A large meeting of the white citizens of Wilmington, North Carolina, was held on the 9th of November, 1898. The purpose was to seize control of the city government from blacks, who outnumbered whites by about 17,000 to 8,000 and who had been elected to most public offices.The rioters demanded that the editor of the city's black newspaper take himself and his printing press out of town by 7:00 the following morning. In the ensuing race riot, some ten blacks were killed and three whites injured.The coroner ruled that the blacks had died due to gunfire from unknown parties. All of the city officials resigned and their places were taken by white Democrats.
Wilmington coup and massacre
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Wilmington coup and massacre, political coup and massacre in which the multiracial Fusionist (Republican and Populist) city government of Wilmington, North Carolina, was violently overthrown on November 10, 1898, and as many as 60 Black Americans were killed in a premeditated murder spree that was the culmination of an organized months-long statewide campaign by white supremacists to eliminate African American participation in government and permanently disenfranchise Black citizens of North Carolina. The coup followed on the heels of an election for the county, state, and federal governments that restored a Democratic majority in the state legislature, which set about enacting Jim Crow legislation that disenfranchised Black people in North Carolina for many decades to come.
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Wilmington Ten, 10 civil rights activists who were falsely convicted and incarcerated for nearly a decade following a 1971 riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, over school desegregation. Wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy, the Wilmington Ten—eight African American high-school students, an African American minister, and a white female social worker—were victims of the racial and political turmoil during America’s civil rights era.
Wilmington’s modern racial unrest began when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., canceled his visit to speak at the all-black high school, Williston Senior High School, in Wilmington on April 4, 1968. Instead, he stayed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was then killed. Although April 5 began with peaceful protests of King’s murder by African American high-school students in Wilmington, the following three days were filled with violent rioting that ended only when 150 National Guardsmen occupied the city.
Until 1969 Wilmington had three high schools: all-white New Hanover and Hoggard and the African American Williston Senior High School. Although the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education had struck down the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), many Southern school boards resisted integration for over a decade before it was finally instituted. When desegregation came in the summer of 1969, African American students and teachers were reassigned to New Hanover and Hoggard, while Williston was closed (later to become a desegregated junior high school). The closure of Williston stunned the African American community, which had taken great pride in the school, and the sudden presence of African American students in the formerly all-white schools brought resentment from both sides. African American students who had been active in athletics and clubs at Williston were excluded from such activities at New Hanover and Hoggard. Taunts and attacks resulted in fights, and police presence was constant. The high-school unrest became citywide and grew into rioting and arson, including the burning of the school board’s building.
In January 1971 hundreds of African American students boycotted the schools. The white pastor of Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, Eugene Templeton, offered his integrated church as a gathering place and school alternative. On February 1, 1971, the national United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice sent the young Reverend Benjamin Chavis to Wilmington to organize and provide structure for the students. Chavis delivered fiery speeches denouncing segregation and demanding social justice. Images of Chavis speaking to crowds of African Americans with raised fists dominated local news.
Soon members of a white supremacist group, The Rights of White People (ROWP), a Ku Klux Klan affiliate, arrived. Heavily armed, the ROWP held Klan-like meetings in a public park, ratcheting up tension. African American protesters marched repeatedly to City Hall, requesting a citywide curfew to stop the gunfire that night riders aimed at Gregory Congregational. Curfew was denied.
On February 6, 1971, Mike’s Grocery, a convenience store a few hundred yards from Gregory Congregational, was firebombed. Responding police and firefighters were met with sniper fire, which they returned, killing an African American teenager, 17-year-old Steven Corbett, who was armed with a gun. There was a perception that snipers were in or near the church. The next day a white man with a pistol, Harvey Cumber, was killed in his truck near the church by persons unknown. Rumours of guns, dynamite, and bomb making in Gregory Congregational circulated. Mayor Williams requested assistance from the National Guard and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and a curfew was finally declared.
3. Battle of Blair Mountain
In 1921, the winding hills of southwest West Virginia played host to the largest and bloodiest labor dispute in American history. At the time, the coal-rich region operated under the thumb of powerful mining interests who employed thuggish private detectives to harass any workers who tried to unionize. Tensions boiled over in August 1921, after company agents assassinated a pro-union lawman named Sid Hatfield. In response, as many as 15,000 miners—many of them World War I veterans𠅊rmed themselves and set off to confront the coal tycoons and organize their fellow workers.
When they approached Blair Mountain in Logan County, the army of miners clashed with a force of around 3,000 defenders marshaled by an anti-union sheriff named Don Chafin. As the miners advanced up the mountain, they were met with punishing rifle and machine gun fire, and Chafin’s forces even used a small air force of biplanes to drop explosives and tear gas. The battle raged for several days before federal peacekeeping troops finally arrived on the scene, at which point most of the exhausted miners returned to their homes or surrendered. By then, over 1 million rounds had been fired and an unknown number of men𠅎stimates range from 20 to more than 100—had been killed. The miner’s defeat derailed union activity in the region for over a decade, and some 1,000 workers were later charged with crimes including conspiracy, murder and treason.
The Lost History of an American Coup D’État
Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina are locked in a battle over which party inherits the shame of Jim Crow.
By the time the fire started, Alexander Manly had vanished. That didn’t stop the mob of 400 people who’d reached his newsroom from making good on their promise. The crowd, led by a former congressman, had given the editor in chief an ultimatum: Destroy your newspaper and leave town forever, or we will wreck it for you.
They burned The Daily Record to the ground.
It was the morning of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the fire was the beginning of an assault that took place seven blocks east of the Cape Fear River, about 10 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. By sundown, Manly’s newspaper had been torched, as many as 60 people had been murdered, and the local government that was elected two days prior had been overthrown and replaced by white supremacists.
For all the violent moments in United States history, the mob’s gruesome attack was unique: It was the only coup d’état ever to take place on American soil.
What happened that day was nearly lost to history. For decades, the perpetrators were cast as heroes in American history textbooks. The black victims were wrongly described as instigators. It took nearly a century for the truth of what had really happened to begin to creep back into public awareness. Today, the old site of The Daily Record is a nondescript church parking lot—an ordinary-looking square of matted grass on a tree-lined street in historic Wilmington. The Wilmington Journal, a successor of sorts to the old Daily Record, stands in a white clapboard house across the street. But there’s no evidence of what happened there in 1898.
Conservatives in North Carolina don’t often bring up the Wilmington Massacre. Even many of those North Carolinians who are now aware of it are still reluctant to talk about it. Those who do sometimes stumble over words like insurrection and riot—loaded terms, and imprecise ones.
Not only was it a coup, though the massacre was arguably the nadir of post-slavery racial politics.
That’s why it was so shocking when, on Monday, the state’s GOP executive director, Dallas Woodhouse, openly acknowledged the massacre on Twitter. In response to a tweet from the North Carolina Democratic Party about the Voting Rights Act, Woodhouse criticized what he saw as hypocrisy. “The events of Nov. 10, 1898 were a result of the long-range campaign strategy by Democratic Party leaders to regain political control of Wilmington,” he wrote, “at that time (the) state’s most populous city – and North Carolina in the name of white supremacy.”
Woodhouse may have been more interested in gaining political points than actually probing a painful memory in North Carolinian history. (He didn’t respond to a request for an interview.) But Woodhouse’s version is actually much closer to the truth of what transpired than many other accounts.
A capsule biography of Alfred Moore Waddell—the former member of Congress who led the massacre—from the website of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington exemplifies what some students were long taught:
The Democrats and most white citizens of the State feared a return to the corrupt and financially devastating rule of Republicans as had been experienced during reconstruction in the late 1860s. Waddell led white Wilmingtonians in their effort to shut down a racially inflammatory black newspaper, and then became mayor of Wilmington after the unpopular Republican regime had resigned. As mayor, ‘Waddell quickly restored sobriety and peace, demonstrating his capacity to act with courage in critical times.’ He continued in this office until 1905, leading a responsible and honest government.
That passage was written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is a former chair both of the Cape Fear Museum board, and of the state chapter of the League of the South. While Thuersam’s account diverges sharply from the documentary record, it is instructive in one regard: Thuersam clearly identifies 19th-century Republicans as liberals or “radicals,” and in his writing often identifies 19th-century Democrats simply as “Conservatives.”
According to the historian David S. Cecelski, presenting Waddell as a righteous campaigner for “sobriety and peace” was standard in Wilmington until the 1990s. “I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina 90 miles from Wilmington,” Cecelski says. “I had a book in my middle-school classroom that listed the 12 greatest North Carolinians ever. It included the Wright brothers, Virginia Dare, and then it included three of the people who were the leaders of the white supremacy campaign.”
“For something like Wilmington in 1898,” Cecelski continues, “it’s hard to describe the level of indoctrination. In the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, they bragged about [the coup]. After that, they backed off but it stayed in the history books and they talked about it as an unfortunate but necessary event.”
In fact, part of how historians have pieced together the real story of the Wilmington Massacre is by looking back at newspaper archives—from towns all across North Carolina, not just Wilmington—where similar violence was coordinated that day. “They burned down black newspapers all over the state,” Cecelski says. “They shut down entry to the city from blacks and Republicans . It’s important not to forget that this was a planned thing. This wasn’t two people getting in a fight in a street corner and sparking underlying racial tensions or something like that.”
But state officials solidified their grip on power by promoting that very fiction: They originally called the 1898 incident the “Wilmington Race Riot,” with the implication that the event was instigated by a riot from blacks and quelled by Waddell’s fighters.
After open celebration of white-supremacist violence lost favor, a sort of bland sanitizing of history dominated recollections. That lasted until around the time of the centennial of the massacre, in 1998, when scholars and the descendants of the Wilmington black community that had been nearly destroyed in 1898 began to push for recognition of what really happened. The state’s acknowledgement of its 70-year reign of white supremacy during the “Solid South” period followed the same pattern. Men like Charles B. Aycock, an agitator of the Wilmington riots who three years later was elected governor on a platform of white supremacy, were revered in the state until recently—and, in some cases, still are.
Glenda Gilmore, a North Carolina native and a professor of history at Yale, refers to the whitewashed period as “a 50-year black hole of information.” According to Gilmore, the bloody history of white supremacy was largely unacknowledged in the state’s educational system. “Someone like me, I had never heard the word ‘lynching’ until I was 21,” she says. “This history was totally hidden from white children. And that was deliberate.”
But now that history is being uncovered and spread. Aycock’s legacy has been reconsidered, and the collection of buildings and landmarks named after him in the state has dwindled. The Wilmington Massacre is widely acknowledged as a coup and as a foundational moment in creating a white-supremacist state.
North Carolina Republicans have helped uncover that history as well, although some of their acknowledgments of the legacy of white supremacy have come with partisan strings attached. In 2007, back when he was a first-term state General Assembly representative, Senator Thom Tillis blocked a state resolution formally apologizing for the massacre. He’d supported the nonpartisan resolution with the caveat that it include an amendment from him that “would have acknowledged the historical fact that the white Republican government joined with black citizens to oppose the rioters.” When that amendment failed, the resolution died with it.
Nationally, conservatives have often taken a similar tack embracing long-suppressed bits of historical knowledge about the full scope of white supremacy, so long as they can use them to attack Democrats. The conservative American Civil Rights Union, which is run by members of President Donald Trump’s voter-fraud commission, released a report in 2014 on “The Truth About Jim Crow.” While the report is a cogent and relatively unglossed look at an era in which “we proved ourselves to be as capable of committing great evil as any nation on earth,” the titular “truth” appears not to be the legacy of the era, but “that a great American political party is capable of subordinating the good of the nation and of humanity to its own selfish interest.”
Of course, this kind of weaponization of history is most effective if the Republican and Democratic parties are viewed as unbroken ideological identities dating back to the days of Abraham Lincoln. North Carolina’s own history obliterates that view. Like the rest of the South, the state experienced mass party realignment after the 1960s civil-rights movement, when southern whites began to abandon the Democratic Party.
Former Senator Jesse Helms, another Carolinian folk hero whose legacy is the subject of an ongoing controversy, was central to that realignment. Born and raised a Democrat in the Solid South, Helms switched parties in 1970, two years before his first Senate run. In 1974, Helms remarked of his decision:
The party veered so far to the left nationally, and was taken over by the people whom I’d describe as substantially left of center in North Carolina. And I think I felt, as many other Democrats felt and feel, that really I had no real faith in the party. But I didn’t do anything about it. Changing parties, changing party registration, is like moving from a church. But President Nixon’s speech at Kansas State, I think it was, persuaded me that maybe the Republican party in North Carolina and in the nation had a chance to restore the two party system.
After the New Deal, the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board in 1954, and the civil-rights movement, Helms shepherded white conservatives of the Solid South to the Republican Party but continued the old Democratic Party’s hard line against civil-rights reforms. And his legacy still reverberates within the North Carolina GOP that he helped build.
Partisanship didn’t quite move along the exact same ideological lines in the past, and both parties’ histories indicate a push and pull between North and South, social conservatism and liberalism, economic orientations, populism and authoritarianism, big government and states’ rights, and races. And across those spectra, politicians of all stripes have contributed to enduring racial inequalities. But white social conservatism was undoubtedly the driving force of Democratic white-supremacist regimes in the South, and its reaction to the loss of the hegemony is part of what precipitated the rise of the modern Republican Party.
Whether he intends it or not, Woodhouse’s acknowledgment of the Wilmington massacre is also acknowledgment of how that hegemony was created, and that the political movement to which he belongs can trace its roots back to the murder of black citizens and the violent overthrow of a government they elected. Lost in the fire that destroyed The Daily Record were the lives of black citizens and the spirit of a thriving black community, and also the most promising effort in the South to build racial solidarity. In wielding the memory of the massacre in an attack against the Democrats, Woodhouse runs the risk of implicating his own party in those losses.
But history serves higher purposes than blame. It can be employed in understanding the remnants of that white-supremacist regime today, and learning how to truly defeat the ills of Jim Crow. In honoring the past and the victims of Wilmington, history places the responsibility of racial equality at the feet of all political parties, and all Americans.
Wilmington 1898: When white supremacists overthrew a US government
Following state elections in 1898, white supremacists moved into the US port of Wilmington, North Carolina, then the largest city in the state. They destroyed black-owned businesses, murdered black residents, and forced the elected local government - a coalition of white and black politicians - to resign en masse.
Historians have described it as the only coup in US history. Its ringleaders took power the same day as the insurrection and swiftly brought in laws to strip voting and civil rights from the state's black population. They faced no consequences.
Wilmington's story has been thrust into the spotlight after a violent mob assaulted the US Capitol on 6 January, seeking to stop the certification of November's presidential election result. More than 120 years after its insurrection, the city is still grappling with its violent past.
After the end of the US Civil War in 1865 - which pitted the northern Unionist states against the southern Confederacy - slavery was abolished throughout the newly-reunified country. Politicians in Washington DC passed a number of constitutional amendments granting freedom and rights to former slaves, and sent the army to enforce their policies.
But many southerners resented these changes. In the decades that followed the civil war there were growing efforts to reverse many of the efforts aimed at integrating the freed black population into society.
Wilmington in 1898 was a large and prosperous port, with a growing and successful black middle class. Undoubtedly, African Americans still faced daily prejudice and discrimination - banks for instance would refuse to lend to black people or would impose punishing interest rates. But in the 30 years after the civil war, African Americans in former Confederate states like North Carolina were slowly setting up businesses, buying homes, and exercising their freedom. Wilmington was even home to what was thought to be the only black daily newspaper in the country at that time, the Wilmington Daily Record.
"African Americans were becoming quite successful," Yale University history professor Glenda Gilmore told the BBC. "They were going to universities, had rising literacy rates, and had rising property ownership."
This growing success was true across the state of North Carolina, not just socially but politically. In the 1890s a black and white political coalition known as the Fusionists - which sought free education, debt relief, and equal rights for African Americans - won every state-wide office in 1896, including the governorship. By 1898 a mix of black and white Fusionist politicians had been elected to lead the local city government in Wilmington.
But this sparked a huge backlash, including from the Democratic Party. In the 1890s the Democrats and Republicans were very different to what they are today. Republicans - the party of President Abraham Lincoln - favoured racial integration after the US Civil War, and strong government from Washington DC to unify the states.
But Democrats were against many of the changes to the US. They openly demanded racial segregation and stronger rights for individual states. "Think of the Democratic party of 1898 as the party of white supremacy," LeRae Umfleet, state archivist and author of A Day of Blood, a book about the Wilmington insurrection, told the BBC.
Democratic politicians feared that the Fusionists - which included black Republicans as well as poor white farmers - would dominate the elections of 1898. Party leaders decided to launch an election campaign based explicitly on white supremacy, and to use everything in their power to defeat the Fusionists. "It was a concerted, co-ordinated effort to use the newspapers, speechmakers and intimidation tactics to make sure the white supremacy platform won election in November 1898," Ms Umfleet said.
White militias - including a group known as the Red Shirts, so named for their uniforms - rode around on horseback attacking black people and intimidating would-be voters. When black people in Wilmington tried to buy guns to protect their property, they were refused by white shopkeepers, who then kept a list of those who sought weapons and ammo.
Newspapers meanwhile spread claims that African Americans wanted political power so they could sleep with white women, and made up lies about a rape epidemic. When Alexander Manly, owner and editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, published an editorial questioning the rape allegations and suggesting that white women slept with black men of their own free will, it enraged the Democratic party and made him the target of a hate campaign.
The day before the state-wide election in 1898, Democratic politician Alfred Moore Waddell gave a speech demanding that white men "do your duty" and look for black people voting.
And if you find one, he said, "tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses kill, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns."
The Democratic party swept to victory in the state elections. Many voters were forced away from polling stations at gunpoint or refused to even try to vote, for fear of violence.
But the Fusionist politicians remained in power in Wilmington, with the municipal election not due until the next year. Two days after the state election Waddell and hundreds of white men, armed with rifles and a Gatling gun, rode into the town and set the Wilmington Daily Record building alight. They then spread through the town killing black people and destroying their businesses. The mob swelled with more white people as the day went on.
As black residents fled into the woods outside the town, Waddell and his band marched to the city hall and forced the resignation of the local government at gunpoint. Waddell was declared mayor that same afternoon.
"It [was] a full-blown rebellion, a full-blown insurrection against the state government and the local government," Prof Gilmore said.
Within two years, white supremacists in North Carolina imposed new segregation laws and effectively stripped black people of the vote through a combination of literacy tests and poll taxes. The number of registered African American voters reportedly dropped from 125,000 in 1896 to about 6,000 in 1902.
"Black people in Wilmington didn't think that something like this would ever happen," Prof Gilmore said. "There was a Republican governor in the state, their congressman was a black man. They thought that things were actually getting better. But part of the lesson about it was as things got better, white people fought harder."
Deborah Dicks Maxwell is president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] in Wilmington. Born and raised in the town, she didn't learn about the attack until she was in her thirties.
"It was something that those who are here [in Wilmington] knew but it was not widely talked about," she told the BBC. "It's not in the school curriculum like it should be - no one wants to admit this happened."
It was not until the 1990s that the city began to discuss its past. In 1998 local authorities commemorated the 100th anniversary of the attack, and two years later set up a commission to establish the facts. Since then the city has erected plaques at key points to commemorate the events, and has created the 1898 Monument and Memorial Park - something Ms Dicks Maxwell described as "small but significant".
Given what the city has gone through, it's no surprise that its residents and historians who have covered its past drew parallels between the 1898 insurrection and the attack on the US Capitol this month. Ms Dicks Maxwell and her NAACP branch had for months after the US election been highlighting what they saw as the similarities between what happened in Wilmington and how politicians today in the US were trying to undermine the election results.
"Earlier that day we had a press conference denouncing our local congressman for supporting Trump, [saying] that there would be a possible coup and that we did not want another coup to ever occur in this country," she said. Just hours later the mob marched on the US Capitol.
Christopher Everett is a documentary maker who made a film about the 1898 insurrection, Wilmington on Fire. When Mr Everett saw the attack on the Capitol he thought of Wilmington.
"No one was held accountable for the 1898 insurrection. Therefore it opened up the floodgates, especially in the south, for them to. strip African Americans' civil rights," he told the BBC. "That's the first thing that came to my mind after the DC insurrection - you're opening the door for something else to happen, or even worse."
The 1898 attack was not covered up. University buildings, schools and public buildings throughout the state were all named after the instigators of the insurrection. Men would later claim to have taken part in the attack to boost their stature in the Democratic Party. As the decades passed, history books started to claim the attack was in fact a race riot started by the black population and put down by white citizens.
"Even after the massacre, a lot of these folks who participated in and orchestrated the insurrection became immortalised - statues, buildings named after them, throughout the country, especially in North Carolina," Mr Everett said.
Charles Aycock - one of the organisers of the white supremacy electoral campaign - became governor of North Carolina in 1901. His statue now stands in the US Capitol, which rioters entered on 6 January.
Mr Everett is now filming a sequel to his documentary to examine how Wilmington is grappling with its past. He said many local leaders are working to "bring the city of Wilmington back to the spirit of 1897, when you had this Fusion movement of white folks and black folks working together and making Wilmington an example of what the new south could have been after the civil war."
"Wilmington was a model for the white supremacy movement with the insurrection," he said. "But now Wilmington could also be a model to show how we can work together and overcome the stain of white supremacy as well."
Nov. 10, 1898: Wilmington Massacre
On Nov. 10, 1898, white supremacists murdered African Americans in Wilmington, North Carolina and deposed the elected Reconstruction era government in a coup d’etat.
It was the morning of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the fire was the beginning of an assault that took place seven blocks east of the Cape Fear River, about 10 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. By sundown, [Alex] Manly’s newspaper [The Daily Record] had been torched, as many as 60 people had been murdered, and the local government that was elected two days prior had been overthrown and replaced by white supremacists.
For all the violent moments in United States history, the mob’s gruesome attack was unique: It was the only coup d’état ever to take place on American soil.
Lost in the fire that destroyed The Daily Record were the lives of Black citizens and the spirit of a thriving Black community, and also the most promising effort in the South to build racial solidarity. — Adrienne LaFrance and Vann Newkirk in The Lost History of an American Coup D’État
Marker installed in 2019. Photo by Vince Winkel, WHQR News.
Before the violence, this port city on the Cape Fear River was remarkably integrated. Three out of the ten aldermen were African Americans, and Black people worked as policemen, firemen, and magistrates.
Democrats, the party of the Confederacy, vowed to end this “Negro domination” in the 1898 state legislative elections. Their strategy was to enlist men who could write (white journalists and cartoonists), men who could speak (white supremacists who whipped up emotions at rallies), and men who could ride (the Ku Klux Klan-like “Red Shirts” who were basically armed ruffians on horseback).
Alex Manly, editor. Source: UNC-Chapel Hill.
The white supremacists used an editorial by Alex Manly, the editor of Wilmington’s Black newspaper the Daily Record, to stir a firestorm at the time of the elections. The editorial responded to a speech by a Georgia socialite who promoted lynching as a method “to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beast.”
Manly condemned lynching and pointed out the hypocrisy of describing Black men as “big burly, black brute(s)” when in reality it was white men who regularly raped Black women with impunity. He added that some relations between the races were consensual.
White supremacist rallies kept white outrage at the editorial at a fever pitch. Former Confederate colonel Alfred Waddell gave a speech suggesting that white citizens should “choke the Cape Fear (River) with carcasses” if necessary to keep African Americans from the polls.
On election day, the Red Shirts patrolled Black neighborhoods with guns. Democrats won every seat, but these were state legislative seats. African Americans still maintained power in Wilmington’s city government.
Some 800 white citizens led by Waddell met at the county courthouse and produced the “White Declaration of Independence” which stated: “We, the undersigned citizens… do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.”
The following day — Nov. 10 — Waddell led a mob of 2,000 armed men to the Daily Record and burned the building to the ground.
Armed rioters in front of destroyed press building.
Rumors tore through the Black neighborhoods. The tinderbox ignited at the corner of Fourth and Harnett, where African Americans at Walker’s Grocery Store faced off against white men at Brunje’s saloon. A shot was fired and someone yelled, “White man killed.”
Gunfire erupted. Unarmed Black men scattered in all directions and were gunned down. Violence quickly spread. The Wilmington Light Infantry, the White Government Union, and the Red Shirts poured into the Black neighborhoods with rifles, revolvers, and a Gatling gun.
Wilmington Light Infantry machine gun crew.
As bullets were still flying, Waddell threw out the democratically-elected aldermen and installed his own. This was nothing less than a coup d’état. The hand-picked men “elected” Waddell mayor. Many Black leaders were jailed “for their own safety” and then forcibly marched to the train station under military escort and sent out of town.
After the riot, thousands of Black citizens fled. In 1900, the North Carolina legislature effectively stripped African Americans of the vote through the grandfather clause and ushered in the worst of the Jim Crow laws.
The background text is adapted from a description by Barbara Wright, author of Crow, a book of historical fiction from grades 7+ about the Wilmington Massacre.
Learn from The Lost History of an American Coup D’État in The Atlantic and the documentary film, Wilmington on Fire (see trailer below.)
Read about more massacres in U.S. history. Most of these massacres were designed to suppress voting rights, land ownership, economic advancement, education, freedom of the press, religion, LGBTQ rights, and/or labor rights of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and immigrants. While often referred to as “race riots,” they were massacres to maintain white supremacy.
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The Wilmington Massacre - 1898
The Wilmington Massacre of 1898 was not an act of spontaneous violence. The events of November 10, 1898, were the result of a long-range campaign strategy by Democratic Party leaders to regain political control of Wilmington—at that time state’s most populous city—and North Carolina in the name of white supremacy. In 1894, a Populist and Republican coalition known as Fusionists had won control of the General Assembly and, in 1896, Daniel Russell, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, was elected. Fusionists made sweeping changes to Wilmington’s charter and state government in favor of African Americans and middle class whites. Wilmington sustained a complex, wealthy, society for all races, with African Americans holding elected office and working in professional and mid-range occupations vital to the economy.
The Democratic Party’s 1898 campaign was led by Furnifold Simmons, who employed a three-prong strategy to win the election: men who could write, speak, and “ride.” Men who could write generated propaganda for newspapers. Men such as Alfred M. Waddell and future governor Charles B. Aycock gave fiery speeches to inflame white voters. Men who could ride, known as Red Shirts, intimidated blacks and forced whites to vote for Democratic Party candidates. Democrats from across the state took special interest in securing victory in Wilmington. A group of white businessmen, called the “Secret Nine,” planned to retake control of local government and developed a citywide plan of action.
An editorial by Alex Manly, editor of the Wilmington Record, the city’s African American newspaper became a touchstone of the campaign. Manly’s article challenged white concepts of interracial relationships, and it became a Democratic tool to further anger whites.
Because their campaign was so successful, Democrats won the election in Wilmington and across the state. The next day a group of Wilmington whites passed a series of resolutions requiring Alex Manly to leave the city and close his paper, and calling for the resignations of the mayor and chief of police. A committee led by Waddell was selected to implement the resolutions, called the White Declaration of Independence. The committee presented its demands to a Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC)—prominent local African Americans—and required compliance by the next morning, November 10, 1898.
Waddell met a crowd of men at the Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) Armory the morning of the tenth. Delayed response from the CCC and growing tensions enabled Waddell to organize as many as 2,000 whites to march on the Record printing office, where they broke in and burned the building. By 11:00 a.m., violence had broken out across town at an intersection where groups of blacks and whites argued. Shots rang out and several black men fell dead or wounded—each side claimed the first shot was fired by the other.
During the ensuing rioting, Waddell and others worked to overthrow the municipal government in essence, they staged a coup d’etat. By late afternoon, elected officials had been forced to resign and were replaced by men selected by leading Democrats. Waddell was elected mayor by the newly seated board of aldermen. Prominent African Americans and white Republicans were banished from the city over the next days. Besides the primary target of Alex Manly, men selected for banishment fit into three categories: African American leaders who were open opponents to white supremacy, successful African American businessmen, and whites who benefited politically from African American voting support. No official count of dead can be ascertained due to a lack of records – at least 14 and perhaps as many as 60 men were murdered.
State and federal leaders failed to react to the violence in Wilmington. No federal troops were sent because President William McKinley received no request for assistance from Governor Russell. The U.S. Attorney General’s Office investigated, but the files were closed in 1900 with no indictments. African Americans nationwide rallied to the cause of Wilmington’s blacks and tried to pressure President McKinley into action.
Democrats solidified their control over city government through a new city charter in January 1899. Waddell and the board of aldermen were officially elected in March 1899 with no Republican resistance. The new legislature enacted the state’s first Jim Crow legislation regarding the separation of races in train passenger cars. A new suffrage amendment that disfranchised black voters was added to the state constitution by voters in 1900. The Democratic legislature overturned most Fusionist policies and placed control over county governments in Raleigh. New election laws limited Republican power in the 1900 election. Democrats controlled local and statewide affairs for the next seventy years after victory in 1898.
Inside Wilmington, out-migration following the violence negatively affected the ability of African Americans to recover. Black property owners were a minority of the overall black population before the riot, and property owners were more likely to remain in the city. An African American collective narrative developed to recall the riot and place limits on black/white relationships for future generations. White narratives claimed that the violence was necessary to restore order, and their narrative was perpetuated by most historians.
Wilmington marked a new epoch in the history of violent race relations in the U.S. Several other high profile riots followed Wilmington, most notably Atlanta (1906), Tulsa (1921), and Rosewood (1923). All four communities dealt with the aftermath of their riots differently. Whites in Tulsa and Atlanta addressed the causes and some effects of violence and destruction soon after their events Wilmington whites provided compensation only for the loss of the building housing Manly’s press.
Grade 8: Exploring Life in 1898 Wilmington & the Wilmington Massacre with Crow, a novel for young adults. North Carolina Civic Education Consortium. https://k12database.unc.edu/files/2013/05/1898Crow.pdf
Grade 8: Wilmington Massacre of 1898. North Carolina Civic Education Consortium. https://k12database.unc.edu/files/2020/07/Wilmington1898Coup.pdf
References and additional resources:
1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report, North Carolina Office of Archives and History
Cecelski, David S., and Timothy B. Tyson, eds. 1998. Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot and Its Legacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Crow, Jeffrey J., and Robert F. Durden. 1977. Maverick Republican in the Old North State: A Political Biography of Daniel L. Russell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
East Carolina University. Politics of a Massacre. http://core.ecu.edu/umc/wilmington/
Edmunds, Helen. 1951. The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Prather, H. Leon, Sr. 1998. We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press.
Umfleet, LeRae S. 2009. A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
Latest Opinion & Commentary
“Wilmington was on this rise, economically, politically, the city of Wilmington was on a rise. Largest city in the state and it could have continued in every direction had 1898 not stunted the growth of half of its population,” Umfleet said.
“Into the 20th century, you see other towns in North Carolina start to grow where Wilmington is probably sidetracked on dealing with its internal social issues. Now the white businesses in Wilmington did begin to grow and prosper but the African American community did not. And when you don’t have a balanced growth pattern, things can’t prosper but so much.”
The simple lesson is that everyone pays a cost for white supremacy and violent political unrest. Not merely the moral cost of holding such hate in one’s heart, but the economic cost shared by the suppression of market participation and the accrual of wealth.
Wilmington, with continued full economic participation by Black merchants, professionals and tradesmen, could have been one of the most prosperous cities in the South. And its development of its port might well have made it a more competitive rival to Hampton Roads, if not the preferable destination.
Wilmington’s experience is instructive, and it should help inform how the nation responds to the Jan. 6 coup attempt. Each of us pays a price when we stay silent in the face of hatred, and we risk emboldening the perpetrators and advancing their goals if we do not hold them to account for their actions.
The Wilmington Massacre
Advertisements In early June 2020m a screenshot of the following tweet was shared to Facebook the original tweet asked students in North Carolina to retweet if they hadn’t learned about the “Wilmington Massacre” in history classes:
The tweet and a second comment by the same user read:
N.C. STUDENTS (or honestly any state) rt if you did NOT learn about “The Wilmington Massacre” in school. A group of white men burned down the only black owned newspaper in Wilmy & murdered hundreds. When they threw the bodies in the cape fear river it ran red with blood for days.
This is vital history. I had never even heard of this until a year after I graduated high school. Education is VITAL the TRUTH is vital.
Shares of the tweet on both Twitter and Facebook appeared to indicate that users — from North Carolina or elsewhere — had not learned about a Wilmington Massacre in school. A separate commenter on the thread indicated they too had tweeted about it:
That thread included roughly 32 tweets from @MrHolmesToYou about a series of events in Wilmington in 1898. A commenter on that thread also mentioned the river, but not in an identical context:
The Wilmington Massacre of 1898
NCpedia (“coordinated and managed by the North Carolina Government & Heritage Library at the State Library of North Carolina, a part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources”) featured a detailed entry on the events described in the tweets.
According to that entry, the Wilmington Massacre occurred after an anti-lynching editorial was published by the black-owned and edited Wilmington Daily Record on August 19 1898. NCPedia referenced the content of the editorial as central to the subsequent dispute:
The Wilmington Race Riot of [November 10] 1898 constituted the most serious incident of racial violence in the history of North Carolina. It has been variously called a revolution, a race war, and more accurately a coup d’état. The outbreak stemmed from an editorial published on 18 Aug. 1898 by the Wilmington Daily Record, an African American newspaper edited by Alexander Manly. In response to an appeal for the lynching of black rapists made by crusader Rebecca Felton in Georgia on 11 Aug. 1897, Manly wrote that white women “are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women.”
Moreover, Manly argued, many accusations of rape were simply cases where a black man was having an affair with a white woman. Because it involved the sensitive issue of interracial sexual relations, the editorial struck a raw nerve with many whites and led to bitter denunciations of Manly in the Democratic press.
NCPedia described how a group of white supremacists were engaged in attempts to “regain control” of North Carolina’s government, and that the underlying dispute was “racially inflammatory”:
The entire thrust of the white supremacy campaign, in which the Democrats were attempting to regain control of state government, had been racially inflammatory. It was no surprise that after the Democrats, bolstered by bands of armed Red Shirts, overturned Republican-Populist Fusionist control of the state in the 8 November  election, the Wilmington Democratic Party leadership decided to discipline Manly and take over the city administration.
Two days after the election, Manly and the newspaper were ordered to leave town. Manly had already left Wilmington, though, and a “white mob” attacked and burned the offices of the Daily Record:
An order was issued under the name of Alfred M. Waddell, a former congressman and the Democratic candidate for mayor, that editor Manly leave the city with his press and inform Waddell of the action by 7:30 a.m. on 10 November . Unfortunately, Manly had already left Wilmington and the response by local black leaders to Waddell’s ultimatum did not reach him in time to forestall the subsequent violence.
A white mob of 400-500 people marched on the Daily Record office, smashed the press, and burned down the building. The rioters delayed a black fire company long enough to ensure destruction of the property. Thereafter white bands roamed the city, hunting down Fusionists and indiscriminately shooting into neighborhoods believed to be black political strongholds. Many African Americans fled to the forest outside of town. Waddell, backed by armed men, demanded and received the resignation of the entire city board of aldermen, including Republican mayor Silas P. Wright. Waddell immediately took over as mayor and appointed Democratic aldermen.
The Dubious Distinction of the First American ‘Race Riot’
In December 2014, a Yahoo! article about then-current unrest referenced the Wilmington Massacre as the first “race riot” formally identified as such in American history:
The word “riot” has a long and complicated history in the United States. According to scholar Ben Railton, the origins of the term as applied to racialized unrest date back to November 1898, when white residents of Wilmington, North Carolina brutalized members of the city’s black community. Weeks later, says Railton, “Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate officer and one of the supremacist leaders, wrote ‘The Story of the Wilmington, N.C., Race Riots’ for the popular publication Collier’s. Waddell’s story, accompanied by H. Ditzler’s cover illustration of marauding armed African Americans, led to the designation of the coup and massacre as a ‘race riot,’ a description that has continued to this day.”
Did the Cape Fear River Run Red with Blood for Days?
A particularly evocative portion of the tweet suggested that following the white supremacists’ destruction of the paper, the Cape Fear River “ran red with blood for days.” A 2016 New Yorker article touched on the possible origin of that element of the story, as well as the very approximate death toll of the events of November 10 1898 in Wilmington:
On November 10, 1898, a coup d’état took place on United States soil. It was perpetrated by a gang of white-supremacist Democrats in Wilmington, North Carolina, who were intent on reclaiming power from the recently elected, biracial Republican government, even if, as one of the leaders vowed, “we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” They had a Colt machine gun capable of firing four hundred and twenty .23-calibre bullets a minute. They had the local élite and the press on their side. By the end of the day, they had killed somewhere between fourteen and sixty black men and banished twenty more, meanwhile forcing the mayor, the police chief, and the members of the board of aldermen to resign.
At the end of the article, the author described a memorial erected in Wilmington and the discrepancy between the few records and oral histories of the Wilmington Massacre:
… six paddle-shaped bronze pillars were arranged in a semicircle. They were a monument, conceived of by a committee of local citizens, for the centennial of the coup. “At least ten blacks died, scores more, according to African-American oral tradition,” a panel explained. “Wilmington’s 1898 racial violence was not accidental. It began a successful statewide Democratic campaign to regain control of the state government, disenfranchise African-Americans, and create a legal system of segregation which persisted into the second half of the twentieth century.” Nearby, someone had nailed a piece of plywood high on a telephone pole. Against a hot, blue sky one could just make out the stencilled message: “1898 war crime.”
Wadell was widely quoted as frequently threatening [PDF] to choke the river with dead black residents in the lead-up to the massacre:
Waddell packed an auditorium in Wilmington early in the fall of 1898, where he shared the stage with 50 of the city’s most prominent citizens. White supremacy, he declared, was the sole issue and traitors to the white race should be held accountable. “I do not hesitate to say this publicly,” Waddell proclaimed, “that if a race conflict occurs in North Carolina, the very first men that ought to be held to account are the white leaders of the Negroes who will be chiefly responsible for it. … I mean the governor of this state who is the engineer of all the deviltry.” But his fiery closing, which became the tag line of his standard stump speech that fall, made clear that blacks would bear the brunt of the violence. “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes,” Waddell thundered, “even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
Waddell set the tone and electrified the crowd with his promise to throw enough black bodies into the Cape Fear River to block its passage to the sea.
Decades later, the sentiment persisted in memory and among stated accounts of the Wilmington Massacre the author of the above-quoted piece noted that “an African-American woman told my father, the Rev. Vernon C. Tyson, ‘They say that river was full of black bodies.'”
In the same article about the Wilmington Massacre, its author’s lament remained eerily applicable:
More than a century later, it is clear that the white supremacy campaign of 1898 injected a vicious racial ideology into American political culture that we have yet to transcend fully. Our separate and unequal lives attest to the fact, though much has changed for the better and a a few things have changed for the worse.
But if 1898 has saddled us with its legacy, it also suggests how we might overcome it. Its central lesson is this: Human beings make history. So the mistakes that North Carolinians made in 1898 can be overcome, if we choose.
More Buried History
In the tweet, its author presented the Wilmington Massacre as something not taught in history classes, asking for retweets from people who didn’t learn about the event in school.
We’ve seen similar, accurate claims about concurrent white supremacist violence in the United States, such as “race riots” in Tulsa on that page, we noted that a commission was formed in the year 2000 to ensure the event was not lost to history:
The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ page “1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission” provides a depressingly similar account of efforts more than a century after the fact to ensure the story was not in fact effectively buried by failure to keep records or attempts to bury the violent events in Wilmington.
That description held that a “white mob seized the reins of government” in Wilmington, “destroyed the black-owned newspaper,” and terrorized the black community:
The events of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington were a turning point in North Carolina history. By force, a white mob seized the reins of government in the port city and, in so doing, destroyed the local black-owned newspaper office and terrorized the African American community.
In the months thereafter, political upheaval resulted across the state and legal restrictions were placed on the right of blacks to vote. The era of “Jim Crow,” one of legal segregation not to end until the 1960s, had begun.
Understanding the Impact
In 2000, the General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to develop a historical record of the event and to assess the economic impact of the riot on African Americans locally and across the region and state. Building on earlier scholarly, the commission held public hearings and conducted detailed analyses of the written record, both primary and secondary sources, to create a thorough, 500-page report that sought to achieve the aims outlined above.
A final report was released in May 2006. As such, it stood to reason a lot of people on Twitter likely did not learn about the Wilmington Massacre in history classes, as the history of the massacre was suppressed.
In that tweet, the original poster asked others to retweet if they “did NOT learn about ‘The Wilmington Massacre’ in school,” adding that “a group of white men burned down the only black owned newspaper” in Wilmington, “murdered hundreds,” and that “the cape fear river it ran red with blood for days.” It was true the Wilmington Massacre was underrepresented in history until around 2006, the true death toll was not known, and while we were unable to substantiate claims the Cape Fear River ran red for days, it is a matter of record that white supremacist agitators repeatedly threatened to “choke” it with black bodies.