Greene on Mulrooney, 'Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina'

Author: 
Margaret M. Mulrooney
Reviewer: 
Robert Greene

Margaret M. Mulrooney. Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018. 374 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5492-6.

Reviewed by Robert Greene (Claflin University) Published on H-SHGAPE (October, 2019) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53662

The realm of public commemoration and memory has become an integral part of southern, and American, history. Books such as David Blight’s Race and Reunion (2001) and Karen Cox’s Dixie’s Daughters (2003) have, for instance, shown the ways in which public memory of the American Civil War and the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” narrative have been shaped intentionally by public forces. At the same time, southern history has never explored so many nooks and crannies of the former Confederacy as it is doing today. Histories about specific southern cities have given readers ample opportunity to understand what makes a city “southern” while also distinguishing it from other “southern” cities. The works on Charleston in recent years, notably Denmark Vesey’s Garden (2018) by Blaine Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle on public history and memory, or Charleston in Black and White (2015) by Steve Estes, about the city’s recent political and social history, have given considerable heft to understanding why that city continues to matter. So it is with Margaret M. Mulrooney’s book, Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina. For Mulrooney, the intersection of memory, race, class, and politics is at the heart of Wilmington’s long and troubled history.

Wilmington’s diverse—and, sometimes, incredibly tragic—history has been told in a number of monographs before. Recently, 2015’s Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s by Kenneth Janken attempted to center Wilmington’s controversial civil rights era history within the larger context of America’s divisive post-1960s political and cultural history. Mulrooney certainly continues that tradition here, albeit looking at the effect of Wilmington’s contentious past on the city’s present. For Mulrooney, Wilmington is a notable and welcome example of how “to illuminate and mitigate the broader power struggle that affects so many public-history projects today” (p. 3). Public history, of course, is not politically or culturally neutral, but Mulrooney argues that Wilmington offers a unique example of the push-and-pull that often comes with public commemoration.

Mulrooney does not come at this subject as someone from outside Wilmington. She details her own interest in Wilmington, born of her work in the attempt in the late 1990s to publicly commemorate the infamous—and, for many white Wilmington citizens and the city government, intentionally misinterpreted—1898 Wilmington racial massacre. The experience, which culminated with an offer to teach at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington being rescinded due to community pressure, taught her several lessons about the proper execution of public history. Public history well done, according to Mulrooney, means “an inclusive approach to the past” which “promote(s) civic engagement and cultural belonging” for everyone (p. 6).

Another key argument of Race, Place, and Memory is Mulrooney’s insistence on public memory being a key feature of Wilmington’s racially discordant history. Public memory in Wilmington has always, at its core, been about crafting a historic narrative that either reinforces the existing power structure or changes it for more inclusivity. For example, enslaved Africans living in Wilmington put on the John Kuner Festival every Christmas. This festival was their attempt to “shift the locus of black civic and racial identity from West Africa to North Carolina,” symbolizing a last gasp attempt for enslaved Africans to hold on to their heritage in Wilmington (p. 31). Likewise, ceremonies held by white Wilmingtonians, such as commemorations of the American Civil War, was their way of holding on to the long-established racial hierarchy of Wilmington.

The memory—or lack of memory—of the 1898 racial massacre in Wilmington is another key case in point for Mulrooney. As soon as the smoke had cleared from the expulsion of Wilmington’s Republican government, city leaders instrumental in the return of a white supremacist regime in Wilmington set about crafting a new “history” of events in the city, blaming the African American community for the disturbance. This narrative lingered in Wilmington’s history, even affecting the ways the event was commemorated in 1998. Mulrooney’s book offers an excellent roadmap to others who wish to write about how public history, memory, and commemoration can be brought together to both uphold, and challenge, long-assumed narratives about the past in cities around the nation. Her use of nontraditional sources, such as Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and David Bryant Fulton’s Hanover, or, the Persecution of the Lowly (1901), both novels by African Americans about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, are illustrative of creative uses of sources. Mulrooney writes, “we can see how novels carried key elements of black Wilmington’s factual counter-narrative to a national audience and became literary monuments to the black victims” (p. 152).

In an age of debate about Confederate memorials and civil rights commemorations, Race, Place, and Memory should push more historians to think about the locales in which public memory is contested ground. Done wrongly, public history leaves out the local community and privileges nondiverse views of the past. An inclusive public history, however, can remind us all of how often the historical is personal—and at best, crafts a community for all to enjoy and remember.

Citation: Robert Greene. Review of Mulrooney, Margaret M., Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53662

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