Teaching the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre using the History Lab Model
Cara Ward and Lisa Brown Buchanan
Instances of racial violence towards Black Americans have a longstanding history in the United States. Though a few events and names are recalled most often in textbooks (e.g., Freedom Rides, Nat Turner) their retellings are generally presented from a White viewpoint; in fact, some events have been completely omitted from formal curriculum. This article discusses the teaching of racial violence in the United States, explores how Black historical principles of power and oppression can frame the study of events of racial violence, and outlines a concrete history lab designed to study the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre (also commonly called the Wilmington Coup or Wilmington Insurrection).
An Overview of the Teaching of Racial Violence
Scholars of teaching Black history have documented the teaching and omission of racial violence towards Black and African Americans for decades (see, for example, Brown, Brown, & Ward, 2017; Busey & Walker 2017; Love, 2019; Vasquez Heilig, Brown, & Brown, 2012). Most research on teaching Black history has focused on PK-12 teaching and knowledge (Woodson, 2017), with some analysis of preservice teachers’ knowledge of Black history (King, 2019). More recently, resources for classroom teachers have become available that are focused on centering the Black experience and perspectives, particularly in experiences of racial violence (see, for example, Learning for Justice’s Teaching Hard History podcast series, New York Times’ 1619 Project, Facing History and Ourselves’ Race in US History collection) and some scholars have described pedagogical approaches to teaching Black history with accuracy and intention in K-12 (Simmons, 2016; Vickery, & Rodríguez, 2021; Vickery & Salinas, 2019).
Some have argued Black history is American history, suggesting a shared legacy between Black and White Americans (King, 2021) which is generally untrue. Others have taken this sentiment to task, pointing out that while the teaching of Black history altogether has been sidelined or disregarded, at best, the teaching of racial violence has been overwhelmingly avoided or if taught at all, with tremendous gaps and inaccuracies (Brown & Brown, 2010a, 2010b, 2011; Woodson, 2017).
In order to improve Black history education historical and contemporary racial violence must be taught as part of American history and Black history (King, 2021). As Brown, Brown, and Ward (2017) explain, classroom investigations of racial violence taught within the context of students’ lives presents a curriculum that “acknowledges race and racism in their present lives.” Using a framework of Black historical consciousness is one way to study racial violence within the context of Black history.
Teaching the Wilmington Race Massacre through Principles of Black Historical Consciousness
Scholars have described the need for teaching a more complete story of Black history (e.g., King, 2021; Muhammad, 2020; Rodríguez & Vickery, 2020) and using a Black historical consciousness framework centers the Black experience and perspective, both largely missing from traditional retellings of Black history. King describes six principles of Black historical consciousness (see King, 2021). While all are in some way directly related to racial violence, in this article, we focus on the principle of power and oppression (King, 2021). King (2021) suggests racial violence as a potential topic for the principle of power and oppression, and similar to our use of the history lab below to examine racial violence, suggests the use of compelling questions that align with interrogating systemic racism. Recognizing that “it is important to understand that Black people have been victims or victimized by oppressive structures, but have never been solely victims (King, 2021, p. 338)” teaching the Wilmington, NC Race Massacre of 1898 through the lens of power and oppression provides a historical context and conscious that is missing in traditional teaching of Black history and illustrates how power and oppression are created and sustained through society (King, 2021, p. 338). Complex ideas like power and oppression are often difficult knowledge for learners, and in concrete examples like the Wilmington Race Massacre, content may be taboo, rendering it obsolete in curricula and standards. Often coined as “hard history”, such content can be taught in powerful and productive ways. We posit that the history lab model, focused on evidence-based answers, offers the structure to unpack complex ideas of power and oppression while identifying the lasting impact of racial violence through the use of historical sources.
History Labs as an Instructional Strategy for Teaching Difficult Knowledge
Teachers are often wary of including instances of “hard history” as these events can be unsettling and spark tense discussions, especially in the current era of political polarization (McAvoy, 2016). In addition to building a cooperative and supportive classroom community before covering such events, there are instructional methods that can lead to productive classroom discussions and a deeper understanding of complex history. One such method is a history lab; first described by Bruce Lesh (2011), this form of instruction includes three main components: a compelling question, sources to examine, and an evidence-based answer. This teaching method is inquiry-based and includes components of Swan, Lee, and Grant’s (2015) Inquiry Design Model which is now widely used in the field of social studies.
To create a history lab, teachers develop an overarching, open-ended question called a compelling question for students to consider. Swan, Lee, and Grant (2018, 2019) have devoted a chapter in each of their books on the Inquiry Design Model to the topic of compelling questions and how to develop them. After question development, teachers select related sources for students to examine, often a mix of primary sources for details and secondary sources for background information and clarification. After presenting the question and sources to students, teachers facilitate the examination of the documents, reminding students to cite evidence from the documents while formulating their answer to the compelling question (Lesh, 2011).
Careful facilitation of discussion is the key to the effectiveness of this teaching method since it is critical for students to cite evidence in their answers. The most effective history labs are structured in ways that allow student interaction and opportunities to share thoughts throughout instead of just working through a “packet” and writing an individual response. An important first step is determining how to have students examine the primary and secondary sources that are presented. This can be done via gallery walks, jigsaw grouping, small group analysis, and whole group seminar style examination (Author, 2017; Author, 2018; Authors, 2020). Creating guiding questions, prompts, or a graphic organizer to help guide students through a lab can also be beneficial.
Another important consideration in the pandemic-induced era of increased online learning is whether a lab will take place synchronously or asynchronously. While the traditional face-to-face classroom setting is ideal, labs can also work well in either the fully virtual or hybrid classroom. Online synchronous methods such as breakout rooms can be used as a method for having small groups examine sources together. Another effective synchronous method is a whole class seminar-style discussion where students can speak one at a time or even use the chat to respond. For asynchronous course delivery, teachers can put the question and sources in a Google Doc or Jamboard and ask students to share thoughts by adding comments. Another option is to use the discussion board feature in a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas for students to respond to individual sources. Teachers can also use video response and sharing tools such as Flipgrid for students to record their evidence-based answer to a compelling question. For hybrid models, teachers can ask students to examine sources ahead of time, using some of the online tools mentioned above, and then use face-to-face time in class for a whole group discussion.
The 1898 Wilmington Massacre
One example of hard history that can be effectively examined through the use of a history lab is the 1898 Wilmington Massacre. November 10, 1898 was a day of horrific racial violence inflicted upon the thriving, successful Black community in the coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina. An election year, 1898 had been filled with White supremacist propaganda in local and state newspapers which ultimately led to intimidation of Black voters and a rigged election in Wilmington on November 8th. Two days later, a White mob armed themselves, burned the office of the local Black newspaper The Daily Record to the ground, and took over the city’s biracial government by violent force. During the chaos, the mob killed approximately 60 Black citizens (likely more as an official death toll was impossible to determine) and forced untold numbers out of town. The mayor and members of the board of aldermen were replaced by White supremacists. The event holds great historic significance not only on a local and state level, but also on a national scale. It is the only successful coup d’état in the history of the United States (McCluskey, 2018; Everett, 2015; Tyson, 2006; Umfleet, 2009) and is an example of the extreme violence and resulting large-scale loss of life that could occur as a result of the rise of angry White supremacists in the Jim Crow era. The 1898 Massacre has been compared to what happened in Tulsa in 1921 (Everett, 2015; Umfleet, 2015) and has been referenced multiple times in coverage of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol (Butler-Arnold, 2021; Cornish, 2021; Hayes, 2021; Ingram, 2021; Meyers, 2021).
The significance of this event is ever-increasing and the economic, social, and political impact is still apparent in Wilmington, NC today. As with other events of racial violence, this event has been largely overlooked and rarely taught, even in North Carolina, due to a lack of information about the event (Everett, 2015). Even the terminology used to describe the event is still evolving – originally called a race riot, in recent years, it has been referred to as an insurrection, massacre, and coup d’état (Fonvielle, 2018; Tyson, 2006; Zucchino, 2020). For all of these reasons, the Wilmington Race Massacre should be taught with middle and secondary students and we believe a history lab is the most appropriate method for studying the event.
A History Lab about the 1898 Wilmington Massacre
We offer the following example of a history lab about 1898 that we developed for students to demonstrate how the work described above can be done. The lab described below can be found at https://tinyurl.com/1898historylab and is formatted as a view-only Google Slides presentation. This format allows teachers who would like to use the lab either a ready-made version that can be used right away or the flexibility to make a copy of the document to edit for their specific instructional needs. The original sources are linked in the speaker notes area for each slide.
While there are many questions that could be asked about this event, we feel that asking students to examine the long-term impact of the 1898 is most critical to their comprehension of the scale and significance of this event. Therefore, our compelling question is “What is the lasting impact of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre?”
In order to introduce the lab, we have included two sources, one primary and one secondary to give students some background information before they begin analyzing sources. The first source (slide 2) is a photograph of the mob in front of the burnt remains of The Daily Record newspaper office. The next source (slide 3) is a 12-minute video published by Vox which gives a brief, but informative summary of the event. These two sources give students some sense of what happened so that they have some frame of reference for the additional sources.
We selected three guiding questions to help direct student thinking and analysis throughout the lab. For each of these questions, we selected three sources for students to examine. In terms of format for this lab, we recommend dividing the class into three groups (1, 2, 3) and having each group thoroughly examine one of the questions and the accompanying sources, thus allowing a group of students to become “experts” on their assigned question. After this analysis, the class should “jigsaw” into three new groups (A, B, C) which each include members from groups 1, 2, and 3. In groups A, B, and C, the representatives for each question should take turns sharing their analysis of their assigned question with the group so all can gain a sense of what happened and begin to consider what the lasting impact is.
What were the events that led to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre?
For this question, we selected a photograph of the waterfront in downtown Wilmington in the late 1800s which shows the prominent display of White supremacy banners (slide 7). We also selected an excerpt from a speech by Rebecca Lattimore Felton during which she endorsed lynching as a punishment for Black men who had relationships with White women (slide 8). The third source we selected for this question was an editorial written by Alexander Manly in response to Felton’s speech where he points out the unjust and hypocritical nature of her stance (slide 9). These sources should give students a glimpse of the extent to which White supremacy impacted daily life and conversations. While all of the sources in the lab are about a violent event, it should also be noted that Felton’s full speech and Manly’s full editorial which are linked include references to rape. We recommend that teachers thoroughly examine all the sources themselves before presenting them to students.
What happened during the event?
The first source for this question is a telegram sent to then President of the United States, William McKinley warning him of the volatile situation in Wilmington (slide 11). The next source is a map marking the location of those wounded and killed during the event (slide 12). The final source for this question is an interactive timeline and map which gives a comprehensive overview of the events (slide 13). These sources outline the seriousness of the situation and how violent it became.
What was the economic and social impact of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre?
We selected three charts from Umfleet’s (2009) book A Day of Blood for students to examine. The first chart compares the 1897 and 1900 occupations by race for Wilmington citizens (slide 15). The second chart shows the census population by race from 1860 to 1910 for Wilmington (slide 16) and the third chart shows the same data for North Carolina (slide 17). These charts show the loss of economic opportunities for Black Wilmingtonians as well as the decline in the city’s Black population.
We recommend concluding this lab with a whole class discussion focusing back on the compelling question: “What is the lasting impact of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre?” and the evidence that students examined in their groups. Students will likely reference the rise of White supremacy, the loss of human life and the impact on population, economic repercussions such as decreased employment for Black citizens, voter intimidation, and lack of Black political leaders in Wilmington in years that followed the event. Since this is an open-ended question, other responses may be offered as well, but students should back up their ideas with evidence from the sources.
Additional Teacher Resources
We understand that most teachers are unfamiliar with the 1898 Wilmington massacre and may need additional resources to improve their content knowledge of this series of events. We suggest the resources in Table 1 for a more in-depth history of the Wilmington Race Massacre. Teachers may find these sources useful as they study 1898 alongside their students.
|Table 1: Additional Teacher Resources for 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre|
|Umfleet, L.S. (2009). A day of blood. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History.|
|Zucchino, D. (2020). Wilmington’s lie. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.|
|Everett, C. (2015). Wilmington on fire [Documentary film]. United States: Speller Street Films.|
|Oliver, N. (2016). The red cape [Motion picture]. United States.|
|Footnote: this lab is available for viewing at https://tinyurl.com/1898historylab (tiny URL view only Google Slides)|
While this lab focuses on the Wilmington Race Massacre, we would be remiss to not recognize the abhorrent number of massacre events in United States history to date similar to 1898. If we are committed to teaching the story of Black America (King, 2021), we must be willing to navigate a more complete story of race and racism in the United States, which we believe includes studying “hard history”. Bringing together a Black historical consciousness framework and history lab structure is one powerful and productive approach to a more complete story of Black history.
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