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Searching for Descendants of Racist Terrorism

Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898: Just after Election Day, white supremacists affiliated with the Democratic Party murder dozens of Black people in the streets and take over the local government. They banish the city’s most successful Black men and a few of their white allies, creating a diaspora that stretches from Washington, D.C. (where Armond Scott will become a municipal judge), to Whitesboro, New Jersey (where Black exiles from Wilmington will create a self-reliant community), and Boston (where Thomas McKeller will pose for John Singer Sargent). Before the coup, Wilmington is a majority-Black city, with about eleven thousand Black residents. Within two years, the city has lost nearly a thousand Black people.

North Aurora, Illinois, 2010: Tim Pinnick, a track-and-field coach, and his wife, Rosemary, a school administrator, start thinking about retirement. They want to live somewhere that’s by the water and not Florida. An amateur genealogist who has written extensively about historical African American newspapers, Pinnick is looking forward to devoting more time to his hobbies. They buy a lot in Wilmington and move there six years later.

Rosedale, Queens, New York, 2017: Hesketh (Nate) Brown, Jr., can tell you that people in his family tend to be extremely good at crossword puzzles, incline toward sobriety, and display a certain assiduousness toward whatever it is they’re doing, whether it be walking four miles to save a dollar bus fare or chopping onions for his great-aunt’s famous lima-bean soup. He doesn’t know much else about his background. When his mother’s three siblings die in quick succession, Brown decides to buy her a subscription to Ancestry.com for Christmas. He sees it as “a leisure thing, a comforting thing, so my mother will be able to see the sides of our family, and it will give her a little more closure.”

Wilmington, North Carolina, 2019: Upon moving to Wilmington, Tim Pinnick finds out about the 1898 massacre. He joins the New Hanover County Community Remembrance Project, which local racial-justice advocates have launched to honor the victims. Eight of their identities are known: Silas Brown, John L. Gregory, Joshua Halsey, William Mazon, Samuel McFarland, John Townsell, Daniel Wright, and a man whose last name was Bizzell. As part of the project, Pinnick and a team of volunteers—working in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative, which seeks to confront the legacy of racial terror nationwide, and using research provided by the Third Person Project—attempt to track down every living descendant of the victims.

Pinnick hangs out in churches to build up his network. “These damn Baptists—I ain’t got time for two and a half hours of your preaching,” he says, laughing. “I favor going to Bible studies in the middle of the week, or Sunday schools.” He’s on Ancestry non-stop. One day, he finds a family tree that Nate Brown has constructed with his mother. It suggests that Brown’s great-great-grandfather was Joshua Halsey. “I’m, like, ‘Yes, this is him,’ ” Pinnick recalls. “I was able to reach out to him, and now I’m playing the waiting game: Is he gonna respond in a couple of days, in a couple of months? Does he even look at his Ancestry account?”

Read entire article at The New Yorker