The Passionate Storyteller

Why John Sayles is a connoisseur of American shame.

  1. The only successful coup d’état in American history occurred on November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina. At the time, the city was one of the most prosperous ports on the East Coast and a center of African- American economic and political power. The local government had been controlled by Democrats for two decades, but that changed in 1894 and 1896 when black voters, now a majority of the citizens, elected a coalition of Republicans and Populists. The city’s white aristocracy would not stand for it.

    “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes,” declared one of their leaders, a former congressman and Confederate colonel named Alfred Moore Waddell. “Even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”

    On the morning of the 10th as many as two thousand white men and boys took to the streets, armed with rifles, pistols, and rapid-fire Colt machine guns mounted on horse-drawn wagons. They began by burning down the offices of The Daily Record, the city’s black newspaper. In photographs taken afterward, the men pose in front of the incinerated building with their shotguns raised. The second floor has been reduced to a single wall, the smoke billowing from its splintered planks. Grinning boys stand in the front row, cradling their smaller guns.

    The mob proceeded to the neighborhood of Brooklyn, the heart of Wilmington’s African-American community, where they slaughtered what men they could find. Some of the revolutionaries—for that’s how they saw thems...