Bath native chronicles 1898 race riots

Published 9:41 pm Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lifestyles & Features Editor

BATH — A Bath native has written a book about one of the darkest chapters in North Carolina history.
LeRae Sikes Umfleet penned “A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot,” which chronicles the murders of African-Americans in broad daylight and details how the city’s Republican government was overthrown in the process.
Umfleet will speak on the book and her research process during a Bath Community Library event planned for Friday, beginning at 3 p.m. at Bath Christian Church. The public is welcome.
The book was released last fall by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources; ironically, it was published on Nov. 10, the 111th anniversary of the riots.
Umfleet, chief of collections management for the Department of Cultural Resources, said the book is the result of several years of full-time research and writing.
“While I was writing the book, I was a historian in the research branch, and the department was assisting the Wilmington Race Riots Commission in its work to document the causes and effects of the riot,” Umfleet said. “It was a long, drawn-out process to get it edited. This is a difficult subject to cover, a touchy subject.”
Umfleet began her research work in Wilmington and later moved on to the Southern Historical Collection housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I did some very old-fashioned digging that netted letters, drawings and photographs that other researchers had not found,” Umfleet recalled. “I think its the most comprehensive story, but I won’t say it’s the final story. Every time I give a lecture, somebody knows another tidbit about what happened and the aftereffects. There will definitely be new additions later.”
According to a Department of Cultural Resources news release, a series of riots over the quarter-century following the 1898 tragedies led to “ever-tightening controls on blacks as they lost their rights and, in many instances, their lives.”
The riot was neither isolated nor spontaneous, according to the release. Instead, it was the result of a series of events instigated by white businessmen to regain control of government on both local and state levels. The change in government was a result of the riots and ended black participation in local government until the civil-rights era decades later.
“Politicians and rhetoric could stir normally sane people into doing insane things,” Umfleet said of the riots. “The people who were doing the shooting at African-Americans in Wilmington would be appalled at what was happening any other time. That just really scares me about what can stir people to action.”
A 1988 honors graduate from Bath High School, Umfleet earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1991. From 1991 to 1993, she did course work in archival management at North Carolina State University, and she earned a naster’s degree in history from East Carolina University in 1998. Throughout her career, her job titles have included curator, history instructor, research historian and chief of collections management.
She credits her teachers at Bath High School for instilling in her a love of learning and history. Those teachers include Vera Oden, Charles Keyes, Gerald Klas and Rachel Swindell. But the ambience of her hometown contributed to her interests, as well.
“I grew up in Bath so I came by it honestly,” she said with a laugh. “My family has been here since before Saint Thomas Church was built.”
Prior to taking on the subject of the race riots, Umfleet’s primary work involved the colonial and Civil War periods. But the Wilmington tragedy has left its mark on her.
“It will be with me my whole life,” she said quietly.
“A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot” is available for purchase at the Historic Bath State Historic Site gift shop, as well as online through the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.