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Film Screening Sparks Discussion During MLK Week

Students, community members, faculty and staff were invited to watch a screening of Wilmington on Fire, the subject of which is an often-underrepresented part of American history, as a part of this year’s MLK Week celebration.

Following the screening, Ed Onaci, an associate professor of history, and Lynne Edwards, a professor of media and communication studies, led a discussion with the audience.

The 2015 documentary details the background and aftermath of the 1898 Wilmington massacre featured a series of interviews interspersed with images of historical documents and illustrations depicting the events. Many of the interviewees were direct descendants of some of the key players and victims in the attack.

“The idea is that you can’t create a system of enslavement that endures for over two centuries and then expect it to go away overnight, even if the law changes that condition to some extent,” Onaci said during the discussion. “By 1898, these ideas were still around.”

According to the film, the town of Wilmington, North Carolina, was once a prosperous city for black Americans. The economic and political power that many of the black individuals in the city held caused resentment with the white population and there was pushback from white supremacists. Alfred M. Waddell was a former congressman and member of Wilmington’s upper class who became a voice for white supremacists of the time. He led the charge, riling up white men who felt oppressed by the success of the black businesses in town and the power that some black men held with elected positions.

Following the screening, Onaci and Edwards opened the floor for discussion, tackling topics from biases to criticisms and how the documentary portrayed the event. Several members of the audience drew parallels between the political climate featured in the film and the present day.

“We as citizens and humans living in America have been exposed to so many images of violence that there is a certain level of desensitization to the point that even numbers of death are a bit ineffective,” Edwards shared, adding, “We get that number and it’s easier to see it just as a coup d’état and not both a massacre and a coup.” –By Mary Lobo ’15