The Wilmington Race Riot of November 10, 1898 was a true coup d’état in American History. ((H. Leon Prather, Sr., We Have Taken a City: the Wilmington racial massacre and coup of 1898 (Southport, N.C.: Dram Tree books, 2006), 9)) The Riot was a white supremacist movement, which overthrew the legitimately elected biracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina and replaced it with officials who instituted the first Jim Crow laws in North Carolina. The resulting laws greatly limited the rights of African Americans in Wilmington and influenced the creation of such laws in the rest of North Carolina and throughout the nation.
Background and Fusion Government
African Americans were an enfranchised and active segment of the Wilmington government during Reconstruction. During the 1890s, three main parties existed within North Carolina politics: Populists, Republicans, and Democrats. Individually, neither the Republican Party nor the Populist Party had enough support to defeat The Democratic Party. In order to compete with the Democratic Party, Populists joined with the Republican Party, naming this alliance the Fusionist party. ((“Final Report,” 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, May 31, 2006. http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/1898-wrrc/report/report.htmFinal report, 36-37)) The Fusionists were able to gain control of the state government by the early 1890’s. Under Fusionist control, African American society in Wilmington flourished and African Americans were visible and important figures in politics and business. From 1865 to 1897, African Americans played a larger role in Wilmington politics than any other city in America. ((Prather, 23)) North Carolina’s Democrats and the election of 1898 completely ended this situation.
Democratic Strategy in the 1898 Election
Furnifold Simmons was appointed chairman of NC’s Democratic Party and was in charge of the election campaign for the 1898 election. He was a popular political figure because he had led the 1892 Democratic campaign, the last election in North Carolina, which the Democrats won. ((“Furnifold Simmons,: UNC Chapel hill Libraries North Carolina Collection, access July 23, 2012, http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/1898/bios/simmons.html)) His primary political tool was based on white supremacy. ((“The Election of 1898 in North Carolina: An Introduction,” UNC Chapel Hill Libraries North Carolina Collection, accessed July 23, 2012, http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/1898/history.html)) Much of the Democrats’ campaign strategy was to attack the Republicans’ position as a biracial party. As part of their campaign, the Democrats published the Democratic Handbook. The Handbook tried to convince its readers that blacks were unable to affectively serve in the government because “this is a white man’s country and white men must control and govern it.” ((“Final Report,” 59))
Newspapers were an important aspect of the Democratic campaign. Democrats used newspapers to portray the Fusion Party and African Americans as an evil threat to North Carolina, as can be seen in the two cartoons below. The first cartoon suggests that the Fusion party and the African Americans within the party were threats to North Carolinians. The cartoon depicts a frightening vampire labeled “Negro Rule” hovering over and reaching for white people. The second cartoon shows a devil labeled “Fusionist” leaning over the shoulder of a white voter and influencing the voter’s decision. The ballot reads “for negro rule,” this suggests that voting for the Fusion Party is equivalent to voting for the evil “negro rule.”Democratic newspapers were not the only active newspapers during the campaign. The newspaper The Daily Record, an African American Newspaper based in Wilmington and run by Alexander Manly, actively promoted Fusionist ideas defending African Americans. On August 18, 1898 The Daily Record published an editorial article arguing that consensual relationships between white women and black men were common. ((“The Election of 1898 in North Carolina: An Introduction.”)) Democrats attacked this idea and from that point on used this article and The Daily Record as tools to portray the Fusion Party as unsuitable for North Carolina’s government. White, democratic newspapers reprinted the editorial daily until the election. ((Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 106)) The editorial became such a controversial topic that Manly’s white landlord evicted him and he was forced to relocate his paper’s press. ((Ibid, 107.))
Additionally, the Democrats used outright intimidation as a method to prevent black voters from supporting the Fusion Party. A group called the Red Shirts frequently brought weapons into predominantly black neighborhoods to intimidate the residents and scare them away from voting. ((“The Election of 1898 in North Carolina: An Introduction”)) The day before the election, Alfred Waddell, a Wilmington Democrat who once stated he was going to drive African Americans out of Wilmington even if he had to “choke the Cape Fear with the bodies of negroes,” continued to encourage intimidation and violence against African Americans. ((Gilmore, 109)) He told fellow white supremacists 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.” ((Gilmore,, 110-111))
Results of the Elections
The Wilmington Elections were divisive. Although the Democratic Party regained control of the state government in the 1898 election, Fusionists were able to maintain their positions at the city level in Wilmington and its government was a biracial one. With news of these results, a group of white Democratic men led by Alfred Waddell met on November 9 and created and signed the “White Declaration of Independence” in which they stated Wilmington “will never again be ruled by men of African origin,” and demanded Alexander Manly leave Wilmington within one day.
“We demand that he leave this City forever within twenty-four hours after the issuance of this proclamation. Second, that the printing press from which the ‘Record’ has been issued be packed and shipped from the City without delay, that we be notified within twelve hours of the acceptance or rejection of this demand.
If the demand is agreed to, within twelve hours we counsel forbearance on the part of all white men. If the demand is refused or if no answer is given within the time mentioned then the editor, Manly, will be expelled by force.”
The men received no response from Manly and, as promised, a mob intent on removing Manly by force emerged. As the mob marched through the white section of town, spectators joined and the crowd grew larger reaching about 2,000 at its largest. ((“Final Report,” 129)) When the mob reached the office, they broke in and burned it down. A group of men posed in front of the building in the photo below.
The crowd retreated after the fire was extinguished, but African Americans remained fearful that white supremacists would continue their destruction. Throughout the day there were several confrontations between the two groups. Both sides were armed, but the white men had use of the military; consequently many more black citizens were wounded or killed than white citizens.
While the fighting was taking place, the signers of the “White Declaration of Independence” met and planned the overthrow of the Republican-run local government. Rightfully elected Republicans were forced to resign, and Waddell appointed himself mayor of Wilmington. As the violence ended, this new government took control. Many African Americans and Republicans fled the city.
By the end of the month 1,400 African Americans left Wilmington, and as time went on, white supremacists forced many more to leave by firing black employees or confiscating their property. ((Gilmore, 114)) Under the new government, African Americans who remained in the city were discriminated against through new laws that effectively disenfranchised them by requiring a literacy test and poll taxes. The riot had an effect on the state level since Republicans and the Fusionists no longer held power anywhere. The Democratic state government passed the first Jim Crow laws in North Carolina and discriminatory laws against African Americans spread rapidly throughout North Carolina as well as the South as a whole.
Throughout the South, similar laws were created to discriminate against African Americans. Additionally, several other riots followed the model of the Wilmington riot. ((“Final report”, 225)) These types of actions led to the quick decline of rights for African Americans and led to their long struggle for civil rights which lasted through the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.
- For African American Primary Source Perspectives please see: J. Allen Kirk’s ‘Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, N.C. of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States.
- Downloadable map of African American churches and homes in Wilmington, NC 1897-1904
- Downloadable map of the Wilmington Race Riots
Reparations and Compensation
The battle for reparations and compensation for descendants continues in North Carolina today. Watch and listen to African American activists, researchers, and descendants as they articulate why they believe reparations should be given.
In a videotaped address to the North Carolina NAACP meeting in Wilmington, NC, Duke University historian John Hope Franklin discusses the continued significance of the 1898 Wilmington riots or coup d’etat. ((Videography by Jan Nichols of the North Carolina Justice Center; video editing by Jim Buie for the NC NAACP.))
For More Information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Long Civil Rights Movement
- Jeffrey J. Crow, “Cracking the Solid South: Populism and the Fusionist Interlude.” In The North Carolina Experience, eds. Lindsey Butler and Alan Watson. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1984.
- Willard B. Gatewood, “North Carolina’s Negro Regiment in the Spanish-American War.” North Carolina Historical Review 48 no. 4 (October 1971), pp. 370-387.
- Benjamin R. Justesen, Black Tip, White Iceberg: Black Postmasters and the Rise of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1897-1901. North Carolina Historical Review 82 no. 2 (April 2005), pp. 193-227.
- William S. Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
- LeRae Umfleet, 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report. Wilmington Race Riot Commission and the North Carolina Office of Cultural Resources, 2005. http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/1898-wrrc/report/report.htm
- Richard L. Watson, Jr., “Furnifold Simmons and the Politics of White Supremacy.” In Race, Class and Politics in Southern History: Essays in Honor of Robert F. Durden, Jeffrey Crow et al., eds. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1989.