Wilmington Insurrection of 1898
The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 or the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina starting on November 10, 1898 into the following days; it is considered a turning point in North Carolina politics following Reconstruction. Originally described as a race riot, it is now observed as a coup d'etat with insurgents having overthrown the legitimately elected local government, the only such event in United States history.
Two days after the election of a Fusionist white mayor and biracial city council, Democratic Party white supremacists illegally seized power from the elected government. More than 1500 white men participated in an attack on the black newspaper, burning down the building. They ran officials and community leaders out of the city, and killed many blacks in widespread attacks, but especially destroyed the Brooklyn neighborhood. They took photographs of each other during the events. The Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) and federal Naval Reserves, told to quell the riot, instead used rapid-fire weapons and killed several black men in the Brooklyn neighborhood. Both black and white residents later appealed for help after the coup to President William McKinley, who did not respond. More than 2,000 blacks left the city permanently, turning it from a black-majority to a white-majority city.
In the 1990s, a grassroots movement arose in the city to acknowledge and discuss the events more openly, and try to reconcile the different accounts of what happened, similar to efforts in Florida and Oklahoma to recognize the early 20th-century race riots of Rosewood and Tulsa, respectively. The city planned events around the insurrection's centennial in 1998, and numerous residents took part in discussions and education events. In 2000 the state legislature authorized a commission to produce a history of the events and to evaluate the economic impact and costs to black residents, with consideration of reparation for descendants of victims. Its report was completed in 2006.
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In 1860, before the Civil War, Wilmington was majority black and the largest city in the state, with nearly 10,000 people. Numerous slaves and free blacks worked at the port, as domestic servants, and as artisans and skilled workers.
After the Battle of Fort Fisher, which the Union won in January 1865, Wilmington was taken by Union troops in February, after they had worked their way through Confederate defenses up the Cape Fear River. Numerous slaves had escaped to Union lines before this, seeking freedom, and some fought with the Union. With its victory in the Battle of Wilmington, the Union completed its blockade of major southern ports. The Confederate General Braxton Bragg had burned tobacco and cotton stores before leaving the city.
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.
Federal constitutional amendments had abolished slavery, and granted citizenship and voting rights to freedmen. Adults and children were pursuing education, and freedmen were eager to vote, tending to support the Republican Party that had achieved their freedom.
In North Carolina, state and local races were close, with Republicans winning most of the offices. Their ascendancy to power can be traced to granting the franchise to freedmen, plus the successful formation of a biracial coalition of freedmen, recent black and white migrants from the North, and white Southerners who supported Reconstruction. Many white Democrats had been embittered since the Confederacy's defeat, and most veterans were armed. Insurgent veterans joined the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which started in Tennessee but soon had chapters across the South. It generated considerable violence at elections to suppress the black vote, and 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 1875, chapters of Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, had formed in North Carolina and were instrumental in suppressing the black vote during elections, but a Republican governor was elected in 1876.
In the years that followed, Wilmington, then the largest city in the state, had a majority-black population with numerous black professionals and a rising middle class. The Republican Party was biracial in membership. Unlike many other jurisdictions, blacks in Wilmington gained positions as members of the police force and fire department, as well as in elected positions.
Election of 1898
In 1871 Democrats regained control of the state legislature.
After 1875, the campaign to reduce voting by freedmen was helped by the Red Shirts, a paramilitary group that openly disrupted Republican and especially black meetings, and intimidated voters to keep them from the polls. It had started in Mississippi in 1875, and chapters arose in both the Carolinas. Although Democrats dominated state politics after 1877, both blacks and whites continued to participate in politics and, in the 1890s, the Populists appealed to many former Democratic voters.
In the 1894 and 1896 elections, North Carolina’s Populist Party fused with the Republican Party and won enough votes to gain control of the state government; they were known as the Fusionists. The Fusionists won the elections and passed laws increasing the franchise for blacks for the first time since the Reconstruction era by decreasing property requirements for voters. They also elected the Republican Daniel L. Russell as governor - the first since 1877 and the last until 1973.
During the 1898 election, the Democratic Party regained control at the state level, in part due to widespread violence and intimidation of blacks by the Red Shirts, which suppressed black voting. Russell was unable to satisfy both the Populist and Republican parties to keep the Fusion coalition viable.
Because Wilmington was a black-majority city, its election was followed statewide. Groups of four to eight white men had been patrolling every block in the city for weeks before the election. On November 4, 1898, the Raleigh News & Observer noted that,
The first Red Shirt parade on horseback ever witnessed in Wilmington electrified the people today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the Negroes. The whole town turned out to see it. It was an enthusiastic body of men. Otherwise it was quiet and orderly.
Despite the Democrats' inflammatory rhetoric in support of white supremacy, and the Red Shirt armed display, voters elected a biracial fusionist government to office in Wilmington on November 8; the mayor and 2/3 of the aldermen were white.
Democratic Party white supremacists, led by Alfred Moore Waddell, who had run unsuccessfully for governor, had organized a secret committee of nine. They had planned to replace the government if the Democratic Party candidates lost. During the election campaign, whites had criticized Alexander Manly, editor of Wilmington's Daily Record, the state's only black-owned newspaper, and wanted to close him down.
For some time, Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, had used Wilmington as a symbol for “Negro domination” because of its government, although it was biracial. Many newspapers published pictures and stories implying that African-American men were attacking white women. Manly denied such charges, claiming the stories represented consensual relationships and suggested "white men [should] be more protective of their women against sexual advances from males of all races." White supremacists publicized his words as a catalyst for violence against the black community.
After the election, whites created a Committee of Twenty-Five, all supremacists, and presented their demands to the Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC), a group of politicians and leaders of the African-American community. Specifically, the whites wanted the CCC to promise to evict Manly from the city. They gave the CCC a deadline of November 10, 1898 for their response. When Waddell and the Committee had not received a response by 7:30 a.m., he gathered a large group of white businessmen and veterans at the Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) armory. By 8:00 a.m., Waddell led the armed group of 1,000-1500 men, organized in military formation, to the Daily Record office, where they destroyed the equipment and burned down the building of the only African-American newspaper in the state. By this time, the crowd had swelled to nearly 2,000 men.
By this time, Manly, along with many others, had hidden or fled Wilmington for safety. Waddell tried to get the group to return to the Armory and disband, but he lost control, and the armed men turned into a mob. Whites rioted and shot guns, attacking blacks throughout Wilmington but especially in Brooklyn, the majority-black neighborhood. The small patrols were spread out over the city and continued until nightfall. Walker Taylor, of the Secret Nine, was authorized by Governor Russell to command the Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) troops, newly 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, but the WLI killed several black men.
Whites drove the opposing political and business leaders from the town. The estimated number of deaths ranges from six to 100, all blacks. Because of incomplete records by the hospital, churches and coroner's office, the number of people killed remains uncertain, but no whites were reported dead. Some whites were wounded. Hundreds of blacks fled the town to take shelter in nearby swamps. After the violence settled, more than 2100 blacks left Wilmington permanently, hollowing out its professional and artisan class and changing the demographics to leave a white majority city.
Waddell and his mob forced the white Republican Mayor Silas P. Wright and other members of the city government (both black and white) to resign. (Their terms would have lasted until 1899). They installed a new city council that elected Waddell to take over as mayor by 4 p.m. that day.
City residents' appeals to President William McKinley for help to recover from the widespread destruction in Brooklyn were met with no response.
Subsequent to Waddell's usurping power, the Democratic state legislators (see North Carolina General Assembly of 1899-1900) passed the first Jim Crow laws for North Carolina. The legislature passed a constitutional amendment in 1899 requiring voters to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test to register to vote, both measures that discriminated against blacks. When Democrats had first proposed it in 1881, The New York Times estimated that 40,000 black men would be disfranchised by such action in North Carolina. The legislators infringed on the constitutional right to vote, but the US Supreme Court had recently upheld similar measures in a challenge to Mississippi's 1890 constitution. Democrats in other southern states also worked to reduce the black vote. Once that was done, Democrats passed laws imposing racial segregation of public facilities. They essentially imposed martial law on African Americans in North Carolina, setting an example that had influence beyond the state's borders. Not until the African-American Civil Rights Movement and passage of national laws in the mid-1960s several generations later would African Americans regain their civil rights in North Carolina.
Hugh MacRae was among the nine conspirators who planned the insurrection. He later donated land outside Wilmington to New Hanover County for a park, which was named for him. In the park still stands a plaque in his honor that does not mention his role in the 1898 insurrection. His descendant contributed to the 1998 centennial commemoration.
Election of 1900
In 1900, a second "white supremacy" political campaign cemented the Democrats' domination in the state; they elected Charles B. Aycock as governor. Party agitators used photos suggesting "Negro domination" to raise fears and tensions. The crude strategy, plus the constitutional amendment, had sharply reduced African-American voting and the Democrats controlled the legislature and governor's office.
The night before the election, Waddell spoke:
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.
The Democratic Party won by a landslide.
The 1898 Centennial Commission
By the early 1990s, many residents and officials of Wilmington thought that the events of November 10, 1898, needed to be commemorated and discussed openly. Different groups in the city told and understood different histories of the events. Similar to public efforts to acknowledge destructive race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921) and Rosewood, Florida (1923), commemoration organizing began at the grassroots level. In 1995, informal conversations began among the African-American community, UNC-Wilmington's university faculty, and civil rights activists. The intention was to inform residents fully about what really happened on that day, and to agree on a monument in remembrance of 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, which brought in political leaders, academic specialists and civic rights activists, as well as facilitators such as Common Ground. Word spread that George Rountree III was to attend the discussion to be held at St. Stephen's A.M.E. Church. As his grandfather was known to have been one of the leaders of the violence in 1898, Rountree attracted a large crowd. Following a speech by John Haley, a noted African-American historian of race relations from UNC-Wilmington, Rountree rose to speak. He started by making known his personal support for racial equality. He talked of his personal relationship with his grandfather, saying that he "refused to apologize for his grandfather's actions, as the man was the product of his times." Other descendants also felt they owed no apologies as they had no part in their ancestor's 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." An African American, Kenneth Davis, 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." After much debate among the listeners, backed up by countless people giving "muffled shouts of approval," Davis rose to thank Rountree for speaking at the event.
Recognizing that the black community had suffered economically following the insurrection, the state Commission grappled with a response. It adopted a two-part approach:
[The] first was the creation of an economic development committee to explore the possible economic benefits of black-heritage tourism, a concept that was strongly endorsed by a number of African Americans within the organization. The second approach, accomplished through cooperation with the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, was the creation of the community-based Partners for Economic Inclusion, which sponsored a major conference in September 1998 to address "the issue of inclusion of the black community in the greater business environment.
Histories and State Race Riot Commission
Several histories of the event have been published. Helen G. Edmonds addressed the riot in her work, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901 in 1951; she wrote then: "In reality, the Democrats effected a coup d'etat." As the predominant view of the time reflected the Dunning School's disparagement of Reconstruction, her accurate assessment of the events was overlooked by many white historians. Her book was reprinted in 2003.
More recent works include Leon Prather's work, We Have Taken a City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898 (1984/2006), which gives a detailed view of events and is considered a balanced account. Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (1998), a series of essays by a variety of scholars and edited by David Cecelsi and Timothy Tyson, was published during the centennial year.
In 2000, the North Carolina General Assembly established the 13-member 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. The commission had both black and white members. The commission was co-chaired by state legislator Thomas E. Wright.
Representative Wright was expelled from the North Carolina General Assembly and subsequently convicted by a jury for corruption, embezzlement and obstruction of justice and sentenced to 6–8 years in prison. Some people felt his 2007 campaign finance scandal tainted the work of the commission and its proposed legislation for compensation.
The Commission's history by LeRae Umfleet was published in 2006. The report made
broad recommendations for reparation by government and businesses. They include incentives for minority business development in areas that were affected and the easing of barriers to minority home ownership.
Historians noted that the Raleigh press 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 participate in actions 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."
- Charles Waddell Chesnutt's novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), addressed the rise of white supremacists and gave a fictional account of events that was more accurate than portrayals by southern white newspapers. He portrayed the "riots" accurately as white violence against blacks.
- The Wilmington author Philip Gerard's novel, Cape Fear Rising (1994), recounts the 1898 campaign and events leading to the burning of the Wilmington Daily Record. 
- John Sayles used contemporary documents to portray the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in Book Two of his novel, A Moment in the Sun (2011). Sayles combines fictional characters with historical figures.
- Barbara Wright's young adult novel, Crow (2012), portrays the events through a fictional young African-American boy, the son of a reporter on the black newspaper.
- North Carolina-based rock band, Druid Pryde, is currently writing a musical based on the Insurrection.
- "How The Only Coup D'Etat In U.S. History Unfolded", NPR, 17 August 2008
- John DeSantis, "Wilmington, N.C., Revisits a Bloody 1898 Day", The New York Times, pp. 1 and 33, 4 June 2006, accessed 23 August 2012
- North Carolina and the Civil War, North Carolina Museum of History
- "Chapter 3: Practical Politics", 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report, North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources
- "Chapter 5", 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report, North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources
- Melton A. McLaurin, "Commemorating Wilmington's Racial Violence of 1898: From Individual to Collective Memory", Southern Cultures, 6.4 (2000), pp. 35-57, , accessed 13 March 2011
- Catherine Bishir, "Landmarks of Power: Building a Southern Past in Raleigh and Wilmington, North Carolina, 1885-1915", in Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory and Southern Identity. 2000
- Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901, UNC Press, 1951/2003, p. 171
- "1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Established by General Assembly"
- News & Observer
- North Carolina Democratic Party
- The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Houghton Mifflin. 2002. p. 127.
- Cape Fear Rising. John F. Blair. 1994.
- Barbara Wright
- 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, North Carolina Office of Archives & History
- "The North Carolina Election of 1898", University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library
- "The Ghosts of 1898", The News & Observer, 3 May 2010
- News & Observer: "City confronts a past long buried", The News & Observer, November 10, 2006
- News & Observer: "Group denies state's race riot report", The News & Observer, November 10, 2006
- Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, University of North Carolina Press, 1998
- "Governor Aycock Pleads with the Race", Cleveland Gazette, March 23, 1901
- "Alex Manly – Wilmington Race Riots", State Library of North Carolina
- Rev. J. Allen Kirk, "A Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, N.C.", (c.1898), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library