Wednesday, January 26, 2022

With two dates and one word, 1898 billboard reckons with past, calls voters to action

A billboard created by Wilmington natives Reggie Shuford and Greg Lindquist intends to remind folks of the 1898 coup as they head to the polls. (Port City Daily/Staff)

WILMINGTON – If you’ve driven through the intersection of Eastwood Road and Market Street in the last few weeks you might have spotted the black billboard with two dates and one word in white letters.

“1898. 2020. VOTE.”

Part warning, part call to arms, the message is intended to remind Wilmingtonians of the 1898 coup and encourage them to vote.

“We wanted the message of the billboard to be really simple,” Reggie Shuford, Philadelphia-based civil rights attorney, said. “We didn’t think we needed anything fancy. There was nothing complex or covert about the massacre itself.”

The billboard is just the first part of the 1898 Project created by Wilmington natives Shuford and Greg Lindquist, an artist and professor based in Brooklyn. The campaign was launched after Lindquist and Shuford organized a reading group — which attracted more than 60 participants from Hawaii to New York — around “Wilmington’s Lie,” a book written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Zucchino. The book is about Wilmington’s 1898 coup d’etat, a massacre that resulted in the murder of as many as 60 Black people by white supremacists, who then overthrew the local government. Lindquist and Shuford said most people, including many locals, had no idea what happened in Wilmington.

“We are telling many people things they don’t know,” Lindquist said about the billboard. “We wanted to put it out there and hope some dig deeper into that history.”

Shuford was the first Black student to graduate from Wilmington’s Cape Fear Academy in 1984 and wasn’t taught the true story of the 1898 coup. Nor did he learn about it at UNC-Chapel Hill where he studied his undergrad and graduate work.

Lindquist, who graduated from Emsley A. Laney High School in 1997 and attended NC State, was also unaware of the coup. Like Shuford, he learned the true story after he left the Cape Fear region and returned in 2014 for a painting project on coal ash, hosted by Working Films as part of the Cucalorus Festival.

Despite not knowing the details, Shuford said the trauma carried over into his upbringing in Wilmington.

“The history of this violence lives in people’s bones,” Shuford said. “I became a civil rights lawyer because of the unspoken environment of Wilmington. I felt it in my bones.”

After reading Zucchino’s book, both Lindquist and Shuford saw echoes of 1898’s rhetoric, including the notion the coup was a “return to law and order” — verbiage used in today’s political climate. It led to the 1898 Project’s long-term goal to spark further discussion across racial lines with the billboard being the first step.

“The point is, people need to be reminded what happens when a free and fair election doesn’t happen,” Lindquist said. 

Days before the violent uprising, white supremacist leaders supressed the Black vote at the polls, leading to an artificial shift in power on Election Day.

“The billboard is a monument to that event in 1898. It is a memorial to those people who were killed. It is also a monumental warning of what could happen when voter suppression, intimidation, and violence occurs.”

In addition to growing their virtual book club – which currently is reading “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson — Lindquist and Shuford want to lead a movement to reclaim Wilmington, which was led by a Black-white fusion government before 1898, and create an equal and just society.

“We want to engage people to take part in civic life in Wilmington and push for our hometown to be the best place it could be,” Shuford said. “I think it was stripped from them.”

In addition to the digital billboard, Lindquist produced six hand-painted banners, a call-and-response to the same words on the billboard. The banners hang at the corner of Front and Market streets, an intentional site anchoring the places nearby involved in the 1898 massacre. 

“[It’s] blocks from where the violence in 1898 transpired and a block from David Jacob’s barber shop where on Nov. 9, 1898 the meeting of black men decided Alex Manly, editor of the Daily Record, should flee Wilmington to avoid being hung,” Lindquist said.

Lindquist and Shuford have had some informal conversations with locals in Wilmington, but are trying to figure out how to have conversations about race locally and nationally.

“We know there are antagonistic conversations being had about this,” Lindquist said. “We’re OK with that. Change takes a glacial pace, and art can work well with activism to spur change. This is the beginning of something that will be a lifetime commitment.”

Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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