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The Wilmington Massacre Was A White Supremacist Insurrection in North Carolina

Teen Vogue logo Teen Vogue 7/4/2022 Catherine Caruso
© Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

Although the word “insurrection” has come to be associated with the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, America was no stranger to deadly insurrections and attempted coup d’états long before that day. In fact, the last successful insurrection to take place on U.S. soil occurred nearly 124 years ago, in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1898, Wilmington’s duly elected, biracial government was violently overthrown by a mob of white supremacists who sought to regain power in the wake of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

At the time, white southern Democrats deeply resented that Black Americans were now able to enjoy some of the same rights as they did, such as being able to hold public office. As the primary political party of the Confederacy, southern Democrats were threatened by the fusionist coalition that had formed in North Carolina between Republicans and Populists, a group comprised mostly of poor farmers and other working-class people. State party leaders wanted to squelch Black political power in Wilmington and throughout North Carolina.

Before the coup, Wilmington had been a prospering city, where Black residents thrived economically, especially compared with other places in the South. Not only was Wilmington the largest city in North Carolina, it was also considered a center of Black achievement. Black men owned the majority of barbershops and eateries in the city, and some were elected to public office. Despite their collective gains and successes, however, Black people faced widespread discrimination and harassment in Wilmington and were by no means considered equals by the white population.

The events that led to the Wilmington Massacre, which took place in a single day, didn’t happen overnight. The violent coup was the culmination of a monthslong white supremacy campaign. Vowing to rid the state of “Negro domination,” southern Democrats embraced racist propaganda to try to instill fear in the city’s white residents and create doubt about whether Black people should hold any political power at a time when Black voter registration and participation was particularly high.

In 1896, just two years before the massacre, North Carolina elected its first Republican governor since the end of Reconstruction: Daniel Lindsay Russell. That same year, George Henry White, a Black Republican, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in North Carolina, beating the Democratic incumbent and becoming the only Black member of Congress at the time. Then, in 1897, Wilmington elected a Republican mayor and a number of Black aldermen, expanding the amount of influence held by Black men and their white allies in the city.

With the 1898 election on the horizon, white Democrats, outraged by their loss of political power, launched a crusade to sway the outcomes. Politicians and businessmen such as Furnifold Simmons, Charles Brantley Aycock, Hugh MacRae, and Raleigh News & Observer editor Josephus Daniels spearheaded a multipronged plan to manipulate the results of the election through coercion, fearmongering, and disinformation. They promoted white supremacist propaganda in newspaper articles and political speeches, and terrorized Black residents and white fusionists through armed intimidation.

According to William Sturkey, an associate professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, the fusionist coalition was a direct threat to the interests of the white ruling class. As a result, they “concocted this white supremacist race scare in order to make sure that working-class white people understood that their differences lie not in economic differences between working-class whites and elite whites, but rather in racial differences between white and Black,” Sturkey tells Teen Vogue. “They certainly believed in white supremacy, but one of the more pressing things was how they were able to use it as a tactic here to mobilize violent resistance, but then also to mobilize voters.”

White-owned newspapers, such as the News & Observer, the Wilmington Messenger, and the Wilmington Star, were used to sow fear and division through the promulgation of disinformation and racist stereotypes. In the months leading up to the election, newspapers published cartoons and editorials decrying the threat of “Negro domination.” This was a powerful talking point for Democrats, who wanted to scare white men into believing that Black men would soon rule over them.

As the Zinn Education Project documented, the pages of white newspapers were also filled with an abundance of editorials that not-so-subtly implied that Black men, described as “brutes,” wanted to rape white women. This belief was echoed by Rebecca Latimer Felton, a white supremacist and former slave owner, who gave a speech at the Georgia Agricultural Society in which she advocated for vigilante justice and called for the lynching of Black men: “If it needs lynching to protect woman's dearest possession from the ravening human beasts," she said, "then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.” 

In response, Alexander Manly, the editor of Wilmington’s only Black newspaper, the Daily Record, wrote a scathing rebuttal asserting that not all rapists were Black and that many interracial relationships at the time were consensual. This editorial caused a stir when it was originally published, but it caused a cacophonous uproar when it was reprinted in the Wilmington Star just a month before the election. Shortly after it was published in August 1898, Manly received death threats and the Daily Record was evicted from its original building and had to find a new home, according to The New Yorker.

Months later, though, the article resurfaced when Democrats strategically republished it in other newspapers across the state, even sparking outrage from Republicans like Governor Russell, who called Manly his “enemy” and referred to the article as “villainous,” the publication notes. The widespread distribution of this editorial inflamed fears of miscegenation and interracial relationships among white residents and helped fuel outrage among Democrats in the lead-up to the election.

Incendiary stump speeches inflamed these divisions further. Aycock, a lawyer who was active in the state’s Democratic Party, gave no shortage of speeches in support of the white supremacy campaign, as did former Confederate colonel Alfred Waddell, one of the leaders of the white supremacist mob that later overthrew Wilmington’s government. 

Tim Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, tells Teen Vogue that Waddell was a “demagogue” who was “available to speak at all occasions.” Just before the election, Waddell told a large crowd that he was willing to “choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses” to bring an end to “Negro domination.” He also instructed white residents to threaten and kill Black voters at polling stations to prevent them from voting. “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,” he said. “We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

Because of this violent voter suppression and intimidation, Democrats overwhelmingly won the state election in Wilmington on November 8, 1898. In fact, in some precincts in the city, due to rampant ballot stuffing, there were more votes for Democratic candidates than there were registered voters. 

But this victory only increased the Democrats' thirst for revenge. White supremacists were still upset about the last municipal election in Wilmington, which gave them the majority fusionist government. Since many local seats weren't on the ballot, and wouldn't be until the following year, Democrats decided to take more immediate action.

The very next day, Waddell helped lead a mob of hundreds of white residents to the courthouse to sign a so-called White Declaration of Independence to prevent anyone of “African origin” from holding office again. Then, on November 10, 1898, a militia of 2,000 armed white men violently overthrew the government. The militia was comprised of civilians and a white supremacist terrorist group known as the Red Shirts, a group that was, as noted by the Zinn Education Project, equipped with military rifles, revolvers, and a hand-driven machine gun known as a Gatling gun.

During the course of that day, the armed mob burned down the building that housed the Daily Record, forcefully removed Black and white fusionist officials from office, and massacred anywhere between 60 and 300 Black residents — decimating Black economic success and Black political power in the city for the next century. 

This deadly backlash to racial progress helped white residents uphold white supremacy in the city for years to come, running Black citizens out of their businesses and implementing Jim Crow laws to prevent them from voting or running for office. No Black resident was elected to public office in Wilmington again until nearly 100 years later, in 1972, and no Black person in North Carolina would serve in Congress until 1992, as noted by journalist David Zucchino.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, thousands of Black people permanently fled Wilmington. White newspapers referred to the violent insurrection as a success, praising the triumphant seizure of the city. According to Tyson, the massacre was also commonly referred to as a “race riot” — a term that is now used to cast Black victims of racial violence as the sole aggressors in their own oppression. But, Tyson adds, the modern definition of the term doesn’t match the one used at the time of the massacre: “One hundred fifty years ago, ‘race riot’ meant when white people in mobs would storm the Black community and burn down buildings and shoot people in the street.” 

“People held on to the term a little bit because it sounded like something they preferred to think about,” he explains. “To be involved in the white supremacy campaign in 1898 was the most important political credential that you could have for a generation.” Those who played a role in the coup were proud of their involvement, Tyson says. No participants were ever punished for their crimes. It was only decades later that people in North Carolina made an effort to bury this history and erase it from public knowledge.

Many Americans may be unfamiliar with the history of the Wilmington Massacre, but it can provide some important insight into the ways in which white supremacy has influenced America’s system of government and electoral process. Although the 2021 attack on the Capitol was an unsuccessful coup attempt, there are some pertinent parallels between the two, according to Sturkey.

“From flying the Confederate flag to bringing guns and attacking the federal government to overthrowing an election, a lot of that stuff really is similar to what happened in Wilmington in 1898….," he says. “The greatest ‘What if?’ in U.S. history, and especially in Southern history, is what if poor white and Black people ever started voting together. That would be an undefeatable political force. So to prevent that, people, like in the case of Wilmington, wanted to make sure that white working-class voters were worked up over this race scare. What's remarkable is how well that tactic still works.”

Sturkey says that former president Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric, which included phrases like “take back our country” and an obsession with birtherism, exemplifies the effectiveness of this type of race-baiting. “There's a deep, deep history of white voters thinking that somehow they're losing power or that they're somehow the forgotten people of this country, and that America belongs to them,” he continues. “Therefore, any action that they take to preserve their power in America is legitimate, just like the people in Wilmington thought in 1898.”

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