American Heritage Tours
Listen up now, because these guys are pretty soft-spoken.
Al and Harold Beatty run the American Heritage Tour, brothers who got their start about four years ago by taking an African-American history tour down in Charleston. "We came to the realization there was nothing like that here in Wilmington and we decided we would try to provide that," said Al Beatty.
Step one was to engage in some exhaustive research, and they soon discovered black history is harder to find than any other kind. Oral history has been the preferred means of handing stories down through the generations, and it is more prone to error—and harder to find in the reference section—than the usual methods. Also much information has been deliberately suppressed, such as the actual body count after several days of shootings during the 1898 race riots. And much wasn't recorded accurately, if at all, by historians who didn't share that particular perspective.
But they shall overcome. "The public library here is an excellent resource, and we went to UNC at Chapel Hill. I guess we had a lot of tidbits of information and we tried to put it together in a tour format." When it was all compiled, at last they concluded that now they had too much information.
"Initially the tour would have lasted at least three or four hours, and we knew that was way too much to keep people interested. So we've condensed it down to about an hour and a half, and we also put out a lot of information that people might want to come back and research on their own."
Pine Forest Cemetery is a stop on the tour, the black burial ground adjacent to Oakdale Cemetery. "It's totally two diverse cemeteries. We allow our passengers to exit at Pine Forest, where there are restrooms and they can get water. It's not as well kept as Oakdale because private donations keep it up."
They point out Bellamy Mansion, the grandest house in the historic district. "We cover that because of the craftsmen who built it, all of them black artisans who did the plaster and crown molding. And we point out the slave quarters on the back of the building."
Unlike other tour operators, the brothers have a bit of a shortage of vintage residences in the historic district that might tend to validate the existence of prominent black citizens. Instead they refer to historical markers, such as the one for David Walker at North Third and Davis streets, which reads: "His Appeal, influential 1829 pamphlet, denounced slavery. A free black, he grew up in Wilmington, moved to Boston by 1825."
"He was self-taught," Beatty said, "and worked for the Society for the Abolition of Slavery." The "Appeal" mentioned on the marker was "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those in the United States of America." It would have been tough to fit all that on the marker.
"We also talk about the future home of the African-American Museum." That's at 4th and Harnett streets. They visit the First Baptist Church in Campbell Square, St. Stevens AME Church and Chestnut Street Presbyterian. "We talk about health care, and go to the First Community Hospital."
Though the first shots rang out at 4th and Harnett streets, the 1898 memorial is at 3rd Street and Martin Luther King Blvd. "We talk extensively about the race riot and the impact it had on our citizens." He points out that every major city of North Carolina—Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Fayetteville—has a historically black college or institution of higher learning. Wilmington does not. "And that was a direct result of the 1898 riot."
He called it a "brain drain," with so many blacks getting out of town in a hurry, those who "got out of town if they were fortunate." But he adds that the aim of the white supremacists was to "keep the populace uneducated and untrained, and it still has an impact today. Things like that need to be told."
Their touring enterprise has expanded to accommodate charter groups and family reunions, and they'll work out a custom tour for as many people as will fit on the bus. "One of the things that we didn't set out to do was to get wealthy. We wanted to provide an educational component to the community, black and white, but we didn't want to go in the hole either."
The tours operate Friday, 12 and 2 p.m., Saturday, 12 and 2 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. "We do require that people call ahead so that we can schedule a seat." It's a 23-passenger bus, its interior decked out with vintage photos of the various sights to be seen—or imagined. "Either my brother drives or I drive, and one of us narrates."