I first heard about the 1898 Wilmington Race Riots (also known as the Wilmington Massacre) soon after moving to this North Carolina coastal town in 1984. I was drawn there by the lure of working in the movie industry during the early days following Italian director and producer Dino de Laurentis’ establishment of his namesake film studios just north of town.
On the surface, Wilmington was a small sleepy city steeped in Southern charm with beautiful beaches located nearby, but as I discovered during my two years there, the town and its people featured prominently in a particularly dark chapter of North Carolina history.
As I tend to do, I gravitated toward spending my leisure time with other local artists. One such character was Claude Howell, a noted seascape painter in his 70s, who held a weekly salon in his penthouse apartment in the historic city center. Claude was not only the town’s most famous artist, he was very much a chronicler of its history. Having always lived in the same historic apartment building where he was born, he knew everything there was to know about the town’s residents – both past and present.
Claude liked to drink, but the alcohol never made him rude or beligerent. He was one of those genteel Southern types whose lips gradually loosened the more he imbibed as he regaled his captive audience with stories of his hometown’s dark past.
One night, after having a few too many vodka martinis, Claude launched into a retelling of the political events that led up to what became known as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. His story and my subsequent research speak directly to a time that parallels many of the social and political upheavals we’ve experienced over the past four years, culminating with the storming of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021.
Wilmington’s Political Situation in the 1890s
By most historical accounts, Wilmington in the 1890s was a prosperous port town and the largest city in North Carolina at that time. There were a substantial number of African Americans who owned property and worked in professional jobs. The Wilmington Record was an African American newspaper edited and owned by a prominent African American community leader named Alex Manly.
An important note to remember at this point is that Republicans – the party of Abraham Lincoln – were at that time the party of progressive politics, seeking to provide opportunities and better the lives of the former slaves. The Democrats, on the other hand, were keen on reversing any progressive policies in an effort to maintain white control over the land and other economic resources.
In the years leading up to the pivotal election of 1894, a coalition developed between the Republicans and the Populist (or People’s) Party, which mainly consisting of small farmers who felt they were being ignored by the wealthy landowners who made up the power brokers of the Democratic party.
According to LeRae Umfleet, writing for the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, “In 1894, a Populist and Republican coalition known as Fusionists had won control of the General Assembly and, in 1896, Daniel Russell, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, was elected. Fusionists made sweeping changes to Wilmington’s charter and state government in favor of African Americans and middle class whites. Wilmington sustained a complex, wealthy, society for all races, with African Americans holding elected office and working in professional and mid-range occupations vital to the economy.”
The Democrats saw these events as an imminent threat to white supremacy and organized all across the state using a campaign of fear and intimidation in the 1898 election. Their aim was to crush this progressive movement and regain control of state politics with a particular focus on Wilmington.
Nicholas Graham of the North Carolina Collection explains, “The white supremacy campaign was exactly that. The Democrats repeatedly stated that only white men were fit to hold political office. They often accused the fusionists, especially the Republicans, of supporting negro domination in the state. Indeed, there were a large number of African American officeholders, some of whom had been elected and many more who were appointed to office. The Democrats referred to themselves as the white man’s party and appealed to white North Carolinians to restore them to power.”
Graham continues, “Toward the end of the campaign, perhaps worried that speeches and editorials would not be enough to ensure victory, the Democrats increasingly resorted to the threat of violence. At several rallies in southeastern North Carolina, large groups of men dressed in red shirts and openly brandishing weapons rode through predominantly African American neighborhoods in an effort to scare potential Republican voters away from the polls. The ‘Red Shirts’ were a campaign strategy borrowed from South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman, who appeared at several rallies on behalf of the North Carolina Democrats.”
Due to their campaign of fear and intimidation, the Democrats successfully regained control of offices in Wilmington and across the state. The day after the election, a group of Wilmington whites passed a series of resolutions requiring Alex Manly, the African American editor of the Wilmington Record, to leave the city and close his paper, and calling for the resignations of the mayor and chief of police.
A committee of leading Democrats was chosen to implement the resolutions, called the White Declaration of Independence. They presented their demands to the Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC) – who were all prominent local African Americans – and required compliance by the next morning.
On the following day, November 10, 1898, word from the CCC was delayed. The enraged Democrats and their supporters gathered a group of up to 2,000 armed white men and marched on the Wilmington Record printing offices, broke in and set the building ablaze.
From there they moved on to overthrow the municipal government (a coup d’état) and within a few days the terrorists had banished prominent African Americans (including Alex Manly) and Republican whites from the city. Based on Umfleet’s extensive research, “No official count of dead can be ascertained due to a lack of records – at least 14 and perhaps as many as 60 men were murdered.”
Members of the Wilmington Light Infantry. Photo Credit: North Carolina State Archives.
With the Democrats return to power in 1898, the state legislature quickly drew up legislation to overturn the Fusionist’s policies and institute their won which would effectively disfranchise African American voters for decades to come. The effects of the election were long-lasting. Following the end of Governor Daniel Russell’s term in 1900, Graham writes that “North Carolina would not elect another Republican governor until 1972. George White, an African American who was elected to Congress from a predominantly African American district in 1898 was the last African American elected to that body until 1928. North Carolina would not send another African American to Washington until 1992.”
In a recent BBC news article entitled Wilmington 1989: When white supremacists overthrew a US Government, Toby Luckhurst writes that “within two years, white supremacists in North Carolina imposed new segregation laws and effectively stripped black people of the vote through a combination of literacy tests and poll taxes. The number of registered African American voters reportedly dropped from 125,000 in 1896 to about 6,000 in 1902.”
Even more telling is that the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 has never been formally investigated by the State of North Carolina, despite enormous amounts of research and the writings of numerous authors. In essence, these tragic events were never fully acknowledged, nor were the perpetrators of the violence ever held to account for their heinous acts of violence. Such denial and implicit consent by political leaders (including US President McKinley) set the stage for further race riots and massacres of blacks by white mobs in Atlanta, Georgia in 1906, Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 and Rosewood, Florida in 1923.
To read a letter written by an African American woman in Wilmington asking for help from President McKinley click here.
A documentary film Wilmington On Fire and directed by Christopher Everett is available on several streaming platforms. You can watch a trailer for the film here.
Everett notes that the 1898 Wilmington race riots and massacre “is considered one of the only successful examples of a coup d’état in the United States that left countless numbers of African-American citizens dead and exiled from the city. This event was the spring board for the white supremacy movement and Jim Crow segregation throughout the state of North Carolina and the American South.”
Relevance for Contemporary Activists
After enduring four years of a racist, fear mongering and deliberately divisive administration, concerned citizens of the USA are ready to turn the page on history. I fully understand that trying to bring together the disparate viewpoints in such a partisan atmosphere will be extremely difficult. But I believe the first step toward any sort of healing and reconciliation is to acknowledge the collective damage white supremacy has wrought on minority populations and American culture for centuries.
And along with any new beginning, we must remain vigilant and never forget that the ideals inherent in democracy can be quickly wiped away. It will take equal measures of soul-searching and hard work to continue on the path to truly creating a ‘more perfect union.’