this wrong,” Campbell-Eason said.
The debate over reparations for black descendants of 1898 has created a divide for many years. One of the opponents is George Rountree III, a prominent Wilmington attorney. He also has ties to the 1898 massacre.
“My grandfather was the first George Rountree. He was the lawyer and the advisor to the committee of nine. So, the Walker Taylors and the Hugh MacRae’s had my grandfather advising them what to do," Rountree said.
The committee of nine or the secret nine included Wilmington’s most affluent and influential white men who organized the government takeover.
Rountree readily admits the massacre was horrendous but says he shouldn't have to pay for his ancestor’s evil ways.
“That’s correct. Now just suppose my grandfather was guilty of speeding on his way to court as a superior court judge somewhere between 1913 and 1916 and he didn’t get a ticket. I mean, am I supposed to pay for that ticket?” Rountree argues.
Campbell-Eason says it's not that simple.
"That’s been the mantra of most white people since slavery ended and it doesn’t matter that you weren’t there, you were able to benefit,” Campbell-Eason said. “It’s unfortunate that 1898 occurred because it took away a legacy—generational wealth in the city—not only for myself, but for others who remained.”
Rountree acknowledges blacks were wronged in 1898, even wronged today, but says there’s too much focus on race as opposed to trying to heal as a community, as a nation.
“When I see signs and hear of news-‘Black lives matter,' of course they matter. Everybody’s life matters. American’s lives matter. When we can identify as Americans instead of as Hispanics, Blacks, Anglo, Jews, whatever, we will be where we need to be. We’re not there,” Rountree said.
While reparations remain a controversial remedy today, there’s no disputing the effects of 1898 linger today, forever changing the course of Wilmington’s history and the lives of the descendants of the massacre.