For Orage Quarles, president and publisher of the (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer, confronting the uprising known as the Wilmington Race Riot — and his newspaper’s role in it — was an education.
The 1898 conflagration, sparked by an editorial in a local, black-owned newspaper, resulted in the violent overthrow of an elected, biracial city council which until then presided over the peaceful, prosperous port city. The offending newspaper’s presses were broken up and the offices burned down by a mob of white vigilantes; scores of African Americans were slaughtered and driven from the city forever.
Quarles’ newspaper — and the Daniels family that owned and operated it — played a key role in the riot, an uncomfortable fact that became widely known as the state’s historical commission prepared for the centenary.
Quarles, who ran the paper from 2000 to 2016, is African American. Together with the News & Observer’s editors, in 2006 he commissioned a searing, 16-page special section on Wilmington in 1898, not shrinking from then-owner Josephus Daniels’ particularly sinister part in the uprising.
Quarles, who grew up in San Bernardino, California, said he was fascinated as he learned the story.
“Nothing like that had ever crossed my radar,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Until we did the special section I hadn’t taken the time to take a hard look, a deep dive. I just didn’t have time. I was like, ‘That’s interesting. Let’s hear more about it.’”
At the outset, he was neutral, almost dispassionate.
“I didn’t have feelings one way or another,” he said. “It was just something that happened. I thought it was a very interesting time in the history of the paper and the South and all of the folks that were involved with it.
“Had I been born in the South, gone to segregated schools, I would have had a greater appreciation for what happened,” he said. “I didn’t experience that. So the impact on me if I were born and raised here, lived here all my life … I would have connected with it on a lot deeper basis.”
But the more he thought about the event, the more questions occurred to him.
“I guess like anything that is part of history, you always wonder what happened to the African American editor who was forced to flee?” he wondered of Alexander Manly 1898 Wilmington. “What became of him?”
Also surfaced was the larger racial and historical implication of a Southern, multi-racial democracy that was so brutally crushed.
“What was Wilmington really like when it had a booming economy and people were working together?” he mused. “If (the riot) would never have happened, what would Wilmington be like today? That’s that what I think about – the what ifs. We can’t change what happened – it happened.”
Quarles, now 68, and serving on several local and national boards, including the Freedom Forum, has fond memories of the 16 years he led the paper.
“I’m one of those people who’ve never thought much about race until I’m confronted with it,” he said. “I happen to be African American.”
He said he could remember no unease or hostility from the newsroom staff during the production of the special section.
“There was no color in it,” he said. “I was about producing a really good product that people wanted to read.
”Let’s be honest. We still have racism — it’s part of our society. That’s a fact. But as African Americans we have come a long way. We’ve overcome to many obstacles. The fact that there are three blacks on the North Carolina Supreme Court is a powerful statement in itself, despite racism and people who don’t want it to have happened, it is happened. It’s a fight.”