Southeast Raleigh bid farewell to February with a treat: the city’s first screening of Christopher Everett’s award-winning documentary “Wilmington on Fire.”
The screening was hosted by The Friends Committee, a nonprofit organization of community members working to identify and address issues around education, health, employment, housing and social injustice.
“Wilmington on Fire” chronicles the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, a violent, bloody attack on African-Americans in the majority-black, self-sufficient port city by a heavily armed white mob on Nov. 10, 1898.
Everett released his documentary in 2015 on the 117th anniversary of the massacre.
On tour ever since with screenings at colleges and universities, in communities and at film festivals across the state and nation, its Raleigh debut was the Feb. 25 screening at Sherrill’s University of Barbering and Cosmetology on New Bern Avenue.
The Wilmington Massacre of 1898 is thought to be the only instance of a successful coup d’état in America that left countless African-Americans dead or exiled from the city – and is credited as the Southern catalyst of white supremacy and the Jim Crow era of segregation.
Like the “Hidden Figures” story of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson commanding theater box offices nationwide – or the equally anticipated movie about Henrietta Lacks, whose rare cells were secretly harvested for medical research – “Wilmington on Fire” unveils a story hushed in public and omitted from history books.
“It was not until 2006, after the North Carolina General Assembly published a report on it, that the tragedy became known to the public,” said Everett of the Wilmington Massacre. “It was supposed to be a secret, and it was for over 100 years.”
And with our country’s current backdrop of race and politics, it’s no surprise the “Wilmington on Fire” story is bending ears as did revelations of similar 1920s massacres in Rosewood, Fla., and Tulsa, Okla., and experiencing a pop culture-type revival with movies such as August Wilson’s “Fences” and James Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Already, Everett has won the “Best Director – First Feature Documentary” at the 2017 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and Best Documentary at the 2016 N.C. Black Film Festival.
“We never learned about this in school,” said Everett, a Laurinburg native who studied graphic art at Kings College. “I wanted to bring awareness of this history to people of all racial, cultural and economic backgrounds.
“If we want to know why North Carolina politics is the way it is now, it all goes back to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, so I want people to really see the need to vote … and the need to know who we’re voting for.”
Raleigh should lead.
“A lot of what happened there, set the stage here,” said Aaliyah Blaylock who spearheaded the Friends Committee screening. “There’s a connection in history, and a lot of lessons in “Wilmington on Fire” that, if we apply them today, could help the greater Raleigh community: the strong business network, political activity among African-Americans and value placed on our land and our property.”
Everett’s documentary features activists, scholars, researchers, historians and direct descendants of the victims of the 1898 massacre.
“They fought long and hard for what they had, for it to be taken away from them because of (skin) color,” said Faye Chaplin, great-granddaughter of Thomas C. Miller, a real estate developer in the city in the 1800s, at the film’s opening.
Of major development on the land Miller once owned, Chaplin added, “Part of that should be ours. We were stripped of a lot of our rights to these things because of color.”
Though it was sobering, Arlie Ponds was excited to catch the Raleigh screening.
“We learned so much that day,” he said of himself, his wife, Aisha, and her mother. “I’m thankful it’s being shown now because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
“If we don’t learn, we don’t know our history or ourselves. That’s so unfortunate.”