Overthrowing the Government: The Insurrection in Wilmington (REBROADCAST of Episode 27)
Originally broadcast March 8, 2021. There has been one successful coup d’état in American History – a successful violent overthrowing of a city government in 1898. Sadly, it’s a story of violence, politics and white supremacy. In this episode, we explore an unpleasant chapter of America’s history that not many people know and then lighten the mood with a quiz at the end.
To talk about the events leading up to what happened in Wilmington in 1898, I think it’s important to paint a picture of where things were at politically. After the civil war, Republicans in the South favored and promoted a reconstruction that aligned with the view that Abraham Lincoln had. One where freed slaves were given land to farm and build a life for themselves. The Democratic Party at the time – remember this was before the parties sort of switched – was all-white party fighting for small government and fighting against reconstruction policies that they felt threatened their power and land. The story of how the parties switched over the next 20 to 30 years is an interesting story, but the Democratic Party of 1898 looked more like the Republican Party that we known today.
In 1894, mostly white Populist Party members in North Carolina had joined together with mostly black North Carolinians to create what was known as the Fusion Party. 5 years later, members of this party had been voted to local offices, making – for the first time – a bi-racial government in Wilmington. Wilmington was a majority black city, but had always been ruled by whites. They saw Republicans fighting for reconstruction as race traitors. In Wilmington, black people had been elected to office and help positions of power in the city. One of those was the U.S. Customs Collector at the port. Following the election of Republican William McKinley, a black man was put into that position, which had previously been held by a prominent white Democrat. The Daily Record, a Wilmington Newspaper was owned by Alexander Manly – a black man. Economically, the people in Wilmington’s black population were moving out of service jobs and into higher paying jobs. This was ahead of its time – especially considering that governments around the country were making laws to raise barriers and promote racial segregation. In 1890, for example Mississippi adopted a new state constitution that raised almost impassable barriers to allow black Americans the right to vote. These Jim Crow laws were being adopted all over the country. The 14th Amendment that allowed African Americans equal protection under the law was being circumvented and undermined by local and state governments.
Even though Wilmington’s black residents were seeing more power and money than in other areas in the country, there was still a huge disparity when compared with the white residents. Even though the city was 60% black, they owned 8% of the property. The per-capita wealth for white people in Wilmington was $550 and less than $30 for black people. Prominent white Wilmington residents wrote sentiments in the local paper that this proved white superiority over the city’s black residents. After all- they argued – they had seen 30 years of freedom and hadn’t risen to the same level of wealth as the white man. Absolutely ridiculous.
One quote from a Washington Post Journalist Henry L. West, says, quote “The Negro in North Carolina is thriftless, improvident, does not accumulate money and is not accounted as a desirable citizen.” End quote. I know this stuff is hard to listen to, but I think it’s important that we learn these things to understand. This was the overwhelming sentiment at the time by white Americans in the South. And the tensions continued to rise.
So it becomes easy to understand that when the Fusion party gained power in Wilmington with bi-racial members and some of their agenda which included debt relief and free coinage, the White Democrats were angry. They began a campaign in 1989 of White Supremacy and railed against what they called “Negro Rule.” They specifically made this a major issue to try to regain power in the city.
So what you can see brewing here is a perfect storm. And it all comes to a head that November.
This is where we start talking about a guy named Alfred Moore Waddell. Real piece of work. He was a four-time congressman who had lost his seat and began speaking around the country spreading a message of white people being oppressed. He riled people up everywhere he went, convincing them that the black freed men were going to take their jobs and their power. He would stand outside voting locations to intimidate black voters and distribute anti-black propaganda. Waddell is going to become an important figure in this story.
The situation in Wilmington had become a boiling pot of racial tension, but it was a series of newspaper opinion articles that made it boil over. One of the threats that white southerners lobbied against black men was the threat of the “black rapist.” When white women would sleep with black men, it was always painted as rape – no matter what. It was always painted as an attack that the white woman couldn’t have wanted. And this was one of the most common causes that led to lynchings. After a prominent woman’s suffragist made a speech complaining about the black men as rapists and called them, “quote” ravening human beasts,” Black newspaper owner and editor Alexander Manly wrote an op-ed to set the record straight on August 18, 1898.
In his article, he said that many white women were not being raped by white men, but willingly slept with them. As if that wasn’t enough to incite anger in the local white population, he went on to say that if white women were really being raped, then, quote, “we suggest that the whites guard their women more closely” end quote. He ended the article by calling out the hypocrisy of the white men who commonly slept with African american women.
Soon after this article, word had spread and militant white supremacists started gathering in Wilmington, including a group known as a the “red shirts” – a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party. Alfred Waddell who I mentioned earlier, traveled to Wilmington with the hopes that he could be seen as a Patriot and leader in this cause to solve the so-called problem for the North Carolina white population. They marched – rallied – paraded around Wilmington through the fall of 1898 until the November election. When they won easily. And by “won easily,” I mean they threatened to kill any black voters they saw and rigged the election.
Even though they won the election, there were many black officials and white Republicans still in power because they weren’t up for reelection. But what this group of white supremacists couldn’t achieve at the ballot box, they decided to achieve by force. The created a document they called “The White Declaration of Independence” and on November 9th had Alfred Waddell read the list of demands in front of a packed courthouse.
It listed 8 bullet points. In them were complaints that the white men hadn’t been given enough power in the city and that blacks should turn over businesses to whites, shouldn’t congregate or speak to whites, that only whites should be employed in new jobs and that Alexander Manly, who had written the Newspaper article, should be removed from the city. The group gave Wilmington’s black residents 12 hours to respond.
What they didn’t know was that Manly was ahead of them. He had already shit down his press and left town after learning that the Red shirts were threatening to kill him. Nevertheless, the committee of white men needed a response. They asked to meet with a committee of 32 of Wilmington’s prominent black citizens, who pleaded that they didn’t control Manly and didn’t condone the editorial. But it didn’t matter. They wrote a letter as a response to Waddell, but he never received it. The next morning, all hell broke loose.
500 white men raided the local armory, armed themselves with weapons, and then went to the building that housed The Daily Record – Manly’s Newspaper. They torched the building. As the crowd of white men swelled to 2,000, they started marching through the city. Rumors circulated that the black men in Wilmington were arming themselves and had started fighting back. They hadn’t. In fact, they hadn’t done anything. The group of white men stormed through the black neighborhoods, indiscriminately shooting into black homes and attacking any black citizen they could find. As they were being hunted, any black person that could escaped into the swamps surrounding the city – many never to return again.
It wasn’t just the citizens that were the target of the riotous mob. They wanted power. So they marched to City Council and forced all the Republicans and Black men to surrender their offices at gunpoint. This included the town’s Republican Mayor. The mob instantly replaced him with Alfred Waddell, who was given a list of prominent black citizens in Wilmington. They were forced to leave the city.
By the end of the riot, lots of Wilmington’s black population had been killed. It’s not known for sure how many, but estimates range from 60 to as many as 300. 2,000 others had fled the town and never returned – forced out of their homes and businesses. For the White Democratic Party, it was a success. They had successfully carried out a coup d’état to claim power by force. It was the only successful example of this happening in America.
I wish I could say that North Carolina used this as a lesson in what to avoid in the future. But they didn’t. The insurrection was described in history books as a heroic effort to avoid disastrous reconstruction policies. The victims were portrayed in the books as the ones who incited the riot and were quickly put down. It wasn’t until 2007 that the North Carolina Democratic Party acknowledged and renounced the actions of those party leaders. It’s still not taught in school. All these years later, we see white supremacy rearing its head – even storming the capitol building in a failed coup attempt in January of 2021. Just three years ago, North Carolina installed a mile marker sign to commemorate the event. It reads:
Armed white mob met at armory here, Nov. 10, 1898. Marched six blocks and burned office of Daily Record, black-owned newspaper. Violence left untold numbers of African Americans dead. Led to overthrow of city government & installation of coup leader as mayor. Was part of a statewide political campaign based on calls for white supremacy and the exploitation of racial prejudice.
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