David Zucchino and ‘Wilmington’s Lie’

“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay earth like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads. The men scanned the sidewalks and alleyways for targets. They wore red calico shirts or short red jackets over white butterfly collars. They were workingmen, with callused hands and sunburned faces beneath their wide-brimmed hats. Many of them had tucked their trousers into their boottops and tied cartridge belts around their waists. A few wore neckties. Each one carried a gun.”

That is the opening paragraph of “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” by David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the New York Times. (And a Durham resident, UNC grad and N&O alum.) It tells the true story of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. It was a violent coup, actually, by the white power structure over a functioning, multi-diverse city government.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Zucchino returned to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media yesterday to talk about his book with 250 or so students and visitors. He kept us spellbound with this story, which many of us — me included — didn’t know much about. Here is a video of his talk. I grew up in Tulsa, which had its own racist massacre in 1921.

One of the advantages of teaching at Chapel Hill is access to interesting speakers. Zucchino’s talk was free and open to the public. I didn’t know Zucchino at the N&O; he left for the Philadelphia Inquirer the year before I arrived. But his reputation as a reporter and writer was already established. My wife worked with him at the N&O, and we spent some time with him years ago when we were traveling through Philly. So, I’ve followed his work — primarily through his journalism as he’s reported from the Middle East. He’s a master storyteller.

He told me yesterday that he’s itching to get back to Afghanistan, which is his “beat.” There are stories to be told; there are always stories to be told.