How a mob turned a diverse city into a white-supremacist bastion

Louis P Masur

THE WASHINGTON POST – In the sordid history of white supremacy and violence against blacks after the Civil War – attacks in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Chicago in 1919, and Tulsa in 1921, to name a few – Wilmington in 1898 stands apart.

Well-armed whites not only murdered dozens of black citizens and effectively destroyed what had been a flourishing black community in the North Carolina city, they also staged a coup in which Democratic officials stole the statewide midterm election and then overthrew an elected biracial Fusionist government.

In addition to launching a campaign of terror, the victors crafted a story that placed blame on the victims, a false narrative that would not be challenged, except by Charles W Chesnutt’s searing novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), until the middle of the 20th Century.

In Wilmington’s Lie, David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered conflicts around the world, punctures the myths surrounding the insurrection and provides a dynamic and detailed account of the lives of perpetrators and victims.

Alfred Moore Waddell, one of the central figures who helped engineer the coup, had been active in speaking about the new state of race relations since the close of the Civil War. He had served briefly as an officer in the Confederate army and in Congress in the 1870s.

After the war, he assured the freedmen of the “friendship and good will of the white people”. Yet he also advised blacks not to settle in Wilmington, which, despite his efforts, had a black majority.

On October 24, 1898, Waddell roused more than 1,000 white men and some women at Wilmington’s Opera House with a speech extolling the necessity of white supremacy. He denounced the plight of whites forced to “live under the domination of” black men. Rather than surrender to “a ragged rabble” of black men, he threatened to “choke the Cape Fear with Carcasses”.

To men such as Waddell, ambitious blacks should be subdued; opinionated blacks should be lynched.

Alexander Manly owned and edited the Daily Record. Born in 1866, Manly could pass for white (his paternal grandfather was North Carolina Governor Charles Manly), but he boasted that his paper was for African Americans. On August 18, Manly responded to a speech by Georgia writer Rebecca Latimer Felton that accused black men of lusting after white women and called for lynching – “a thousand times a week if necessary” – as a solution.

In his editorial, Manly rejected the trope of the predatory black man and suggested that since white men debauched black women, white women could choose to have relations with whomever they pleased. Reprinted across the South with headlines such as “White Women Slandered”, the editorial, observed one writer, “shook the state from the mountains to the sea”.

Threatened with death, Manly somehow survived as Wilmington’s white citizens, emboldened by a statewide white-supremacy campaign advanced by Josephus Daniels’ Raleigh newspaper, the News and Observer, planned their takeover. Various factions, including a Committee of Twenty-Five run by Waddell, a local cabal known as the Secret Nine and members of the paramilitary Red Shirts (in a narrative crowded with characters, it is sometimes difficult to keep the groups straight), schemed to overthrow a Fusionist party of Republicans and Populists that had triumphed, in part, by embracing black voters and rewarding them with positions as aldermen, magistrates and police officers. On Election Day, November 8, Democrats stuffed ballot boxes as armed white men intimidated black residents and prevented them from voting. Their efforts were so successful, they flipped New Hanover County from a 960-vote Fusionist majority in 1896 to a 500-vote Democratic margin in 1898.

In one precinct, a Democratic candidate received 113 more votes than the total number of registered voters. Democrats now controlled the state and the county. In the aftermath, across North Carolina, new franchise laws purged black voters from the rolls, from 126,000 in 1896 to 6,100 in 1902.

On November 10, Waddell led a mob through the streets of Wilmington. He claimed that black citizens had not responded to a “White Declaration of Independence” that demanded Manly’s departure and black acknowledgment of white rule. Thirsting to lynch the editor, marauding whites stormed the Record’s office, but Manly had escaped the day before, and the mob settled for torching the building, owned by a black fraternal organisation, the Grand United Order of Love and Charity.

The Committee of Twenty-Five forced the resignation of the Fusionist mayor, police chief and board of aldermen and installed Waddell as mayor. Men carrying rifles and shotguns, supported by a Light Infantry militia, opened fire on crowds gathered in Wilmington’s black neighbourhood, known as Brooklyn.

Some residents were shot in the back. The mob had spread rumours that armed black men were planning an insurrection and then used those rumors to justify indiscriminate killings. There were no indictments.

After the massacre, Democrats banished white and black Republican leaders. Hundreds of terrified black families fled their homes and camped out for weeks in cemeteries and swamps before returning to town; more than 2,000 black residents moved out permanently. The city’s black population plunged from 56 per cent in 1898 to 40 per cent in 1930. It currently stands at about 18 per cent.

“The coup,” Zucchino concludes, “transformed Wilmington from an American hotspot for blacks to a bastion of white supremacy virulently hostile to its black citizens.”

Deeply researched and profoundly relevant, Wilmington’s Lie explains how that happened and suggests how much work remains to be done to come to terms with what took place.