Not many people can tell you where Wilmington, North Carolina is on a map. If you travel down I-40 and head east, there is literally nowhere else to go.
Dead-end: a metaphor for the gentrification and red-lining. $30,000 homes and microbrewers in low-income neighborhoods. Snowbirds and white tourists flood the city every summer and winter to soak up the sun, tan and take advantage of the $1.5 million beach properties. College kids jump at the chance to attend the #4 rated party school in the Southeast with one of the most bars in the region. Stats that look good on movers.com and travel bureau sites.
As a straight-A student from Gary, Indiana, my dream was to be a famous film writer. My parents put UNCW on my college application list as an option for film school, and the rest is history. Before the HB2 bill, Wilmington was a budding film town, home to Screen Gems movie studios where countless Blockbuster hits were filmed. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about North Carolina or the Southern racism that permeated the town. It was the last place on my list of universities or cities to live in, but one toxic high school romance and two poor senior year choices later, I landed in Wilmington. It was 2004. Population 80,000—with roughly a 10% Black population.
The day my mother and I did the cross-country drive, a tornado brewed as we arrived on campus. I should have known my experience in Wilmington would be wreckage. I looked around at the small, white-washed beach town, and I could feel a loss. It permeated every inch of me as I ran errands with my mother for school supplies and dorm decor at the local Walmart. But once the storm cleared and we made it down to the beach, I started to see the appeal of tranquil blue skies and endless sand. The salty air kissed my face, and the crashing waves made me forget I stood on stolen land.
Not too long ago, the properties on Carolina Beach, Myrtle, and others had all been owned by Black families.
The erasure of Black history is how the city entices you. That and the selling of “leisure” and a “relaxed, carefree lifestyle.” The brochure for UNCW featured a group of white and white-passing students jumping next to an aquamarine, yellow, and blue sea hawk wearing flip flops and shorts on the sand.
There stood in the center of downtown a monument, the origin story of which was a mystery, and would have remained so until I sought answers from the church matriarchs years later. “Do you know why that statue stands in the middle of town?” they asked. “No,” I replied. “I figured he was just a war hero.” “Not a war hero, but a confederate soldier this city wants to present as a beacon of hope and justice. Isn’t that ironic?” I sat there stunned, gape-mouthed, in shock. “This town used to be all Black,” church deaconesses said to me. That powerful fact would spiral years of knowledge-seeking and digging into old records, searching for the truth. Years of aimlessly walking the cobblestone campus and old city streets, wondering why I felt so strange. Why it felt like I was standing on uncovered secrets.
The white student body said they “loved it there.” Beach for breakfast. Bars. Babes. What’s not to like? Frat boys threw sun-up to sun-down beer pong parties on campus. Professors invited white students to extra-curricular events and mixers. Leggy blondes suntanned on the quad while students of color were shuttled off to and sequestered at Upperman African American Center, where students like me could get involved with the Black Greek life, Student Union or Gospel Choir. I quickly learned my school’s nickname was “UNC-White.”
In my first year, I was paired with the “Black cohort”—participants of a private “diversity” orientation I wasn’t invited to because I was an out-of-state student. The orientation was a way to lure Black North Carolinian students to UNCW, an opportunity for the college to capture a diversity photo for its brochure, and a tool for filling quotas. Knowing I was a diversity acceptance upon arrival was heart-wrenching.
Walks to class highlighted the “acceptable” culture of flip flops and skateboards. God forbid one of us wore our afros out or sported a hip-hop t-shirt. Yet, white boys bumped the latest Jay-Z on full blast, laughing and singing along to every lyric. “My n*gga” a part of their lexicon. Black students juggled classes, campus jobs, and extracurriculars like bowling pins while our white counterparts had the freedom to relax.
“Can I speak to a manager?” My Black coworkers and I quickly code-switched when irate white customers complained or when our supervisor passed us over for promotions. We shifted our Blackness not to appear “angry.” Campus functions were the same. Smile, just smile. You could feel ASSIMILATE OR DIE in the air.
This lasted for the first year. Then I watched myself go from a social, bright student who was also a UNCW ambassador to skipping class and work, failing exams, having no healthy relationships. My peer group spiraled the same way, consuming so many drugs and alcohol they almost flunked out their first year. I didn’t know then, but partying and alcohol were coping mechanisms for the lack of representation and invisibility.
I performed mental acrobatics to combat “angry Black women” stereotypes in class and at social events. When ignorant questions about my hair like, “Can I touch it?” and “Is that your real hair?” or “Why is it so wild and nappy?” arose, I wanted to scream, “HELL NO!” but knew I couldn’t. Not to mention toxicity around workout and diet culture. In my first year, my roommates asked what diet I was on because “I looked so good.” By then, I was already exhausted by the emotional labor of educating white classmates on the Black culture they were quick to appropriate.
Once a sales representative followed my friends and me around for an hour and finally asked, “Do you people need help finding anything?” And we always knew what that meant. You people. You guys. The subtle twitch in her voice, her raised eyebrows, and vocal pitch. When there were probably five other white groups walking around, doing God knows what, her eyes stayed glued on us. Restaurant servers were no different. “Can I help you?” they’d say with skepticism when me and my Black friends walked to the front counter if they said anything at all. Most days, we were invisible; on others, we were hyper-seen. Both made us feel othered.
In 1898, the port city was a booming Black central and was called the perfect picture of “post antebellum South and racial, financial equity by historians and Reconstruction Era scholars. It was populated with entrepreneurs who capitalized on the fish markets and trade opportunities. UNCW history lessons and library records seemed to omit any mere mention of historical events that would explain the shift in the racial landscape.
Out of desperation, I searched for ways to escape Wilmington, and my sophomore year, the opportunity to leave finally arose. My counselor told me about a visiting student exchange program at UNC-Greensboro, and I jumped at the chance to accept. Greensboro was instantly a whole different vibe when I arrived, and it breathed new life in me, life I didn’t know I had. When I exited highway I-40, the first thing I saw was North Carolina A&T University’s off-site locations, basketball courts where Black kids shot hoops, city parks with no Confederate monuments. The further I got into downtown and closer to campus, cultural events, art galleries, and people of all races, gender identities lined the streets and gathered in the parks. This was a side of North Carolina I had never seen. In just a short time, not only did I fall in love with Greensboro, but it became essential to my healing.
Contrary to UNC-Wilmington, the professors and admin at UNC-G were multi-racial but also affirming and encouraging. Class options were culturally aware and equitable, like Black Dance and Intro to the Harlem Renaissance. I didn’t have to navigate a minefield of microaggressions every day in class or town. I found healthy Black friend groups and got involved in Divine Nine programs; I took leadership roles in cultural clubs, my talents as a Black poet and actress, and were spotlit and awarded. A year went by too quickly, and I’d have to leave a place where I felt seen and supported just to be invisibilized in Wilmington.
Upon returning to UNCW, getting an apartment and job off-campus quickly exposed the segregation, the lack of the Black middle class, and lack of Black presence past a specific time at night. It was like the Black people disappeared in an “I am Legend” occurrence, and no one would tell me why. I discovered the “strangeness” or “Get Out” effect everyone talked about. The Wilmington plantation ghost tours haunted the area’s Black adults, who, in turn, avoided nightlife and entertainment near the beach and downtown areas.
The salty truth was that Blacks didn’t go to the affluent beach areas or socialize downtown when it was dark outside. But it was mutual segregation. The white people stayed on their side of town, and the Black community stayed on theirs. This was something that the townies all knew. If you asked any Wilmington natives, they told you that white people don’t go past a certain street downtown, and Black people don’t go above it. It was almost like the Black people didn’t approach affluence, and the white people stayed as far away from poverty as possible.
Finally, I sought answers from the elders at my church as to why I felt so erased. “Wilmington used to be all Black, child. We were wealthy. Drove expensive cars. Owned land. It was the epitome of what we could have been, and they couldn’t stand it,” my church elder explained.
They told me the monuments were Confederate soldiers, and the feeling I had when I first arrived on campus amid a tornado resulted from a coup d’etat called the Wilmington 1898 Race Massacre. The killing of hundreds of Black government officials, professionals, and business owners by white militia, and the drowning of Black bodies in the Cape Fear River.
“What happened in Wilmington became an affirmation of white supremacy not just in that one city, but in the South and the nation as a whole,” as it affirmed that invoking “whiteness” eclipsed the legal citizenship, individual rights, and equal protection under the law that black Americans were guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment,” says Laura Edwards, author of Democracy Betrayed.
It all made sense now. Another reminder that a Black girl like me didn’t belong and would never measure up in this town. Three months back in Wilmington, I was flunking out of my writing and journalism classes again, hoarding clothing so high I couldn’t open my room door. I barely slept, never contacted my family, and was finding ways to self-medicate. I fell into a deep depression. After two and a half years, I had few Black role models, no sense of self, and no community outside the church. I was determined to leave for good when I got the chance.
The ironic truth I learned was that Wilmington’s haunting first started with the burning of the Black newspaper. With the 1898 election arising, the white political party became angry that Black politicians and businesspeople held majority control socially and politically. Black people had autonomy, and they owned successful businesses, land and were self-sufficient. White political figures spread racist propaganda. When the Black newspaper wrote a letter clapping back against the lies, the white militia set fire to it and began murdering Black people in the street—thus starting the 1898 Race Massacre.
White folks forced their Black neighbors out of their homes and shot each one on-site. Only the affluent Black survived because they were put on trains and sent to New York and D.C. I discovered the truth the same week my Sociology professor kicked me out of her class and failed me because she was, “Sure I couldn’t have written my paper,” without even reading it. The ever-present message that protest would lead to harsher treatment from teachers and administration extinguished our efforts to advocate for ourselves.
The trauma I underwent at UNCW impacted my confidence such that I took a year off from school. I later transferred to N.C. A&T University— a historically Black university in Greensboro, where I graduated with honors and excelled. Through it all, I learned remaining silent when amid the waving of Confederate flags, not being able to stop in certain towns, and ignoring “nigger” scrawled on the walls of bathroom stalls was a means of survival. I have had to return to and address the lasting trauma that impacted and continues to impact my emotional health and mental well-being. Years later, films like Wilmington On Fire and more have been produced and released about the insurrection, exposing truths many tried to conceal. Today, I live in the birthplace of Black Wallstreet, Durham, NC, and am reminded that my ancestors fought to call it that not too long ago. As a part of my healing and refusal to let the silencing of history continue, I am a part of a Wilmington-based racial justice reconciliation that studies, curates artistic exhibits, and does healing workshops around the 1898 Massacre. That healing is the central part of moving past the trauma that still tries to haunt me.