- Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina by Margaret M. Mulrooney
Margaret M. Mulrooney's Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina is one of the latest additions to the University Press of Florida series Cultural Heritage Studies. Begun in 2005 with Paul A. Shackel as the editor, the series, as this book's back matter explains, was created to "bring together research devoted to understanding the material and behavioral characteristics of heritage" and to explore "the uses of heritage and the meaning of its cultural forms as a way to interpret the present and past." While many of the books in this series focus on archaeology, Mulrooney's work focuses squarely on the intersection of history and memory in Wilmington, North Carolina, and how the community has used public history to reinforce and challenge the master narrative of the city. Mulrooney offers that "the central aim of this book is to use lessons from Wilmington to illuminate and mitigate the broader power struggle that affects so many public-history projects today" (p. 3).
Throughout the book, whenever she uses the term "race riot" in reference to the events of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, Mulrooney places the words in quotation marks because, as she explains, "white and black Wilmingtonians had constructed competing narratives of this event" (p. 1). Mulrooney generally uses the terms coup and massacre to describe what happened in Wilmington in November 1898, giving lie to the master narrative constructed by leading white citizens in the city. Mulrooney's interpretation of the coup and massacre aligns with that of most historians who have studied the events. Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill, 1998), edited by David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson and published as part of the centennial commemoration of the race riot, interpreted the events of 1898 much as Mulrooney has done, as does LaRae Sikes Umfleet's A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (Raleigh, 2009). What is unique about Mulrooney's approach is the lens through which she frames the coup and massacre—that of public history. She provides an extraordinarily detailed account of the long history of race relations in Wilmington, bookended by her own personal experience as a public historian invited to participate in the 1998 centennial commemoration of the event. While Mulrooney is not the first historian to write about the Wilmington "race riot," she may well be the first whose work on the subject actually cost her a job. Her personal involvement in the commemorative events, now twenty years in the past, allows a front-row perspective on the perils and power of public history work.
Race, Place, and Memory is meticulously researched and convincingly argued; however, the centerpiece of the narrative—the coup and massacre—almost gets lost in the very detailed telling of the history of racial and civic identity in Wilmington. Nevertheless, this book is a worthwhile addition to literature on the difficult history of race relations in the United States and reminds readers why that history matters today. As Mulrooney concludes, public history projects "can reshape our neighborhoods, cities, states, and other [End Page 480] places where blacks and whites make shared meaning of the past. At the macro-level, the power of place can reshape race relations and our collective future" (p. 281). This book is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the importance and power of public history in creating a usable past.