From Blue Velvet to One Tree Hill, scores of movies & TV shows have been filmed in & around Wilmington, North Carolina. Perhaps the best-known is Dawson’s Creek, the popular late-’90s coming-of-age drama series. While the show tried to tackle progressive storylines, its stark lack of diversity made Dawson’s Creek frequently cited as the whitest show ever. Nearly two decades after it went off the air, tourists still come to Wilmington in search of the show’s landmarks.
But Wilmington has a more difficult, less visible side to its history, politically as well as culturally, going back to the 1700s. Long before North Carolina became one of America’s original 13 colonies, there were thriving Indigenous communities throughout the region. There was also a time when Wilmington’s most famous musician was a man of color, Frank Johnson: fiddler, composer, and bandleader – and one of the biggest stars in American music in the years before the Civil War.
During Reconstruction, Wilmington was an unusually progressive, forward-thinking town. In contrast to the state of things elsewhere in the South, Wilmington elected a racially diverse local government, led by both whites and freed Black people.
That came to an abrupt end in 1898 with a white-supremacist coup, a bloody rampage that left numerous people of color dead and Black-owned businesses destroyed. Those the mob didn’t kill, they chased out of town. That left Wilmington with a mostly white population, an all-white local government – and a whitewashed version of the city’s history in which Black people’s contributions were erased from the official story.
This might seem like ancient history, but it’s not. Wilmington’s most famous native-born musician is probably Charlie Daniels, the country-music star who died in the summer of 2020. Daniels was born in 1936 – less than four decades after that 1898 uprising. The real story of the 1898 coup is finally coming to light in recent years, thanks to works like the 2020 Pulitzer-winning book Wilmington’s Lie. But it’s still not widely known.
In this episode of Carolina Calling, we explore Wilmington – a town that keeps its secrets even as they’re hidden in plain sight – through the life and career of Frank Johnson, whose his story and stardom were all but lost to time – or rather, to the erasing effects of the 1898 massacre on Wilmington’s history.
This episode features John Jeremiah Sullivan, a writer and historian who lives in Wilmington and has written extensively about the city’s music and history for The New Yorker and New York Times magazine, as well as Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens, and musicians Charly Lowry and Lakota John.
Subscribe to Carolina Calling on any and all podcast platforms to follow along as we journey across the Old North State, visiting towns like Durham, Asheville, Shelby, Greensboro, and more.
Music featured in this episode:
Paula Cole – “I Don’t Want To Wait”
“Saraz Handpan C# Minor”
Charlie Daniels – “Long Haired Country Boy”
Traditional – “The Lumbee Song”
Lakota John – “She Caught The Katy”
Ranky Tanky – “Knee Bone”
Lauchlin Shaw, Glenn Glass & Fred Olson – “Twinkle Little Star”
Marvin Gaster, Rich Hartness, Beth Hartness & Harry Gaster – “Rye Straw”
Evelyn Shaw, Lauchlin Shaw, A.C. Overton & Wayne Martin – “Money, Marbles and Chalk”
Marvin Gaster, Rich Hartness, Beth Hartness & Harry Gaster – “Chickens Growing at Midnight”
Rhiannon Giddens w/ Franceso Turrisi – “Avalon”
Rhiannon Giddens w/ Franceso Turrisi – “There Is No Other”
Joe Thompson & Odell Thompson – “Donna Got a Rambling Mind”
The Showmen – “39-23-46”
BGS is proud to produce Carolina Calling in partnership with Come Hear NC, a campaign from the North Carolina Department of Natural & Cultural Resources designed to celebrate North Carolinians’ contribution to the canon of American music.
Portrait of Frank Johnson via the National Portrait Gallery
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