Two Wilmington writers, working with students from two area middle schools, spent a semester preserving a lost part of the Port City’s past.
In January, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel, with support from the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, started working with students from Williston Middle School and the Friends School of Wilmington to find and save copies of the Wilmington Daily Record, a black-owned newspaper.
“Going through the pieces of it was like going through the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Sullivan said.
Their project had its climax on July 11 when Sullivan, Finsel, six of the students and two teachers traveled to the N.C. Digital Heritage Center at the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, their work was photographed by high-resolution cameras for archival preservation.
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The pages will eventually be available through the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” digital series, and through the Digital Heritage Center’s public website, www.digitalnc.org.
Launched by brothers Alex and Frank Manly in the 1890s, the Record angered white supremacists for its forthright editorials during the racially charged 1898 election. On Nov. 10, 1898, as part of the so-called “Wilmington race riot,” the Record’s offices were burned and its printing press destroyed by a white mob. The Manlys, warned of trouble, had escaped town the night before.
Copies and clippings of the Record are very rare, said Sullivan, an essayist and winner of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize and the Whiting Award.
“It was kind of erased from the historical record,” he said.
Finsel noted several items in the Wilmington Morning Star, which supported the white supremacist movement, in which editor W.H. Bernard offered 25 cents for any copies of the Record turned into its office.
Nevertheless, the writers and 12 eighth graders from the two schools — meeting weekly at the Cape Fear Museum — were able to locate seven copies. Historian Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum found three copies in the museum’s collection, donated in the 1970s by Alex Manly’s son Milo. Students, with adult help, were able to locate four other copies online.
An eighth copy, recovered from a local church cornerstone, proved to be unreadable, Sullivan said. Then, the students went to work.
“Each of them got a page (of the newspaper) to transcribe,” Sullivan said. “They learned they had to preserve even the mistakes.”
During weekly sessions, the students also took field trips to Wilmington neighborhoods and African-American churches for background and context. Wilmington photographer Harry Taylor demonstrated how turn-of-the-century cameras and photo developing worked.
The project was part of a new approach to local history curriculum, placing greater emphasis on heroic local figures such as Alex Manly, said Williston instructor Laura Butler, who was one of the supervising faculty.
“The students got so excited,” said Leyna Varnum, another Williston teacher. “They kept going off on different research topics.”
The Record, never more than four pages long, proved to be a lively read, Sullivan said. The newspaper printed railroad schedules, children’s stories and puzzles and items about weddings and funerals as well as editorials and exhortations for readers to vote.
It seemed to have plenty of advertising, from white businesses and well as black-owned ones. The pages provide incredible detail about black life in Wilmington in the 1800s, Sullivan said.
One ad, for example, promoted the Front Street meat market run by Ari Bryant, an African-American butcher, manager of a local baseball team and Republican party activist. Bryant was among the individuals expelled from Wilmington during the riot because he was “looked upon by the negroes (sic) as a high and mighty leader,” according to a white newspaper account of the period.
Some of the advertisements were just amusing, like a cartoon for Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, promising that it “Makes Children Fat as Pigs.”
Sullivan, the Southern editor of the Paris Review, is the author of “Blood Horses” and an anthology of magazine pieces, “Pulphead.” Finsel, who writes frequently on food, drink and art, is author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane.”
The project is still looking for any more copies of the Record that might turn up, Sullivan said. Anyone who finds one is urged to email firstname.lastname@example.org.