The Wilmington insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington massacre of 1898 or the Wilmington coup of 1898, occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Thursday, November 10, 1898. It is considered a turning point in post-Reconstruction North Carolina politics. The event initiated an era of more severe racial segregation and effective disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South, a shift already underway since passage by Mississippi of a new constitution in 1890, raising barriers to voter registration. Laura Edwards wrote in Democracy Betrayed (2000): “What happened in Wilmington became an affirmation of white supremacy not just in that one city, but in the South and in the nation as a whole”, as it affirmed that invoking “whiteness” eclipsed the legal citizenship, individual rights, and equal protection under the law that blacks were guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The white press in Wilmington originally described the event as a race riot caused by blacks. However, over time, with more facts publicized, the event has come to be seen as a coup d’état, the violent overthrow of a duly elected government, by a group of white supremacists. Multiple causes brought it about. It is claimed to be the only such incident in American history, (other late Reconstruction Era violence did not result in a direct ‘coup’ or removal and replacement of elected officials by unelected individuals).
The coup occurred after the state’s white Southern Democrats conspired and led a mob of 2,000 white men to overthrow the legitimately elected local Fusionist government. They expelled opposition black and white political leaders from the city, destroyed the property and businesses of black citizens built up since the Civil War, including the only black newspaper in the city, and killed an estimated 60 to more than 300 people.
In 1860, before the Civil War, Wilmington was majority black and the largest city in the state, with nearly 10,000 people. Numerous enslaved laborers and free people of color worked at the port, in households as domestic servants, and in a variety of jobs as artisans and skilled workers.
With the end of the war, freedmen in many states left plantation and rural areas for towns and cities, not only to seek work but to gain safety by creating black communities without white supervision. Tensions grew in Wilmington and other areas because of a shortage of supplies; Confederate currency had no value and the South was impoverished at the end of the long war.
In 1868, North Carolina ratified the 14th Amendment, resulting in the recognition of Reconstruction, and in the state legislature and governorship falling under Republican rule. Democrats greatly resented this “radical” change, which they deemed as being brought about by blacks, Unionist carpetbaggers, and race traitors. Freedmen were eager to vote, tending to support the Republican Party that had emancipated them and given them citizenship and suffrage.
For a temporary period Confederate veterans were barred from office and voting. Many white Democrats had been embittered since the Confederacy’s defeat. Insurgent veterans joined the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which orchestrated considerable violence at elections in order to suppress the black vote.
Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1870. After the KKK was suppressed by the federal government through the Force Act of 1870, new paramilitary groups arose in the South. By 1874, chapters of Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, had formed in North Carolina.
Democrats developed a plan to reverse “home rule,” meaning local officials would no longer be elected, but appointed by the state. They began circumventing legislation by taking over the state’s judiciary, and adopted 30 amendments to the state constitution including lowering the number of judges on the state supreme court, putting the lower courts and local governments under the control of the state legislature, rescinding the votes of certain types of criminals, mandating segregated public schools, outlawing interracial relationships and granting the General Assembly the power to modify or nullify any local government. By adopting these things, the Democrats became identified as would-be bastions for white Americans. However, their control was largely limited to the western part of the state, within counties where, demographically, there were few blacks.
As the Democrats chipped away at Republican rule, things came to a head with the 1876 gubernatorial campaign of Zebulon B. Vance, a former Confederate soldier and governor. Vance called the Republican Party “begotten by a scalawag out of a mulatto and born in an outhouse.” Through Vance, the Democrats saw their biggest opening to begin implementing their agenda in the eastern part of the state.
However, in that region, poor white cotton farmers, fed up with the capitalism of big banks and railroad companies – high freight rates and laissez-faire economics – aligned themselves with the labor movement. They had turned on the Democratic Party, founding The People’s Party (also known as The Populists). In 1892, as the US plunged into an economic depression, the Populists banded with black Republicans who shared their hardships, forming an interracial coalition with a platform of self-governance, free public education and equal voting rights for black men, called the Fusion Coalition.
In the years that followed, Wilmington, then the largest city in the state, had a majority-black population, with black people accounting for about 55 percent of its roughly 25,000 people. Included were numerous black professionals and businessmen, and a rising middle class.
The Republican Party was biracial in membership. Unlike in many other jurisdictions, black people in Wilmington were elected to local office, and also gained prominent positions in the community. For example, three of the city’s aldermen were black. Of the five members on the constituent board of audit and finance, one was black. Black people were also in positions of justice of the peace, deputy clerk of court, street superintendent, coroners, policemen, mail clerks and mail carriers.
Blacks also held significant economic power in the city. Many former slaves had skills which they were able to use in the marketplace. For example, several became bakers, grocers, dyers, etc., making up nearly 35 percent of Wilmington’s service positions, which was down over 20 percent from 1889.
Black people were moving out of service jobs and into other types of employment, where there was a higher demand for their work, along with higher pay. At the time, black people accounted for over 30 percent of Wilmington’s skilled craftsmen, such as mechanics, carpenters, jewelers, watchmakers, painters, plasterers, plumbers, stevedores, blacksmiths, masons, and wheelwrights. In addition, blacks owned ten of the city’s 11 restaurants, 90 percent of the city’s 22 barbers, and one of the city’s four fish and oysters dealerships. There were also more black bootmakers/shoemakers than white ones, one-third of the city’s butchers were black, and half of the city’s tailors were black. Lastly, two brothers, Alexander and Frank Manly, owned the Wilmington Daily Record, one of the few black newspapers in the state at the time, which was reported to be the only black daily newspaper in the country.
With the help of patronage and equitable hiring practices, a few black people also held some of the most prominent business and leadership roles in the city, such as architect and financier Frederick C. Sadgwar. Thomas C. Miller was one of the city’s three real estate agents and auctioneers, and was also the only pawnbroker in the city, with many whites known to be indebted to him. John C. Dancy replaced a prominent white Democrat as the appointed collector of customs at the Port of Wilmington, in 1897, at a salary of nearly $4,000 (about $113,000 in 2017). The editor of the Wilmington Messenger often disparaged him by referring to Dancy as “Sambo of the Customs House”. Black professionals increasingly supported each other. For example, of the over 2,000 black professionals in Wilmington at the time, more than 95 percent were clergy or teachers, professions where they were not shut out from competing, unlike doctors and lawyers.
With blacks in the area rising out of slavery, racial tensions begin to emerge as they progressed economically, socially, and politically. As former slaves and their children, they had no inherited wealth. With the collapse of the Freedman’s Bank (of the 37 branches, one was in Wilmington), some Wilmington blacks lost much of their savings and, after the experience, most blacks distrusted banks. Freedmen were also leery of debt, as the debt-slave metaphor stuck within the community. In addition, credit or loans available to them were marked up in price. The annual interest rate of credit charged to blacks was nearly 15 percent, compared to under 7.5 percent for poor whites; and lenders refused to let blacks pay off their mortgages in installments. This practice, known as “principal or nothing”, positioned lenders to take over black property and businesses through forced sales. The lack of inherited wealth, limitations of access to credit, and loss of savings through federal mismanagement and fraud, created a combined effect in which blacks “could not save anything”, or otherwise acquire the means, to own taxable property.
Though blacks made up nearly 60 percent of the county’s population, property ownership among them in Wilmington was rare, at just eight percent. Of nearly $6 million in real and personal property taxes, blacks paid less than $400,000 of this amount. And while the per capita wealth for whites in the county was around $550, it was less than $30 for blacks.
Affluent whites believed that they were paying taxes in a disproportionate amount given the amount of property they owned, relative to the city’s blacks, who now held the political power to prevent affluent whites from changing this ratio. Additionally, there was tension with poor, unskilled whites, who competed with blacks in the job market, and found their services in less demand than that of skilled black labor. Blacks were caught between not meeting the expectations of affluent whites, and exceeding the expectations of poor whites, effectively moving too fast and too slow at the same time:
While thus numerically strong, the Negro is not a factor in the development of the city or section. With thirty years of freedom behind him and with an absolute equality of educational advantages with the whites, there is not today in Wilmington a single Negro savings bank or any other distinctively Negro educational or charitable institution; while the race has not produced a physician or lawyer of note. In other words, the Negro in Wilmington has progressed in very slight degree from the time when he was a slave. His condition can be summed up in a line. Of the taxes in the city of Wilmington and the county of New Hanover the whites pay 96 2/3rds per cent; while the Negroes pay the remainder — 3 1/3rds per cent. The Negro in North Carolina, as these figures show, is thriftless, improvident, does not accumulate money, and is not accounted a desirable citizen.— Henry L. West, journalist for The Washington Post, November 1898
This sentiment was echoed even among whites who had aligned politically with blacks:
An impression prevails that these colored people have grown greatly in wealth, that they have acquired homesteads, have become tax-payers and given great promise along these lines. It is not true. In North Carolina they had as fair a chance as in any other Southern State – perhaps better than any other. And here it is sad to hear their frequent boast that they own eight millions of property. This is about three percent, according to the tax list, the total of which shows an amount much less than the actual total values of the State, but this fact does not disturb the proportion between the races. They are thirty percent of the population. After thirty years of opportunity, they have three percent of the property. True, they may claim that this is all net gain as they started with no property. But they did not start with nothing. They started with enormous advantages over whites. They were accustomed to labor. The whites were not. They had been for generations the producers of the State and the whites the consumers. They were accustomed to hardship and privation and patient industry. They had the muscle. If in this thirty years they have only acquired this pittance, where will they be in another thirty years considering that the advantages of their start are largely, if not entirely lost?— Daniel L. Russell, Governor of North Carolina, 1900
Several homes and businesses of successful blacks would sometimes be torched by whites at night. But because blacks had enough economic and political power to defend their interests, socially, things were relatively peaceful.
These dynamics continued with the elections of 1894 and 1896, in which the Fusion party won every statewide office, including the governorship in the latter election, won by Daniel L. Russell. The Fusionists began dismantling the Democrats’ political infrastructure, namely, converting their appointed positions of local offices to offices subject to popular elections. They also began trying to dismantle the Democratic stronghold in the less-populated western part of the state, that allowed the Democrats more political power through gerrymandering. And, they encouraged blacks to vote, which was an estimated 120,000 Republican sympathizers.
By 1898, Wilmington’s key political power was in the hands of “The Big Four”, who were representative of the Fusion party – the mayor, Dr. Silas P. Wright; the acting sheriff of New Hanover County, George Zadoc French; the postmaster, W. H. Chadbourn; and businessman Flaviel W. Fosters, who wielded substantial support and influence with black voters. The “Big Four” worked in concert with a circle of patrons – made up of about 2,000 black voters and about 150 whites – known as “The Ring.” The Ring included about 20 prominent businessmen, about six first- and second-generation New Englanders from families that had settled in the Cape Fear region before the War, and influential black families such as the Sampsons and the Howes. The Ring wielded political power using patronage, money, and an effective press through the Wilmington Post and The Daily Record.
This shift and consolidation of power horrified white Democrats, who contested the new laws, taking their grievances to the state Supreme Court, which did not rule in their favor. Defeated at the polls and in the courtroom, the Democrats, desperate to avoid another loss, became aware of discord between the Fusion alliance of black Republicans and white Populists, although it appeared that the Fusionists would sweep the upcoming elections of 1898, if voters voted on the issues.
The economic issues, on which the Fusion party built its alliance, included:
- Free Coinage: Currency reform was an emotional issue and the Fusionists built a pragmatic political coalition around it. The Coinage Act of 1834 increased the silver-to-gold weight ratio from its 1792 level of 15:1, to 16:1, which set mint price for silver below its international market price. In 1873, due to a change in market dynamics and currency circulation, the Treasury revised the law, which abolished the right of holders of silver bullion to have their metal struck into fully legal tender dollar coins, ending bimetallism in the United States, and placing the nation firmly on the gold standard. Because of this, the act became contentious in later years, and was denounced by people who wanted inflation as the Crime of ’73. The appearance of this was that it hurt poor people, who referred to silver as “the poor man’s money” given its use and circulation among the poor. While state Populist leadership believed its Party was more ideologically aligned with the Democrats, some Populists refused to align with a party that did not support increased coinage of silver.
- 1868 North Carolina Railroad Bonds Scandal: Ever since before the Civil War, the state had been trying to expand the Western North Carolina Railroad, which was incorporated in 1855. The railroad, which was supposed to link Asheville to both Paint Rock, Alabama and Ducktown, Tennessee, saw its construction stalled at Henry Station, a few miles from Old Fort, around 1872, as it was plagued with construction problems in the Blue Ridge Mountains and became insolvent due to underfunding, misappropriation of bonds, and poor management. The state purchased the railroad in June 1875 for $825,000. However, in purchasing the railroad, the state became liable for its nearly $45 million in debts – a substantial amount of that due to fraud because, in 1868, two men had defrauded the state legislature into issuing bonds for the railroad’s western expansion. When Zebulon Vance was re-elected as Governor, he was aware of the economic benefits that the railroad could bring to Asheville. However, there was a conflict of interest in that Vance was from Asheville, and his family owned a lot of land in the area. Vance made the railroad’s completion a personal crusade, so much so that he made some controversial decisions to see its competition through. One such decision was that he was constantly contacted by bondholders for a resolution; however, paying the bondholders would further cost the financially strapped state, which would only further delay the construction of the railroad. So Vance publicly decried the debt, but refused to take any action to resolve it during the rest of his governorship, leaving the bondholders saddled with the debt. He later left office to become a U.S. Senator, and after the railroad was completed, using leased convict labor, he negotiated a sale of the railroad to a private company. After Vance left, the state would issue a complete settlement of less than 15 percent of the roughly $45 million in bonds, leaving bondholders upset. Democrats blamed Republicans for the mishap, as they held legislative power when it happened. However, Fusionists associated railroads with the capitalist greed of Democrats. In addition, many of the Democrats blaming Republicans had voted to authorize the bonds, notably Tom Jarvis.
- Debt Relief: Whites and blacks had differing experiences with debt after the Civil War. For whites, before the War, being in debt invoked undertones of personal moral failings. However, after the War, when most whites were in debt, it created a recognition of a community. The community then began to band together to push for political and economic reforms, and negotiated for favorable rates. Conversely, blacks deemed debt another form of slavery, one that was immoral, and sought to avoid it. They were often subject to high, non-negotiable interest rates. Recognizing that poor whites – who advocated doing away with credit systems altogether, in favor of a “pure-cash” system – had an incentive to keep debt low, and that poor blacks were less well off than poor whites, Fusionists sought a platform to align their interests. By 1892, poor whites were incensed at Zebulon Vance and the Democrats, who had pledged to stand with the Farmers Alliance on the issue of debt but had failed to do anything about the issue. In July 1890, Eugene Beddingfield, an influential member of the North Carolina State Farmers Alliance, had warned Vance about the extent of their anger:
The people are very restless. We are on the verge of a revolution. God grant it may be bloodless … You cannot stand before the tide if it turns in your direction. No living power can withstand it.— Eugene Beddingfield
- With 90 percent of North Carolinians in debt, the Fusionists platform restricted interest rates to 6 percent. In 1895, once in office, the Fusionists successfully passed the measure with about 95 percent of black Republicans and white Populists supporting the measures; however 86 percent of Democrats, who accounted for most of the lending class, opposed it.
1898 “White Supremacy” campaign
In late 1897, nine prominent Wilmington men were unhappy with what they called “Negro Rule”. They were particularly aggrieved about Fusion government reforms that affected their ability to manage, and “game” (fix to their advantage), the city’s affairs. Interest rates were lowered, which decreased banking revenue. Tax laws were adjusted, directly affecting stockholders and property owners who now had to pay a “like proportion” of taxes on the property they owned. Railroad regulations were tightened, making it more difficult for those who had railroad holdings to capitalize on them. Many Wilmington Democrats thought these reforms were directed at them, the city’s economic leaders.
The nine men (the “secret nine”) – Hugh MacRae, J. Allan Taylor, Hardy L. Fennell, W. A. Johnson, L. B. Sasser, William Gilchrist, P. B. Manning, E. S. Lathrop, and Walter L. Parsley – banded together and began conspiring to re-take control of the government.
Around the same time, the newly elected Democratic State Party Chairman, Furnifold Simmons, was tasked with developing a strategy for the Democrats’ 1898 campaign. Simmons knew that in order to win, he needed an issue that would cut across party lines. A student of Southern political history, he knew that racial resentment was easy to inflame.
So Simmons decided to build a campaign around the issue of white supremacy, knowing that the question would overwhelm all other issues. He began working with The Secret Nine, who volunteered to use their connections and funds to advance his efforts. He developed a strategy to recruit men who could “Write, Speak, and Ride.” Writers were those who could create propaganda in the media. Speakers were those who would be powerful orators. And Riders were those who could ride a horse and be intimidating. He also had Tom Jarvis relay a promise to “the large corporations”: if the Democrats won, the party would not raise their taxes.
In March 1898, after realizing that Raleigh News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, which represented both the liberal and conservative wings in the Democratic party, were “together in the same bed shouting ‘nigger'”, Simmons met with Josephus “Jody” Daniels, the editor of the News & Observer, who also had the 21-year-old cartoonist Norman Jennett (nicknamed “Sampson Huckleberry”) on staff, and with Charles Aycock. The men met at the Chatawka Hotel in New Bern, and began planning how to execute the Democratic campaign strategy.
Simmons began by recruiting media outlets sympathetic to white supremacy, such as The Caucasian and The Progressive Farmer, which cynically called the Populists the “white man’s party”, while touting the party’s alliance with blacks. He also recruited aggressive, dynamic, and militant young white supremacists to help his effort. These publications presented blacks as being “insolent,” accused them of exhibiting ill-will and disrespect for whites in public, labeled them as corrupt and unjust, constantly laid claims about black men’s alleged interest in white women, and accused white Fusionists allied with them of supporting “negro domination”.
Simmons summarized the party’s platform when he stated:
North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’S STATE and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of Negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.
On November 20, 1897, following a Democratic Executive Committee meeting in Raleigh, the first statewide call for white unity was issued. Written by Francis D. Winston, it called on whites to unite and “re-establish Anglo-Saxon rule and honest government in North Carolina”. He called Republican and Populist rule anarchy, evil, and apocalyptic, setting a vision for the Democrats to be the saviors – the redeemers – that would rescue the state from “tyranny”.
Alfred M. Waddell
Simmons created a speakers bureau, stacking it with talented orators whom he could deploy to deliver the message across the state. One of those orators was Alfred Moore Waddell, an aging member of Wilmington’s upper class who was a skilled speaker and four-time former Congressman, losing his seat to Daniel L. Russell in 1878.
Waddell remained active after his defeat, becoming a highly sought-after political speaker and campaigner. He positioned himself as a representative of oppressed whites and a symbol of redemption for inflamed white voters. He had developed a reputation as “the silver tongued orator of the east” and as an “American Robespierre.”
In 1898, Waddell, who was unemployed at the time, was also dealing with financial difficulty. His law practice was struggling, and his third wife, Gabrielle, largely supported him through her music teaching. The Chief of Police, John Melton, later testified that Waddell was seeking an opportunity to return to prominence as a politician, in order to “lighten the burden of his wife”.
Waddell aligned with the Democrats and their campaign to “redeem North Carolina from Negro domination”. Melton stated that Waddell, who had been out of public life for while, saw the White Supremacy Campaign as “his opportunity to put himself before the people and pose as a patriot, thereby getting to the feed trough”.
Waddell was “hired to attend elections and see that men voted correctly”. With the aid of Daniels, who would distribute racist propaganda that he later acknowledged helped fuel a “reign of terror” (i.e., disparaging cartoons of blacks) before speeches, Waddell, and the other orators, began appealing to white men to join their cause.
White Supremacy Clubs
White Government Union Constitution. Wilmington Morning Star. 1898
As the fall of 1898 approached, prominent Democrats, such as George Rountree, Francis Winston, and attorneys William B. McCoy, Iredell Meares, and John D. Bellamy, began organizing white supremacy clubs, known as the White Government Union. The clubs demanded that every white man in Wilmington join.
Many good people were marched from their homes … taken to headquarters, and told to sign. Those that did not were notified that they must leave the city … as there was plenty of rope in the city.— Wilmington Alderman, Benjamin F. Keith
Membership in the clubs began spreading throughout the state. The clubs were complemented by the development of a white labor movement created to oppose blacks competing with whites for jobs. The “White Laborer’s Union” got the backing of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and the Merchant’s Association, which vowed to create a “permanent labor bureau for the purpose of procuring white labor for employers”.
The efforts of the white supremacists finally consolidated in August 1898, when Alexander Manly, owner of Wilmington’s only black newspaper, The Daily Record, wrote an editorial responding to a speech supporting lynchings by printing that many white women were not raped by black men, but willingly slept with them. Manly was the acknowledged grandson of Governor Charles Manly and his slave, Corinne. Whites were outraged at Manly’s piece. This provided an opening for Democrats, now calling themselves “The White Man’s Party”, as “evidence” supporting their claims of predatory and emboldened blacks.
For some time, Josephus Daniels had used Wilmington as a symbol of “Negro domination” because its government was biracial, ignoring the fact that it was dominated by a two-thirds white majority. Many newspapers published pictures and stories implying that African-American men were sexually attacking white women in the city. This belief was championed throughout the country following a speech by Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent women’s suffragist, and wife of Georgia populist William H. Felton, at the Georgia Agricultural Society, about the problems farm wives faced. She stressed that, of all the threats farm wives face, there was none greater than “the black rapist”, due to the failure of white men to protect them. She advocated that white men should resort to vigilante justice as a way for them to restore that protection:
When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue – if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts – then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.— Mrs. W. H. Felton, August 11, 1897
In response to Felton’s speech, and the danger it imposed upon black men, 32-year-old Alexander Manly wrote an editorial, refuting it and addressing white women having consensual sex with black men:
A Mrs. Felton from Georgia, makes a speech before the Agricultural Society, at Tybee, Ga., in which she advocates lynching as an extreme measure. This woman makes a strong plea for womanhood and if the alleged crimes of rape were half so frequent as is oftimes reported, her plea would be worthy of consideration.
Mrs. Felton, like many other so-called Christians, loses sight of the basic principle of the religion of Christ in her plea for one class of people as against another …
Mrs. Felton begins well for she admits that education will better protect the girls on the farm from the assaulter. This we admit and it should not be confined to the white any more than to the colored girls. The papers are filled often with reports of rapes of white women and the subsequent lynchings of the alleged rapists. The editors pour forth volumes of aspersions against all Negroes because of the few who may be guilty. If the papers and speakers of the other race would condemn the commission of the crime because it is crime and not try to make it appear that the Negroes were the only criminals, they would find their strongest allies in the intelligent Negroes themselves; and together the whites and blacks would root the evil out of both races.
We suggest that the whites guard their women more closely, as Mrs. Felton says, thus giving no opportunity for the human fiend, be he white or black. You leave your goods out of doors and then complain because they are taken away. Poor white men are careless in the matter of protecting their women, especially on the farms. They are careless of their conduct toward them and our experience teaches us that the women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women. Meetings of this kind go on for some time until the woman’s infatuation, or the man’s boldness, bring attention to them, and the man is lynched for rape. Every Negro lynched is called a “big burly, black brute”, when in fact many … were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them as is very well known to all.
Mrs. Felton must begin at the fountain head if she wishes to purify the stream. Teach your men purity. Let virtue be something more than an excuse for them to intimidate and torture a helpless people. Tell your men 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.
You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in fact you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don’t ever think that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seed – the harvest will come in due time.— Alexander Manly, August 18, 1898
Fearing the backlash of the piece, five prominent black Wilmington Republicans – W. E. Henderson (lawyer), Charles Norwood (Register of Deeds), Elijah Green (Alderman), John E. Taylor (Deputy Collector of Customs) and John C. Dancy (Collector of Customs) – urged Manly to suspend the paper.
However, many whites were appalled at the suggestion of consensual sex between black men and white women. Within 48 hours, white supremacists, aided by newspapers across the South, used Manly’s words – though reprinting incendiary distortions of them – as a championing catalyst for their cause. Waddell, and other orators, began inciting white citizens with sexualized images of black men, insinuating black men’s uncontrollable lust for white women, running newspaper stories and delivering speeches of “black beasts” who threatened to deflower white women.
Following the coup, Felton would later say of Manly:
When the negro Manly attributed the crime of rape to lewd intimacy between negro men and white women of the south, the slanderer should be made to fear a lyncher’s rope rather than occupy a place in newspapers.— Mrs. W. H. Felton, The Lawrence Gazette
Prior to this editorial, The Daily Record had been considered “a very creditable colored paper” throughout the state, that had attracted subscriptions and advertising from blacks and whites alike. However, after the editorial, white advertisers withdrew their support from the paper, crippling its income. His landlord, M. J. Heyer, then evicted him. For his own safety, Manly was forced to relocate his press in the middle of the night. He and supporters moved his entire press from the corner of Water Street and Princess Street to a frame building on Seventh Street between Ann and Nun. He had planned to move to Love and Charity Hall (aka Ruth Hall), on South Seventh Street, but it declined to take him as a tenant because his presence would have greatly increased the building’s insurance rate. Black pastors asked their congregations to step in and purchase subscriptions to help keep Manly’s newspaper solvent, which many black women agreed to do, as they deemed Manly’s paper to be the “one medium that has stood up for our rights when others have forsaken us.”
John C. Dancy would later call Manly’s editorial “the determining factor” of the riot, while Star-News reporter, Harry Hayden, referred to it as “the straw that broke Mister Nigger’s political back.”
Rallying the base
On October 20, 1898, in Fayetteville, the Democrats staged their largest political rally. The Red Shirts made their North Carolina debut, with 300 of them accompanying 22 “virtuous” young white ladies in a parade where cannons were fired and a brass band played. A guest of honor was South Carolina senator, Ben Tillman, who chastised the white men of North Carolina for not yet “killing that damn nigger editor [Manly]”, bragging that Manly would be dead if his editorial had been published in South Carolina, and when it came to blacks, advocating a “shotgun policy.”
Four days later, 50 of the city’s most prominent white men, such as Robert Glenn, Thomas Jarvis, Cameron Morrison and Charles Aycock, who was now the pre-eminent orator of the campaign, packed the Thalian Hall opera house.: Alfred Waddell delivered a speech, declaring that white supremacy was the only issue of importance for white men. He deemed blacks to be “ignorant” and railed that “the greatest crime that has ever been perpetrated against modern civilization was the investment of the negro with the right of suffrage”, and he advocated punishment for race-traitors for enabling it, cementing his call with a blistering closing:
We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.
Waddell’s closing became a rallying cry, for white men and women alike:
This I do not believe for a moment that they will submit any longer it is time for the oft quoted shotgun to play a part, and an active one, in the elections … We applaud to the echo your determination that our old historic river should be choked with the bodies of our enemies, white and black, but what his state shall be redeemed. It has reached the point where blood letting is needed for the health of the commonwealth and when [it] commences let it be thorough! Solomon says ‘there is a time to kill.’ That time seems to have come so get to work … You go forward to your work bloody tho’ it may be, with the heart felt approval of many good women in the State. We say AMEN …— Rebecca Cameron, October 26, 1898
Portions of Waddell’s speech were printed, sent around the state, and “quoted by speakers on every stump.”
“White Supremacy Convention”
After the Thalian Hall speech, on October 28, “special trains from Wilmington” provided discounted train tickets to Waddell, and other white men, to travel across the state to Goldsboro for a “White Supremacy Convention”. A crowd of 8,000 showed up to hear Waddell share the stage with Simmons, Charles Aycock, Thomas Jarvis, and Major William A. Guthrie and the mayor of Durham. Preceding Waddell on the stage, Guthrie declared:
The Anglo Saxon planted civilization on this continent and wherever this race has been in conflict with another race, it has asserted its supremacy and either conquered or exterminated the foe. This great race has carried the Bible in one hand and the sword [in the other]. Resist our march of progress and civilization and we will wipe you off the face of the earth.
Waddell followed by accusing blacks of “insolence”, “arrogance”, which he claimed was overshadowed only by their “criminality”. He insinuated that black men were disrespectful to white women, and blamed the “evils of negro rule” on the white men who had empowered them by “betraying their race”. Once again, he concluded his speech assuring them that white men would banish blacks, and their traitorous white allies, even if they had to fill the Cape Fear River with enough black dead bodies to block its passage to the sea.
Waddell’s speech so inspired the crowd that the Red Shirts left the convention and started terrorizing black citizens and their white allies, in the eastern part of the state, right away. They destroyed property, ambushed citizens with weapon fire, and kidnapped people from their homes and whipped them at night, with the goal of terrorizing them to the point where Republican sympathizers would be too afraid to vote, or even register to do so.
The Populists accused the Democrats of crying “nigger” to distract from the issues, and of attacking the character of good men in order to get elected to office. Several Populists began trying to fight back in the court of public opinion, like Oliver Dockery, who was attacked by John Bellamy at the white supremacy convention:
You may abuse me, if you like, but I want to tell you that you will never make a duck … I cannot close without referring to my opponent, as he has seen fit to attack me.
On the night before the canvassing board met … Sol Weill chartered a boat and, at the hour of midnight, went to South port where convened the canvassing board, all of whom were Democrats, and made the arrangements to throw out the entire Populist vote of this county on the ground that the ballots wore not on white enough paper. And the votes were thrown out. Now Bellamy asks Populists to save him … The man who would steal a man’s vote is a pig … Democrats will not let the negro vote … This should prompt you colored people to stand together with the Populists and your other white friends, until we fasten this honest election law on the State forever …
Can there be a more diabolical scheme than this latest plan of monopoly? What think ye, laborers? Are you ready to march into the trap? Are you ready to surrender your liberties? Can the Hypocrite leaders be anything else except tools or fools? Are you ready to follow them! Progressive-Farmer, when you go to town be tempted. [They] set you up to dinner at the hotel, give you a drink, call you a “good fellow” (too good to be in the “fusion” crowds and in a hundred other ways they will tempt you to tall down and worship the Simmons-Ransom gold bug machine). The Democrats in Tar Heeldom are straining their lungs and using all the big type in the printing of farce to prove that negro domination is what is the matter in North Carolina. But it won’t work not altogether.
Wherein is negro domination responsible for the Democratic judges who have sat on the bench in recent years in a state of beastly intoxication and sentenced innocent men to the penitentiary and allowed rogues and murders to go free? Wherein was negro domination responsible for the lease to the Southern Railway of the North Carolina property which has been denounced as a midnight crime? Wherein is negro domination responsible for the existence of one of [the] greatest trusts of the century which has impoverished the entire state? … Who [has] been responsible for the shameless record of theft and plunder at the state’s capital when the legislature was solidly Democratic? It was because of the infamous proceedings of Democratic misrule and pillage that the Populist party was born. From the ranks of Democracy came every mother’s son of the many thousands of Populists who are righteous in wrath [against] conspirators masquerading as untrammeled Democracy. That is the truth of the whole sorry business. And whenever the Democratic party will purge itself; when it will shake off the bloodsuckers and leeches which have disfigured and disgraced it, there are thousands who will return to its folds … until that glad day comes … [the Democrats must] do something else besides cry “negro domination.— Oliver Dockery, September 9, 1898
However, the Democrats continued to put more pressure on Republican and Populist, leading to candidates being too afraid to speak in Wilmington.
Democrats sought to further capitalize on this fear by making efforts to suppress the Republican ticket in New Hanover County, arguing that a win by any political party opposing the Democrats would guarantee a race riot. They convinced the business community of this outcome:
… [the election] threatens to provoke a war between the black and white races … [that] will precipitate a conflict which may cost hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of lives, and the partial or entire destruction of the city. We declare to you our conviction that we are on the brink of a revolution which can only be averted by the suppression of a Republican ticket.— James Menzies Sprunt to Governor Daniel Russell, October 24, 1898
On November 1, 1898, Dowling led a parade of 1,000 men, mounted on horses, for ten miles, through the black neighborhoods i.e. Brooklyn, of Wilmington. Joining his Red Shirts were the New Hanover County Horsemen and former members of the disbanded Rough Riders, led by Theodore Swann. White women waved flags and handkerchiefs as they passed. The procession ended at the First National Bank Building, which served as the Democratic Party headquarters, where they were encouraged by Democratic politicians in front of big crowds.
The next day, Dowling led a “White Man’s Rally”. Every “able-bodied” white man was armed. Escorted by Chief Marshal Roger Moore, a parade of men began downtown, again marched through black neighborhoods – firing into black homes and a black school on Campbell Square – and ended at Hilton Park where a 1,000 people greeted them with a picnic and free barbecue. A number of defiant speakers followed. For example, future U.S. Representative Claude Kitchin said: “All the soldiers in the United States will not keep white people from enjoying their rights”, and “if a negro constable comes to a white man with a warrant in his hand, he should leave with a bullet in his brain”.
Leading up to the election, these gatherings became daily occurrences; the white newspapers announced the time and place of meetings. Free food and liquor were provided for the vigilantes in order to “fire them up, and make them fiercer and more terrorizing in their conduct”. At night, the rallies took on a carnival-like atmosphere. However, away from the streets, the groups began disrupting black churches, and patrolling the streets as “White Citizens Patrols,” wearing white handkerchiefs tied around their left arms, intimidating and attacking black citizens. The patrons of the white supremacy campaign also supplied them with a new $1,200 ($34,000 in 2017) Gatling gun.
Atmosphere and suppression of black defense
The atmosphere in the city made blacks anxious and tense. Conversely, it made whites hysterical and paranoid.
A number of black men attempted to purchase guns and powder, as was legal, but the gun merchants, who were all white, refused to sell them any. The merchants reported to the clubs on any black person who tried to procure arms. Some blacks tried to circumvent the local merchants by purchasing guns from outside of the state, such as the Winchester Arms Company of New Jersey. However, the manufacturer would refer the request back to their North Carolina state branch, which would then call the order in to the local Wilmington branch. Once the state branch learned from the local branch that the purchasers were black, the state branch would refuse to fill the order. Merchants sold no guns to blacks between November 1 and 10, but later testified that they sold over 400 guns to whites over the same period. The only weapons blacks had were a few old army muskets or pistols.
Newspapers incited people into believing that confrontation was inevitable. Rumors began to spread that blacks were purchasing guns and ammunition, readying themselves for a confrontation. Whites began to suspect black leaders were conspiring in churches, making revolutionary speeches and pleading with the community to arm themselves with bullets, or to create torches from kerosene and stolen white cotton bales.
Alderman, Benjamin Keith wrote:
… [Readers were] believing everything that was printed, as well as news that was circulated and peddled on the streets. The frenzied excitement went on until every one but those who were behind the plot, with a few exceptions, were led to believe that the negroes were going to rise up and kill all the whites.
The Political Director of The Washington Post, Henry L. West, went to Wilmington to cover the White Supremacy Campaign. He wrote:
In Wilmington, I found a very remarkable condition of affairs. The city might have been preparing for a siege instead of an election … All shades of political beliefs were represented: but in the presence of what they believed to be an overwhelming crisis, they brushed aside the great principles that divide parties and individuals, and stood together as one man. When I emphasize the fact, that every block in every ward was thus organized, and that the precautionary meetings were attended by ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, railroad officials, cotton exporters, and, indeed, by the reputable, taxpaying, substantial men of the city, the extent and significance of this armed movement can, perhaps, be realized. It was not the wild and freakish organization of irresponsible men, but the deliberate action of determined citizens … Military preparations, so extensive as to suggest assault from some foreign foe, must have had unusual inspiration and definite purpose. The fiat had gone forth; and it was expected that the Negroes, when they learned that the right of suffrage was to be denied them, would resist. From their churches and from their lodges had come reports of incendiary speeches, of impassioned appeals to the blacks to use the bullet that had no respect for color, and the kerosene and torch that would play havoc with the white man’s cotton in bale and ware house. It was this fear of the Negro uprising in defence of his electorate – of a forcible and revengeful retaliation – that offered an ostensible ground for the general display of arms; but if the truth be told, the reason thus offered was little more than a fortunate excuse. The whites had determined to regain their supremacy; and the wholesale armament was intended to convey to the blacks an earnest of this decision. There would have been rapid-fire guns and Winchester rifles if every church had held a silent pulpit, and every lodge-room where the Negroes met had been empty. White supremacy, therefore, was the magnet that attracted, the tie that bound, the one overwhelming force that dominated everything.
The Democrats hired two detectives to investigate the rumors, including one black detective. However, the detectives concluded that the black residents “were doing practically nothing.” George Rountree would later write that two other black detectives claimed that black women agreed to set fire to their employers homes, and that black men threatened to burn Wilmington down if the white supremacists prevailed in the election. To prevent any black conspiring, the Democrats forbade blacks from congregating anywhere.
Right before the election, the Red Shirts, supported by the White Government Union, were told that they wanted the Democrats to win the election “at all hazards and by any means necessary … even if they had to shoot every negro in the city”. The Red Shirts had so instituted a level of fear among the city’s blacks that, approaching the election, they were “in a state of terror amounting almost to distress”.
The day before the election, Waddell excited a large crowd at Thalian Hall when he told them:
You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared and you will do your duty … Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.
Most blacks and many Republicans did not vote in the November 8 election, hoping to avoid violence, as Red Shirts had blocked every road leading in and out of the city, and drove potential black voters away with gunfire. The Red Shirts were in line with Congressman W. W. Kitchin, who declared, “Before we allow the Negroes to control this state as they do now, we will kill enough of them that there will not be enough left to bury them.”
Governor Russell, who by this point had withdrawn his name from the ballot in the county, decided to come to Wilmington, as it was his hometown, and he thought he might be able to calm the situation. However, when his train arrived, Red Shirts swarmed his train car and tried to lynch him.
When the day was over, Democrats won 6,000 votes, overall, which was sizable given that the Fusion Party won 5,000 votes just two years prior. However, years later, it was determined that the 11,000-vote net increase also strongly suggested a high degree of election fraud. Mike Dowling would support this suggestion when he testified that Democrats spent a lot of time working with the Red Shirts, teaching them deal how to deposit Republican ballots so they could be replaced. The political director of the Washington Post, who was in Wilmington for the election, recounted: “No one for a moment supposes that this was the result of a free and untrammelled ballot; and a Democratic victory here, as in other parts of the State, was largely the result of the suppression of the Negro vote.”
Despite the Democrats’ inflammatory rhetoric in support of white supremacy, and the Red Shirt armed display, the biracial Fusionist government still remained in power in Wilmington.
The night following the election, Democrats ordered white men to patrol the streets, expecting blacks to retaliate. However, no retaliation occurred:
… [A]ll the abuse which has been vented upon them for months they have gone quietly on and have been almost obsequiously polite as if to ward off the persecution they seemed involuntarily to have felt to be in the air … in spite of all the goading and persecuting that has been done all summer the negroes have done nothing that could call vengeance on their heads … “I awoke that [next] morning with thankful heart that the election has passed without the shedding of the blood of either the innocent or the guilty. I heard the colored people going by to their work talking cheerfully together as had not been the case for many days now.— Jane M. Cronly, Wilmington Resident, 1898
[I]t was perfect farce … to be out there in the damp and cold, watching for poor cowed disarmed negroes frightened to death by the threats that had been made against them and too glad to huddle in their homes and keep quiet.— Michael Cronly, Wilmington Resident, 1898
The White Declaration of Independence
The “Secret Nine” had charged Waddell’s “Committee of Twenty-Five” with “directing the execution of the provisions of the resolutions” within a document that they authored, that called for the removal of voting rights for blacks and for the overthrow of the newly elected interracial government. The document was called “The White Declaration of Independence”.
According to the Wilmington Messenger, the “Committee of Twenty-Five” included Hugh MacRae, James Ellis, Reverend J.W. Kramer, Frank Maunder, F.P. Skinner, C.L. Spencer, J. Allen Taylor, E.S. Lathrop, F. H. Fechtig, W.H. Northon, Sr., A.B. Skelding, F.A. Montgomery, B.F. King, Reverend J.W.S. Harvey, Joseph R. Davis, Dr. W.C. Galloway, Joseph D. Smith, John E. Crow, F.H. Stedman, Gabe Holmes, Junius Davis, Iredell Meares, P.L. Bridgers, W.F. Robertson, and C.W. Worth.
On election day, Hugh MacRae (of the “Secret Nine”) had the Wilmington Messenger call for a mass meeting. That evening, the paper published “Attention White Men,” telling all white men to meet at the courthouse the following morning for “important” business.
On the morning of November 9, the courthouse was packed with 600 men of all professions and economic classes. Hugh MacRae sat in front with the former mayor, S. H. Fishblate, and other prominent white Democrats. When Alfred Waddell arrived, MacRae provided him a copy of “The White Declaration of Independence”, which Waddell read to the crowd, “asserting the supremacy of the white man”. He proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution “did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin”, that “never again will white men of New Hanover County permit black political participation”, that “the Negro [should] stop antagonizing our interests in every way, especially by his ballot”, and that the city should “give to white men a large part of the employment heretofore given to Negroes”:
Believing that the Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by an enlightened people; believing that its framers did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin, and believing that those men of the state of North Carolina, who joined in framing the union did not contemplate for their descendants subjection to an inferior race.
We the undersigned citizens of the city of Wilmington and county of New Hanover, do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled, by men of African origin.
This condition we have in part endured because we felt that the consequences of the war of secession were such as to deprive us of the fair consideration of many of our countrymen.
While we recognize the authority of the United States and will yield to it if exerted, we would not for a moment believe that it is the purpose of 60 million of our own race to subject us permanently to a fate to which no Anglo-Saxon has ever been forced to submit.
We, therefore, believing that we represent unequivocally the sentiments of the white people of this county and city, hereby for ourselves, and as representatives of them, proclaim:
- That the time has come for the intelligent citizens of this community owning 95 percent of the property and paying taxes in proportion, to end the rule by Negroes.
- That we will not tolerate the action of unscrupulous white men in affiliating with the Negroes so that by means of their vote they can dominate the intelligent and thrifty element in the community, thus causing business to stagnate and progress to be out of the question.
- That the Negro has demonstrated by antagonizing our interests in every way, and especially by his ballot, that he is incapable of realizing that his interests are and should be identical with those of the community.
- That the progressive element in any community is the white population and that the giving of nearly all the employment to Negro laborers has been against the best interests of this county and city, and is sufficient reason why the city of Wilmington, with its natural advantages, has not become a city of at least 50,000 inhabitants.
- That we propose in the future to give to white men a large part of the employment heretofore given to Negroes because we realize that white families cannot thrive here unless there are more opportunities for employment of the different members of their families.
- That we white men expect to live in this community peaceably; to have and provide absolute protection for our families, who shall be safe from insult or injury from all persons, whomsoever. We are prepared to treat the Negroes with justice in all matters which do not involve sacrifice of the intelligent and progressive portion of the community. But are equally prepared now and immediately to enforce what we know to be our rights.
- That we have been, in our desire for harmony and peace, blinded both to our interests and our rights. A climax was reached when the Negro paper of this city published an article so vile and slanderous that it would in most communities have resulted in a lynching, and yet there is no punishment, provided by the courts, adequate for the offense. We, therefore, owe it to the people of this community and city, as protection against such license in the future, that “The Record” cease to be published and that its editor be banished from this community.
- We demand that he leave the city forever within 24 hours after the issuance of this Proclamation. Second, that the printing press from which “The Record” has been issued be shipped from the city without delay; that we be notified within 12 hours of the acceptance or rejection of this demand.
If the demand is agreed to, we counsel forbearance on the part of the white men. If the demand is refused or no answer is given within the time mentioned, then the editor, Manly, will be expelled by force.
The crowd gave Waddell a standing ovation and 457 signed their names to adopt the proclamation, which would be published in the newspapers, without concealing who they were.
The group then decided to give the city’s black residents 12 hours to comply with it. Manly had already shut his press down and left town when he was alerted, by a white friend, that the Red Shirts were going to lynch him that night. Manly’s friend gave him $25 and told him a password to bypass white guards on Fulton Bridge, as bands of Red Shirts were patrolling the banks, trains, and steamboats. Once Manly, along with his brother Frank, and two other fair-skinned black men, Jim Telfain and Owen Bailey, approached the guards, after escaping through the woods, the guards let them pass. The guards, believing the four men to be white, also invited them to the “necktie party” they were going to that evening for “that scoundrel Manly.” The guards even loaded their buggies with Winchester rifles in case they spotted Manly on their way out of the city.
Waddell’s “Committee of Twenty-Five” summoned the Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC), a group of 32 prominent black citizens, to the courthouse at 6:00 pm. The told the CCC of their ultimatum, instructing them to direct the rest of the city’s black citizens to fall in line. When the black men asked to reason with them, and pleaded that they could not control what Manly did, or what any other black person would do, Waddell responded that the “time had passed for words.”
The black men left the courthouse and went to David Jacob’s barbershop on Dock Street, where they wrote a reply to the committee’s ultimatum:
Disputed “Committee of Colored Citizens” letter to Waddell. November 9, 1898
We, the colored citizens, to whom was referred the matter of expulsion from the community of the person and press of A. L. Manly, beg most respectfully to say that we are in no way responsible for, nor in any way condone, the obnoxious article that called forth your actions. Neither are we authorized to act for him in this manner; but in the interest of peace we will most willingly use our influence to have your wishes carried out.
Lawyer Armond Scott wrote the letter, and was instructed by the committee to personally deliver the response to Waddell’s home, at Fifth and Princess Streets, by 7:30 a.m. the next day, November 10. Scott was afraid, and left the response in Waddell’s mailbox. Scott later claimed that the letter Waddell had published in newspapers was not the letter he wrote. He said that the letter he authored expressed that Manly had ended publication of The Daily Record two weeks before the election, thereby eliminating the “alleged basis of conflict between the races”.
Massacre and coup d’état
When Waddell and the Committee did not receive a response by 7:30 a.m. on November 10 (it is unclear when Waddell checked his mailbox), about 45 minutes later, he gathered about 500 white businessmen and veterans to the Wilmington’s armory. After heavily arming themselves with rifles and the Gatling gun, Waddell then led the group to the two-story publishing office of The Daily Record. They broke into Manly’s building, vandalized the premises, doused the wood floors with kerosene, set the building on fire, and gutted the remains. At the same time, black newspapers all over the state were also being destroyed. In addition, blacks, along with white Republicans, were denied entrance to city centers throughout the state.
Following the fire, the mob of white vigilantes swelled to about 2,000 men. A rumor circulated that some blacks had fired on a small group of white men a mile away from the printing office. White men then went into black Wilmington neighborhoods, destroying black businesses and property and assaulting black inhabitants with a mentality of killing “every damn nigger in sight”.
As Waddell led a group to disband, and drive out, the elected government of the city, the white mob rioted. Armed with shotguns, the mob attacked blacks throughout Wilmington, but primarily in Brooklyn, the majority-black neighborhood.
The small patrols were spread out over the city and continued until nightfall. Walker Taylor was authorized by Governor Russell to command the Wilmington Light Infantry troops, just returned from the Spanish–American War, and the federal Naval Reserves, taking them into Brooklyn to quell the “riot”. They intimidated both black and white crowds with rapid-fire weapons, shooting and killing several black men. Hundreds of blacks fled the town to take shelter in nearby swamps.
As the violence spread, Waddell led a group to the Republican Mayor, Silas P. Wright. Waddell forced Wright, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint. The mob installed a new city council that elected Waddell to take over as mayor by 4 p.m. that day.
Once he was declared mayor, “The Secret Nine” gave Waddell a list of prominent Republicans who he was to banish from the city. The next morning Waddell, flanked by George L. Morton and the Wilmington Light Infantry, marched six prominent black people on the list out of Wilmington; the other blacks on the list had already fled. Waddell put them on a train headed north, in a special car with armed guards who were instructed to take them over the state line. Waddell then gathered the whites on the list and paraded them in front of a large crowd, allowing G. Z. French to be dragged on the ground and nearly lynched from a telephone pole, before he was allowed to board the train and leave the city.
The coup was deemed a “success” for the business elite, with The Charlotte Observer quoting a prominent lawyer who said:
… the business men of the State are largely responsible for the victory … We have tried to win them [the Populists] back by coaxing. In doing this, we have insulted some of the best businessmen in the state … But not so this year. Not before in years have the bank men, the mill men, and the business men in general—the backbone of the property interest of the State—taken such sincere interest. They worked from start to finish, and furthermore they spent large bits of money on behalf of the cause. For several years, this class of men has been almost ignored.
It is estimated that by the end of the day (November 10), Waddell’s orders led to the killing of between 60 and 300 black people, and to the banishment of about 20 more. The Rev. J. Allen Kirk gave this statement about the experience:
It was a great sight to see them marching from death, and the colored women, colored men, colored children, colored enterprises and colored people all exposed to death. Firing began, and it seemed like a mighty battle in war time. The shrieks and screams of children, of mothers, of wives were heard, such as caused the blood of the most inhuman person to creep. Thousands of women, children and men rushed to the swamps and there lay upon the earth in the cold to freeze and starve. The woods were filled with colored people. The streets were dotted with their dead bodies. A white gentleman said that he saw ten bodies lying in the undertakers office at one time. Some of their bodies were left lying in the streets until up in the next day following the riot. Some were found by the stench and miasma that came forth from their decaying bodies under their houses. Every colored man who passed through the streets had either to be guarded by one of the crowd or have a paper (pass) giving him the right to pass. All colored men at the cotton press and oil mills were ordered not to leave their labor but stop there, while their wives and children were shrieking and crying in the midst of the flying balls and in sight of the cannons and Gatling gun. All the white people had gone out of that part of the City, this army of men marched through the streets, sword buckled to their sides, giving the command to fire. Men stood at their labor wringing their hands and weeping, but they dare not move to the protection of their homes. And then when they passed through the streets had to hold up their hands and be searched. The little white boys of the city searched them and took from them every means of defence, and if they resisted, they were shot down … The city was under military rule; no Negro was allowed to come into the city without being examined or without passing through with his boss, for whom he labored. Colored women were examined and their hats taken off and search was made even under their clothing. They went from house to house looking for Negroes that they considered offensive; took arms they had hidden and killed them for the least expression of manhood. They gathered around colored homes, firing like great sportsmen firing at rabbits in an open field and when one would jump his man, from sixty to one hundred shots would be turned loose upon him. His escape was impossible. One fellow was walking along a railroad and they shot him down without any provocation. It is said by an eye witness that men lay upon the street dead and dying, while members of their race walked by helpless and unable to do them any good or their families. Negro stores were closed and the owners thereof driven out of the city and even shipped away at the point of the gun. Some of the churches were searched for ammunition, and cannons turned toward the door in the attitude of blowing up the church if the pastor or officers did not open them that they might go through.
Once installed in the state legislature, in 1899, Democrats, who had accounted for nearly 53 percent of the vote, determined there were two things they could do to retain their power:
- preventing blacks from voting, and
- normalizing a racial hierarchy that allowed poor whites feel empowered over, and antagonistic toward, blacks.
To permanently install “good government by the White Man’s Party”, the “Secret Nine” installed George Rountree in the state legislature to ensure that blacks were kept from voting, and also to keep white Republicans from aligning, politically, with blacks again. On January 6, 1899, Francis Winston introduced a suffrage bill to keep blacks from voting. Rountree went on to chair a special joint committee overseeing the disenfranchisement amendment, a committee that existed to circumvent the U.S. Constitution which, in fact, granted blacks the right to vote.
The legislature passed a law requiring new voters to pay a poll tax, and passed a state constitutional amendment requiring prospective voters to demonstrate, to local elected officials, that they could read and write any section of the Constitution – practices that discriminated against poor whites, and more than 50,000 black men. However, to make sure that as few poor whites as possible would be hurt by the law, and prevented from voting Democrat, Rountree invoked a “Grandfather clause”. The clause guaranteed the right to register and vote, bypassing the literacy requirement, if the voter, or a voter’s lineal ancestor, was eligible to vote in his state of residence prior to January 1, 1867. This excluded practically any black man from voting. Rountree was bragged of his work:
The chief reason for my accepting the nomination in ’98 to the legislature was to see if I could do something to prevent a re-occurrence of the 1898 political upheaval by affecting a change in the suffrage law … I, as chairman, did all the work.
The clause remained in effect until 1915, when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.
Ushering in “Jim Crow”
The Democrats also set about passing its first racial hierarchy laws, prohibiting blacks and whites from sitting together on trains, steamboats, and in courtrooms, and even requiring blacks and whites to use separate Bibles. Nearly every aspect of public life was codified to separate poor whites and blacks.
These laws, a direct result of the brief political alliance between blacks and poor whites, not only encouraged whites to see black people as outcasts and pariahs, but also rewarded them for doing so, socially and psychologically. This contributed to voluntary separation, whereas whites and blacks lived close to one another prior to 1898 in Wilmington; however, the following year, physical segregation increased between blacks and whites throughout the state, with home value, social status and quality of life improving for whites, the further they physically lived away from blacks. This essentially lessened political democracy in the area, and enhanced oligarchical rule by the descendants of the former slaveholding class.
Through 1908, Democrats in other southern states began following North Carolina’s example by suppressing the black vote, through disenfranchisement laws or constitutional amendments, of their own. They also passed laws mandating racial segregation of public facilities, and martial law-like impositions on African Americans. The US Supreme Court (at the time) upheld such measures.
Election of 1900
Two years after the coup, the Democrats again ran on “negro domination” with disenfranchisement of blacks on the ballot. Gubernatorial candidate Charles Aycock (one of the campaign’s orators) used what happened at Wilmington as a warning to those who dared to challenge the Democrats. He stated that disenfranchisement would keep the peace. When the votes in Wilmington were counted, only twenty-six people voted against black disenfranchisement, demonstrating the political effect of the coup.
“Race riot” Historical recounting
On November 26, 1898, Collier’s Weekly published an article in which Waddell wrote about the government overthrow. The article, “The Story of The Wilmington, North Carolina, Race Riots” included the first known use of the term “race riot”.
Despite vowing to “choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses”, and the fact that some members of the white mob posed for a photograph in front of the charred remnants of The Daily Record, in the article Waddell painted himself as a reluctant, non-violent leader – or accidental hero – “called upon” to lead under “intolerable conditions”. He painted the white mob not as murderous lawbreakers, but as peaceful, law-abiding citizens who simply wanted to restore law and order. He also portrayed any violence committed by whites as either being accidental or executed in self-defense, effectively laying blame on both sides:
Demand was made for the negroes to reply to our ultimatum to them [to destroy the black newspaper and leave town forever, or have it destroyed/be removed by force], and their reply was delayed or sent astray (whether purposely or not, I do not know), and that caused all the trouble. The people came to me. Although two other men were in command, they demanded that I should lead them. I took my Winchester rifle, assumed my position at the head of the procession, and marched to the “Record” office. We designed merely to destroy the press. I took a couple of men to the door, when our demand to open was not answered, and burst it in. Not I personally, for I have not the strength, but those with me did it.
We wrecked the [newspaper] house. I believe that the fire which occurred was purely accidental; it certainly was unintentional on our part …
I then marched the column back through the streets down to the armory, lined them up, and stood on the stoop and made a speech to them. I said: “Now you have performed the duty which you called on me to lead you to perform. now let us go quietly to our homes, and about our business, and obey the law, unless we are forced, in self-defense, to do other wise.” I came home … In about an hour, or less time, the trouble commenced over in the other end of town, by the negroes starting to come over here. I was not there at the time …
Then they got seven of the negro leaders, brought them downtown, and put them in jail. I had been elected mayor by that time. It was certainly the strangest performance in American history, though we literally followed the law, as the Fusionists made it themselves. There has not been a single illegal act committed in the change of government. Simply, the old board went out, and the new board came in – strictly according to law. In regard to those men who had been brought to the jail a crowd said that they intended to destroy them; that they were the leaders, and that they were going to take the men out of the jail … I stayed up the whole night myself, and the forces stayed up all night, and we saved those wretched creatures’ lives.
I waited until next morning at nine o’clock and then I made the troops form a hollow square in front of the jail. We placed the scoundrels in the midst of the square and marched them to the railroad station. I bought and gave them tickets to Richmond, and told them to go and to never show up again. That bunch were all negroes …
The negroes here have always professed to have faith in me. When I made the speech in the Opera House they were astounded. One of the leaders said: “My God! when so conservative a man as Colonel Waddell talks about filling the river with dead niggers, I want to get out of town!” Since this trouble many negroes have come to me and said they are glad I have taken charge …
As to the government we have established, it is a perfectly legal one. The law, passed by the Republican Legislature itself, has been complied with. There was no intimidation used in the establishment of the present city government. The old government had become satisfied of their inefficiency and utterly helpless imbecility, and believed if they did not resign they would be run out of town …
I believe the negroes are as much rejoiced as the white people that order has been evolved out of chaos.
Although individuals of both races pointed to Democrat-backed violence as the driver behind the incident, the national narrative largely cast black men as aggressors, legitimizing the coup as a direct result of black aggression. For example, The Atlanta Constitution justified the violence as a rational defense of white honor, and a necessary response against the “criminal element of the blacks”, furthering stereotypes of black violence.
The complex reasons for the coup were overlooked in Waddell’s account, which disregarded the overthrow as a carefully planned conspiracy, established the historical narrative as the coup being an event that “spontaneously happened”, and helped usher in the Solid South. Complemented by Hugh Ditzler’s illustration depicting blacks as gun-welding aggressors, Waddell and Ditzler effectively defined and illustrated the term “race riot”, and set the precedent for its application which is still used today.
It was referred to that way by the North Carolina Legislature in 2000 when it set up the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, and is the term used to this day (2018) by the State Archives of North Carolina, North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and the State Library of North Carolina, in its online NCPedia.
“Massacre” vs. “Insurrection”
Waddell’s Harper’s Weekly account framed the violence, and the coup, with a “noble” narrative, comparing the events to the cause of the “Men of the Cape Fear” during the American Revolution. For many whites, the gallant framing remained, as the perpetrators of the coup were deemed to be “revolutionary” heroes who led a “insurrection” against a “riotous” black menace. For example, immediately, following the coup, the coup participants began reshaping the language of the events. For example, William Parsley, a former Confederate Lieutenant-Colonel, wrote of Wilmington’s blacks:
… every blessed one of them [blacks] had a pistol of some sort and many of them rifles and shotguns loaded with buckshot.
Supporting that account, Mr. Kramer, a white Wilmington alderman, added:
In the riot, the Negro was the aggressor. I believe that the whites were doing God’s service, as the results for good have been felt in business, in politics and in Church.
Conversely, the black survivors and community maintained that the event was a “massacre”. A survivor of the incident, who fled the city, Rev. Charles S. Morris, told his account of the event before the International Association of Colored Clergymen in January 1899:
Nine Negroes massacred outright; a score wounded and hunted like partridges on the mountain; one man, brave enough to fight against such odds would be hailed as a hero anywhere else, was given the privilege of running the gauntlet up a broad street, where he sank ankle deep in the sand, while crowds of men lined the sidewalks and riddled him with a pint of bullets as he ran bleeding past their doors; another Negro shot twenty times in the back as he scrambled empty handed over a fence; thousands of women and children fleeing in terror from their humble homes in the darkness of the night … crouched in terror from the vengeance of those who, in the name of civilization, and with the benediction of the ministers of the Prince of Peace, inaugurated the reformation of the city of Wilmington the day after the election by driving out one set of white office holders and filling their places with another set of white office holders – the one being Republican and the other Democrat. All this happened, not in Turkey, nor in Russia, nor in Spain, not in the gardens of Nero, nor in the dungeons of Torquemada, but within three hundred miles of the White House, in the best State in the South, within a year of the twentieth century, while the nation was on its knees thanking God for having enabled it to break the Spanish yoke from the neck of Cuba. This is our civilization. This is Cuba’s kindergarten of ethics and good government. This is Protestant religion in the United States, that is planning a wholesale missionary crusade against Catholic Cuba. This is the golden rule as interpreted by the white pulpit of Wilmington.
Revisionists dispute the white supremacist aspect of the event often by 1) denying the culpability of the white actors and 2) framing the cause of the white actors as noble.
Arguments that deny culpability, such as equating blame onto blacks, shifts blame away from the white actors and places it onto black residents and their white allies. “Noble” arguments stress that the white actors were not bad people, but honorable souls who were only fighting for “law and order”. By not recognizing that the white actors sought “law and order” through criminality and violence, the goodness, valor and values of their ancestors remain affirmed.
The branding of the event as a “riot”, “insurrection”, “rebellion”, “revolution”, or “conflict”, largely remained until the late 20th century due to the accounts of black survivors being minimized, ignored and omitted – as with The Daily Record destroyed, there were no media outlets to provide recorded accounts of blacks – and due to the South’s adoption of Jubal Early’s literary and cultural point of view of The Lost Cause, in which violence perpetuated by whites, across The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era, evolved into a language of vindication and renewal.
The narrative of The Lost Cause allowed the North and the South to emotionally re-unify. It brought sentimentalism, by political argument, and recurrent celebrations, rituals and public monuments that allowed Southern whites to reconcile their regional pride with their Americanness. It also provided conservative traditions and a model of masculine devotion and courage in an age of gender anxieties and ruthless material striving. However, historians have argued that the reunion was of the North and the South was “exclusively a white man’s phenomenon and the price of the reunion was the sacrifice of the African Americans”.
A Gatling gun, and an armed mob, fired upon people prevented from arming themselves. However, the dissonance over the nomenclature of this fact, between blacks and whites, caused controversy about how to address its historical retelling, and also how to deal with the effects of the event’s outcome.
1998 Centennial Commission
By the early 1990s, different groups in the city told and understood different histories of the events, sparking interest to discuss and commemorate the coup, following efforts to recognize similar atrocities in which white-led mobs destroyed the black communities, such as in Rosewood and Tulsa, respectively.
In 1995, informal conversations began among the African-American community, UNC-Wilmington’s university faculty, and civil rights activists in order to educate residents about what really happened on that day, and to agree on a monument to memorialize the event. On November 10, 1996, the town of Wilmington held a program inviting the community to help make plans for the 1998 Centennial Commemoration. Over 200 people attended, including local state representatives and members of the city council. Some descendants of the white supremacy leaders of 1898 were opposed to any type of commemoration.
In early 1998, Wilmington planned a series of “Wilmington in Black and White” lectures, bringing in political leaders, academic specialists and civic rights activists, as well as facilitators such as Common Ground. George Rountree III attended a discussion held at St. Stephen’s A.M.E. Church, attracting a large crowd, as his grandfather was one of the leaders of the 1898 violence. Rountree spoke of his personal support for racial equality, of his relationship with his grandfather, and of his refusal to apologize for his grandfather’s actions as “the man was the product of his times”. Other descendants of the coup’s participants also said they owed no apologies, as they had no part in their ancestors’ actions.
Many listeners argued with Rountree about his position and refusal to apologize. Some said that, “although he bore no responsibility for those events, he personally had benefited from them”. Kenneth Davis, an African American, spoke of his own grandfather’s achievements during those times, which Rountree’s grandfather and others had “snuffed out” by their violence. Davis said that the “past of Wilmington’s black community … was not the past Rountree preferred”.
1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission
In 2000, the state legislature, recognizing that the black community had suffered severely, politically and economically, following the coup, especially due to state disenfranchisement and Jim Crow, created the 13-member, biracial, 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to develop a historical record of the event and to assess the economic impact of the riot on blacks locally and across the region and state, co-chaired by state legislator Thomas E. Wright.
The Commission studied the riot for nearly six years, after hearing from numerous sources and scholars. The Commission produced a lengthy report on the event, authored by state archivist LeRae Umfleet, on the event, finding that the violence “was part of a statewide effort to put white supremacist Democrats in office and stem the political advances of black citizens…. ‘Essentially, it crippled a segment of our population that hasn’t recovered in 106 years,’ said Harper Peterson, former mayor of Wilmington and commission member.” According to Umfleet, “massacre”, rather than “riot”, “does apply. That’s a big strong word. But that’s what it was.”
The commission made broad recommendations for reparations by government and businesses that would benefit not only African-American descendants, but also the entire community. The Commission recommended 10 bills to the North Carolina Legislature, to correct the century-old damage with reparations for victims’ descendants through economic and business development, scholarships, and other programs. The Legislature did not pass any of them.
Historians noted that the Raleigh News & Observer had contributed to the riots by publishing inflammatory stories, in addition to the results of the elections in Wilmington. This encouraged white men from other parts of the state to travel to Wilmington, to take part in the attacks against blacks, including the coup d’état. Articles in the Charlotte Observer have also been cited as adding to the inflamed emotions. The Commission asked the newspapers to make scholarships available to minority students and to help distribute copies of the commission report. The commission “also asked that New Hanover County, which includes the city, be placed under special federal supervision through the Voting Rights Act”, to ensure that current voter registration and voting are conducted without discrimination.
Reply from League of the South
In 2005, the League of the South, a white supremacist group “known for opposing civil rights laws and defending the right to display the Confederate flag”, set up a web site, “1898 Wilmington”. Under the name of “1898 Wilmington Institute for Education & Research”, they spoke of “Reconstruction horror”. What is “sometimes labeled a race riot or rebellion” was actually the actions of law-abiding white Democrats rescuing the city from Republican and carpetbagger corruption, compounded by ignorant, misled negroes who were in no way capable of voting intelligently. They quoted white supremacist governor Charles Aycock, who was “passionately interested in good government”, on “the menace of negro suffrage”: “[T]he only hope of good government in North Carolina, and the other Southern States, rested upon the assured political supremacy of the white race”. It quotes approvingly the pro-lynching spokeswoman Rebecca Felton, claims that blacks did not lose any property as a result of the riot, and blames the entire conflict on Alexander Manly, carpetbaggers, and other Republicans.
The group’s Web site disappeared in 2013.
Several commemorations of the event have taken place:
- Former Star-News reporter, Harry Hayden, released a romanticized accounting of the overthrow in his 1936 pamphlet, The Story of the Wilmington Rebellion, in which he rebranded the event a “Revolution” that had saved North Carolina from Reconstruction. Conversely, Helen G. Edmonds addressed the riot in her 1951 work, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901, writing: “In reality, the Democrats effected a coup d’etat.” As the predominant view of the time reflected the Dunning School’s disparagement of Reconstruction, and white historians commonly referred to the events as a “race riot”, equally attributing blame to blacks, Edmonds assessment of the events was overlooked by many.
- In November 2006, the News and Observer, deeming the coup as being “a giant shadow hanging over it”, issued a Special Feature fully acknowledging its role as a leader in that coup’s propaganda effort under Josephus Daniels. The same year, saying that it “wanted to be the right side of history”, The Charlotte Observer issued an editorial with a full apology for its role in the coup:
We apologize to the black citizens and their descendants whose rights and interests we disregarded and to all North Carolinians, whose trust we betrayed by our failure to fairly report the news and stand firm against injustice.
- In January 2007, the North Carolina Democratic Party officially acknowledged and renounced the actions by party leaders during the Wilmington insurrection and the white supremacy campaigns.
- In April 2007 Representatives Wright, Jones and Harrell introduced House Bill #1558, the “1898 Wilmington Riot Reconciliation Act”, into the North Carolina General Assembly. The Act would allow the estates of those injured, killed, or who suffered personal or property losses, resulting from the events on November 10 to file a lawsuit against the city for redress. The loss would have to be valued and, any payout would be adjusted by 8 percent for inflation. The Bill never advanced beyond its introduction.
- In August 2007, the state senate passed a resolution acknowledging and expressing “profound regret” for the riot.
- In 2007, some advocates lobbied to get the coup covered in the state’s school curriculum, while historians have sought to build a memorial at the corner of Third and Davis Streets in Wilmington to commemorate the incident.
- In January 2017, two Wilmington writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel, backed by the creative writing department at UNCW, began working with middle school students, at Williston School and the Friends School of Wilmington, to locate, salvage and transcribe copies of The Daily Record. After the newspaper was destroyed, W.H. Bernard, the [then] editor of the Wilmington Morning Star, offered to purchase any outstanding copies of The Daily Record for 25 cents each. After six months, the group located eight pages; however, only seven of those pages are legible. The pages will eventually be available through the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” digital series, and through the Digital Heritage Center’s public website.
- In January 2018, North Carolina’s Highway Historical Marker Committee approved the installation of a plaque to commemorate the event. The plaque will be installed in March 2018, on Market Street between Fourth Street and Fifth Street, which is the location of the Light Infantry Building, where the rioting began. The plaque states:
Armed white mob met at armory here, Nov. 10, 1898. Marched six blocks and burned office of Daily Record, black-owned newspaper. Violence left untold numbers of African Americans dead. Led to overthrow of city government & installation of coup leader as mayor. Was part of a statewide political campaign based on calls for white supremacy and the exploitation of racial prejudice.