The 2006 release of a report from the North Carolina General Assembly revealed a terrible breach of justice. After I read accounts of the violent governmental overthrow I felt a deep sense of outrage and disappointment.
The Wilmington, North Carolina coup d’etat of November 10, 1898 was a horrifying attack on the African-American population by an armed, white militia. The fact that this major event happened at all was bad enough. In that it has been largely neglected by mainstream historians, until now, only increases the feelings of injustice.
The perpetrators and accessories of the coup d’etat were many and included people in local, state, and federal positions of power. The results of the event negatively affected the civil rights of blacks and other minorities during the Jim Crow era, and have repercussions up to the present day.
The event is variously known as “The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898”, “The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898”, “The Wilmington Massacre of 1898”. I will refer to it as “The Wilmington coup d’etat”, because of its unique and monumental nature. The uprising is now considered to be the only successful example of the violent overthrow of an existing United States governmental entity by a military-type group or militia. The dictionary definition of coup d’etat describes it exactly this way.
The Wilmington coup d’etat was an organized white supremacist force that overthrew the legitimately elected multi-racial government of Wilmington and the governing board of New Hanover County in southeastern, North Carolina. The insurrectionists, armed with rifles and handguns, forced the elected officials to resign and ran most of them out of town.
The coup d’etat followed on the heels of a race-riot, during which white supremacists burned the offices of the black newspaper and a rampage that killed at least 90 African-American citizens. The worst aspect is that the coup d’etat was carefully plotted by powerful white political figures.
It was during this era, that the two major political parties’ ideologies were the opposite of what they espouse today. That is, Republicans were the progressives and liberals; while Democrats were the conservatives and reactionaries. This fact is highly important to the coup and its long-term aftermath.
Wilmington was one of the very few communities in the Old South that had an economic and politically active black population. African-Americans owned thriving businesses on Main Street and blacks voted in elections. During Reconstruction in the 1890s,there were three major parties in North Carolina. Democrats, Republicans, and Populists. In order to effectively counter the white Democrats, the Republicans and Populists allied with each other to form the “Fusionist Party”.
Fusionists gained a small measure of state control, and a large share of power in New Hanover County, particularly in Wilmington. At this time, blacks were important and prominent members of the business and political life in southeast North Carolina. In fact, Wilmington was the most progressive city, regarding race relations, in the United States. The November 1898 election of Fusionists in New Hanover County affirmed this progress.
The North Carolina chairman of the Democratic Party, Furnifold Simmons, headed the election campaign of 1898. His main campaign focus was based on white supremacy. The party strategy strongly attacked the Republicans as the biracial party. They charged that blacks were inherently unable to serve in government.
Newspapers were the major campaign tools for politicians of the day. Most of them were white-owned and affiliated. However, “The Daily Record” was a black-owned paper, and it was based in Wilmington. Publisher Alexander Manly unabashedly promoted liberal, Fusionist ideals.
In August of 1898, “The Daily Record” printed an editorial that claimed friendly relationships between white women and black men were commonplace. The editorial ended up providing talking points for Democrats to attack Fusionists as unwholesome and unworthy of governing North Carolinians. The editorial, the reprinting of it in white newspapers, and white agitation against blacks served to ecourage intimidation and violence against black citizens. The day before the election, white supremacist, Alfred Waddell, told his cohorts to “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.”
The November 8th Elections were mixed. The Democrats gained control of the state house but Fusionists were able to increase their positions at the county and city levels. The local governments had become biracial. White agitators, led by Waddell, met the next day and created a “White Declaration of Independence”. The document stated that Wilmington will never be ruled by men of African origin. The group demanded that black publisher Alexander Manly leave Wilmington within a day.
On November tenth, there was no response from Manly. Soon a mob emerged, with the aim of taking the publisher out of town by force. As the whites walked through town, spectators joined in. Around 2,000 people made up the eventual crowd. The mob arrived at the newspaper office and torched it. Confrontations between armed factions of blacks and the militarized whites erupted.
During the fighting, conspirators from the White Independence group planned the coup d’état. The coup leaders forced the rightfully elected city and county officials to resign and leave town. Waddell declared himself as the new mayor of Wilmington and other conspirators took control of the remaining governmental positions. During the next few weeks, about 1,400 blacks fled Wilmington. The white supremacists confiscated property and fired black employees, forcing more refugees. New rules, like poll taxes and literacy tests were
soon put in place across New Hanover County.
Once democrats had reestablished control over all of North Carolina, the Jim Crow laws were passed in Raleigh. The precedent of discriminatory laws and ordinances spread quickly throughout the state. Soon, other Old South states passed similar measures to reinforce already harsh post Civil War laws. In cities where blacks attempted to maintain their influence and dignity, white supremacists instigated more Wilmington-type race-riots.
Discrimination and segregation became concrete facts of life for the millions of citizens until the 1960s. Then, the ongoing civil rights movement finally got a foothold to begin the struggle to overturn the many years of discrimination and violence.