The Common Word Community Read

The Common Word Community Read brings the UNC Asheville community together each semester around a shared text to engage in a collective educational experience that features lectures and discussions in a welcoming and respectful environment. The program is curated by Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author, alumnus of the class of 2000, and UNCA’s Executive Director of Literary Arts.

Wilmington, North Carolina, is the site of the only successful coup d’état in American history. On 10 November 1898, organized groups of heavily armed white supremacists known as the Red Shirts stormed the city’s thriving Black community. They murdered residents, turned families from their homes, took over businesses, burned the printing press that housed the state’s only daily Black newspaper, and then forced the resignation of the city’s elected officials. Anywhere from a couple dozen to hundreds of Black citizens were murdered, with local White leaders bragging that the Cape Fear River was “choked” with bodies. Thousands of Black citizens fled. Overnight, Wilmington turned from a thriving, Black majority city where the promises of Reconstruction had taken root to a White majority city governed by an unabashed coalition of white supremacists. The massacre was repressed in local, state, and national news, and if it was discussed at all it was recast as a race riot fueled by an unruly Black community that was quelled by armed White leaders.

Despite being born and raised in North Carolina and educated in its public schools and two of its public universities, I didn’t learn about 1898 until I studied under a Black literature professor named Dr. SallyAnn Ferguson in a graduate class at the University of North Carolina Greensboro in 2001. (Similarly, my wife, who was actually raised in Wilmington and educated in its public schools, had never heard of 1898 until she studied under a Black political science professor named Dr. Earl Sheridan at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2004.). Despite going to high school and college in North Carolina, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Zucchino didn’t learn about the massacre either, not until news of its centennial were published in 1998.

Zucchino’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (2021) is the most complete and in-depth account of not only the day of the massacre and the violence that followed, but also the political and media campaign that erupted in days of terror. Zucchino explores how a prominent newspaper publisher worked to disseminate lies and conspiracies with the help of well-connected politicians from Washington DC to Raleigh who were bent on bringing an end to the successes enfranchisement and financial empowerment had brought to Black communities across the state. The massacre in Wilmington was the first domino in a long game to disenfranchisement Black voters, uproot Black citizens, and counteract the economic gains Black North Carolinians had made since the Civil War.

Join us this semester for three lectures about issues ranging from the career of Black author Charles Chesnutt, who wrote a novel about the massacre in 1901 that would destroy his career, to the ways in which political violence and terror continue to work hand-in-hand across the globe. We’ll close the series with an in-conversation event where Wiley Cash will sit down with author David Zucchino to discuss his research, his writing process, and the lessons that a massacre from 1898 can offer us today.