Turning the Page on History: Wilmington, NC 1898


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.

The historic Carolina Apartment House where artist Claude Howell would preside over his lessons on Wilmington’s history. Photo: Cape Fear Archives.

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. 

A cartoon from the period presenting African Americans as vultures seeking to terrorize and prey on the white population, especially white women. Photo Credit: North Carolina State Archives.

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.”

A political pin supporting the White Government Union. Photo Credit: North Carolina State Archives.

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.”

The Laurinburg Redshirts posing for a photo during the 1898 election. Photo Credit: North Carolina State Archives.

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.”

The white rioters proudly standing in front of the offices of the burned Wilmington Record. Photo Credit: North Carolina State Archives.

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 an enormous amount of self-reflection and equal measures of hard work to continue on the path to truly creating a ‘more perfect union.’

peace~henry

 

Categories: Human Rights, PoliticsTags: , , , , ,

37 comments

  1. I’ve read about that sad event in American history. It’s depressing, as are many other similar atrocities.

    The worst part is that, after the violent coup d’etat, neither the state government nor federal government intervened to punish the terrorists and insurrectionists. It set a precedent that law and democracy don’t matter, that rights and freedom doesn’t matter — instead, all that matters is might makes right.

    When we see how minorities are still treated, we realize aren’t that far away from that history and, to some extent, that precedent of violent oppression still stands. Let’s hope this is beginning to reverse, finally.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Benjamin. I agree that it often feels like the human race has made very little progress in our relationships with others, as well as the whole of the natural world. Thanks for sharing your always keen insights!

      Like

  2. Henry, thanks for sharing this story in America’s dark history. Sad to say, white people’s fear of black economic and political power is still alive today.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And today’s coup d’etat has been achieved by Democrats who favour slavery for all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dracul,

      While I’m a registered Independent in the US, I openly admit I have far more in common with current Democratic party policies than with the Republicans, a party that I’ve watched become a fountain of extremist right-wing propaganda over the past several decades. Until there’s a better choice, I’ll gladly cast my lot with the US Democratic party.

      The last four years have been filled with outrageous conspiracy theories, administrative incompetence and a complete leadership vacuum from both the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled senate. It’s been a disaster for the USA’s standing in the world and the majority of its citizens.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Thank you for this worthy post, Henry. A long shadow from deliberate and barbaric acts long past extends to the present moment. Lessons of history can never be learned if the facts are kept constantly cloaked. Trump’s release of another cloak: “The 1776 Commission,” is such an instrument.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fine essay. Decent people will have leadership positions starting tomorrow. With luck, they’ll be able to untwist the minds of some of the many racists and fools out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Henry for chronicling this difficult but very relevant history.

    Like

  7. fascinating research, thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks Henry. A piece of history I knew nothing about. If the Democrats were acting that way then, and now they don’t, what changes can we expect in the future from parties and people? What causes a party to change ideology and direction? I have no answer but might it be that it’s individuals or even one individual that start the change? If this is what the Trump era tells us, we should keep a closer eye on candidates in 2024.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marios,

      There are many perplexing issues with the USA’s 2 party system. It seems that geography and events such as the American Civil War have been two of the great forces responsible for political party changes and realignments. But, yes, the two major party’s have basically exchanged ideologies over the past 100 years. Thanks for reading and questioning!

      Like

  9. Amazing history. Probably never taught in any school district ether!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Excellent piece of journalism, Henry. I had never even heard of the Wilmington Race Riots. The connection you make between that horrific episode and the January 6th coup d’état is a powerful lesson for all of us. It is wonderful to FINALLY have hope restored after the shockingly destructive and divisive four years under the diseased thumb of a hate-mongering president. I finally feel like I can breathe again.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Excellent post — reminds me of this still-true quote:

    “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” –Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, French writer /critic

    Liked by 1 person

  12. A colleague at work just shared an article about this very thing! I was astonished that I had never heard of it before, and horrified when I read about it. A sad piece of history indeed with many parallels to Jan. 6 and the ethos of the Trump era. Wonderful writing and I’m going to read it again to absorb it more fully. Thank you for sharing this!

    Like

    • I hesitated to post this because – like so many these days – I just want to escape all the negativity and move on to resolving problems. However, I don’t believe we can heal as a nation until there’s a full reckoning with our violent history. thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for this article. Something I will keep in mind as my children go through school. I try to think of ourselves as a species as being nothing more than children with a lot of growing up to do. If we can manage to become more aware, enlightened, more humane, more compassionate then we have a chance to truly build a good world. But the other path is always present too. And we can easily refuse to grow up, retrogress, and indulge in base emotions of anger, hate, and jealousy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi PPJ,

      I too keep hoping that the human mind will become more enlightened and aware, and preferably while I’m still around. It’s a long shot, I know. Thanks as always for your insights. Enjoy the new week!

      Like

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