WILMINGTON, N.C. — This city has a story to tell.
It’s a story of national importance, about the moment Wilmington, North Carolina, and the South turned an ugly corner. And it’s a story that was swept under the rug for 100 years.
In 1898, Wilmington, a prosperous port on the Cape Fear River, was the largest and most important city in North Carolina. It was also the city where African-Americans — former slaves and their descendants — had had the most success. Wilmington had a majority black population and a thriving middle class of black artisans and business owners. It even had a black-owned daily newspaper, The Daily Record.
Wilmington’s black voters had political power as well, electing several African-Americans to local office. That power grew in the 1890s, as economic woes undermined support for the conservative Democratic Party, which was seen as a tool of railroad and banking interests. Angry farmers created the Populist Party, which found common cause on economic issues with the black and reformist whites in the Republican Party. They joined together to back a “Fusionist” ticket, which had great success, winning control of the state legislature in 1894 and the governor’s office in 1896.
The Democrats determined to get back into power, and they weren’t going to win on economic issues. They chose instead to campaign in 1898 under the banner of white supremacy.
It was a campaign of racist shouts and explicit threats, not the “dog whistles” we hear today. Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Congressman from Wilmington, was a leader of the Democrats’ campaign. In his stump speech he declared that “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
Democrat-aligned newspapers warned of “Negro Rule” if the Fusionists won. They beat the traditional drum of racist fear: Black men raping white women. Lynchings were already common in the South, and some leaders promised more. Rebecca Latimer Fenton of Georgia, a prominent speaker and political activist, said on at least one occasion that white Southerners should “lynch a thousand (black men) a week if it becomes necessary” to “protect woman’s dearest possession.”
Alexander Manly, owner and editor of the Daily Record, responded with an editorial that incensed the white supremacists by telling the truth: That white women are sometimes attracted to black men, and that “it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for the white man to be intimate with a colored woman.” Manly knew this from personal experience. The son of a free black couple, was also a direct descendent of a white former North Carolina governor.
The racial incitement of Democratic orators was backed up by organized intimidation, delivered by armed gangs known as Red Shirts. On Election Day, the Red Shirts let blacks and Republicans know that they risked their lives by showing up at the polls. An armed Democrat stood on every Wilmington street corner to underline the message. The intimidation worked, with the help of rampant ballot-stuffing by Democratic poll workers. The Democrats won, and then things got worse.
The day after the election, members of the “Secret Nine” — some of Wilmington’s wealthiest and most influential leaders — unveiled what they called the “White Declaration of Independence.” It demanded the mayor and all elected city officials resign, that all black city employees be fired, that the Daily Record be shut down and Manly banished.
On Nov. 10, they executed their plan. An armed mob, estimated at 2,000 men, marched to the Daily Record office and burned it down. Then they marched to Brooklyn, the African-American neighborhood, and started beating and shooting people. The official count was 10 killed and dozens wounded; other accounts put the death toll at 90 or more. Hundreds of black citizens took cover in the woods until it was safe to grab their things and leave Wilmington for good.
Amid the bloodletting, Waddell and others in the Secret Nine went to City Hall to collect, at gunpoint, the resignations of the mayor, aldermen and police chief. The conspirators then named themselves aldermen and appointed Waddell mayor. They immediately produced a list of political opponents, both white and black, to be banished from Wilmington. Red Shirts rounded them up and escorted them to the railroad station.
It was a coup d’etat, the armed overthrow of a duly elected government, and it’s thought to be the only time that happened in U.S. history.
And it worked. The Democrats had regained control of Wilmington’s government and North Carolina’s politics, and they would hold onto power for the next 70 years, still carrying the flag of white supremacy.
The victors’ first priority was to impose poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that took the vote away from African-Americans. Then they enacted a series of laws restricting black North Carolinians’ rights as citizens and human beings. The state’s brief age of biracial politics was over. The age of Jim Crow had begun.
In Wilmington, the black middle class fled, the city’s elite went back to being pillars of the community, and the actions of 1898 were swept into a memory hole. Mayor Waddell and his media allies called it a “race riot” fomented by blacks and enabled by corrupt Republicans. It was unfortunate, but necessary, for white city leaders to step in with force, they said.
After awhile, they didn’t talk about it at all. Wilmington is packed with historical markers, and until recently none mentioned the events of 1898. People who grew up here, taking all the required state history courses in school, never heard anything about it.
But the memory lived on in Wilmington’s black community, and the facts were there for anyone who looked hard enough. As the 100th anniversary of the events approached, people started telling the story in ever louder voices. It was time, Wilmington’s leaders at last concluded, to recognize the atrocity, memorialize the victims, and move forward together. They organized community forums and revised educational materials. They stopped honoring Waddell and other leaders of the insurrection and massacre.
In response to the new attention, the state commissioned a comprehensive history of the “race riot” of 1898. It concluded it wasn’t a spontaneous riot at all, but a carefully organized assault on the city’s black community and its elected government.
Wilmington now has a handsome memorial just steps from where the most intense fighting took place, featuring four panels recounting what happened. It’s a start. On a telephone pole across the street from the memorial, a hand-painted sign quotes an African proverb: “If the lions do not write their own history, then the hunters will get all the credit.”
Done right, history should bring people together, not drive them apart. From our common roots, Americans absorb values, identity and pride. We learn lessons, both from the achievements of our predecessors and from their mistakes. But it doesn’t work if the stories we tell aren’t true or if, in shame, we don’t tell them at all.
Wilmington today is a growing city in a beautiful part of the country, with a hip, historic downtown along the riverfront that attracts young people, retirees and tourists. It has a story it has just begun to tell.
— Rick Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.