‘Sorry’ is hard, making amends is harder

by Jordan Green

There are similarities and differences between the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Wilmington Race Riot Commission, but both represent collective efforts to confront the crucible of racial conflict in our state’s history and wrest some kind of redemptive social change from the wreckage.

Their advocates are seeking nothing less than a catharsis. Both efforts have likewise prompted a tidal surge of resistance featuring a mistrust of perceived liberal big-government efforts to tax people to pay down the bill of past injustice and, it must be said, willful collective amnesia.

First the obvious differences: Wilmington’s trauma took place more than a century ago; Greensboro’s tragedy took place only 26 years ago. In Wilmington, a local elected government was overthrown by a violent white mob; in Greensboro a group of labor activists were killed in broad daylight by white supremacists while the police were absent, prompting suspicions that the local elected government looked with favor on the violence.

Also, the official Wilmington commission was established by the NC General Assembly and funded by taxpayers; the grassroots Greensboro commission was launched by citizens with the monetary and institutional support of outside non-governmental organizations and foundations.

For those who have not considered the historical implications and present-day legacy of the mob violence in Wilmington, here is what lead researcher LeRae Umfleet wrote in her introduction to the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report, which was released on May 31: ‘“Because Wilmington rioters were able to murder blacks in daylight and overthrow a legitimately elected Republican government without penalty of federal intervention, everyone in the state, regardless of race, knew that the white supremacy campaign was victorious on all fronts.’”

It’s fair to say that few honest students of history would disagree with that conclusion. And yet, that has not always been the case. The report notes that local Wilmington historians in the first five decades of the 20th century sought to justify the violence by casting it as an unpleasant but necessary maneuver to root out governmental corruption. It wasn’t until 1951 that the white supremacist assumptions underpinning those accounts came under serious challenge with the publication of The Negro In Fusion Politics by African-American scholar Helen Edmonds.

Even with the passage of more than 100 years and the completion of volumes of research, people in some quarters still want to treat the Wilmington Race Riot Commission’s findings with suspicion, it seems.

In one of the few mentions of the report in the Greensboro print media market, News & Record editorial page editor Allen Johnson in a June 1 entry in his web-log noted the commission’s recommendation that the state of North Carolina make reparations for the riot.

It prompted this response from a correspondent named ‘“Stormy’”: ‘“How is it possible for a commission to conduct a study to determine the truth of what happened more than 10 years ago? I doubt that they were able to get any eyewitness testimony. How is it that they can now determine that it was a conspiracy?’”

Johnson gently set the skeptic aright by pointing out the obvious: ‘“Historical research can uncover all sorts of new revelations’…. You might want to check [the report] out before summarily dismissing it.’”

More sophisticated scorn came from downtown lawyer ‘— and former Republican candidate for Guilford County Commission ‘— Samuel Spagnola, who called the report a ploy to ‘“get money from someone, somewhere, to pay for a liberal agenda.

‘“It’s too bad that this incident, like Nov. 3, 1979, is being used as a shakedown to get dollars and liberal programs instead of being remembered for the tragedy that it was,’” he wrote. ‘“No actions taken today can undo what happened in the past. It is a whole different world with whole new cast of characters. The idea that the public should pay for private wrongs is not supported by law or common sense.’”

The ensuing discussion culminated with a rare display of apoplexy by Johnson, who protested: ‘“A local government was overturned. By force. And the state and federal governments did nothing. That’s not merely private culpability.’”

In both Wilmington and Greensboro, we’re still at the stage of arguing over acknowledgement; no serious discussions about reparations ‘— to be fair, a word that has been used by neither the Wilmington or Greensboro commissions ‘— have taken place. And of course, the prescriptions for ‘“repairing’” Wilmington and Greensboro are different. The Wilmington commission’s recommendations center on support for compensation to heirs of victims through the courts, and programs to increase minority business ownership and home ownership. Beyond calls for acknowledgement and apologies, the Greensboro commission has focused its recommendations on policy changes designed to close gaps in economic and racial inequality.

Umfleet told me she can appreciate the challenges to the Greensboro truth and reconciliation process. Her husband is from here and was 9 years old when the shootings took place, she said. He still only knows the vague outlines of what happened.

‘“Race relations and violent race relations are very difficult for people to talk about, whether you’re black or white,’” she said. ‘“Wilmington is a hundred years removed from the event, and it still stirs a lot of fear, hostility, hurt and pain.

‘“In Greensboro participants on both sides of the weaponry are still around,’” she added. ‘“The collective memory is there. It might be a hundred years before Greensboro can come to grips with what happened. I think if people in Greensboro can find some reconciliation, the problems that Wilmingtonians have had might be avoided.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at