American Style Coup d’etat

The Real Story of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898

A group of people standing in front of a brick building Description automatically generated

Burning the Wilmington Daily Record, November 10, 1898.

The cover photo for Wilmington’s Lie by New York Times reporter David Zucchino (Grove/Atlantic Press) is both shocking and utterly revealing of the truth-telling to come. A gang of armed, self-satisfied white men, dressed in their Sunday best, stand before the smoldering remains of the Wilmington Daily Record, a black-owned newspaper. The Record’s editor, Alex Manly, had written an editorial that provided the excuse for a murderous plot to go into overdrive. The result was America’s only coup d’etat — the overthrow of Wilmington, North Carolina’s bi-racial city government in November, 1898. When the shooting stopped, at least sixty, and perhaps two hundred, black men lay dead. The true number has never been established.

The story of Wilmington’s long-buried tragedy sat largely ignored by mainstream journalists and historians for over a century. Perhaps that was unsurprising, since the white politicians who benefited from the coup and its aftermath rarely if ever spoke of it in later decades. Building upon success in Wilmington, white supremacist elites were able to sideline African American political power in North Carolina for three generations. Except for addressing black audiences in cautionary racial code, over time the white perpetrators and their political heirs refused to talk about what happened or even to admit that anything happened at all.

Alex Manly’s Wilmington in the 1890s was a thriving, multi-racial city, filled to bursting with aspiring African American families pursuing the American dream. They started hardware stores, law practices, churches, and schools. They shared political power with forward-looking whites of the business and professional classes, much as in progressive cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte in a later New South era.

But conservative grandees soon conspired in cabals called “Secret Nine” or “Group Six” to undermine and destroy this vision for a new century. Manly mocked the old guard’s claims of social and racial superiority — his own grandfather was the white governor of North Carolina, he liked to point out. He wrote in a Record editorial that the widespread and lurid accounts of black men assaulting white women in the establishment press were overdone: many black women suffered sexual assault at the hands of white men, and it never made the papers; besides that, if anyone cared to notice, true interracial attraction existed amidst the dogwoods and azaleas all around the new North Carolina of 1898.

This was more than enough for Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, who published many of the lurid accounts Manly decried. Daniels served as chief propagandist for a younger Democratic Party leadership chafing under persistent political losses during the 1890s to the Republicans. This new generation of Democrats yearned for North Carolina to enact the Jim Crow laws other southern states had passed. But Wilmington’s success – and Manly’s charisma – stood in the way. Sensing a political opening, Daniels reprinted the Record editorial under the headline: “VILE AND VILLAINOUS,” adding, even as the Wilmington conspirators schemed, that Manly had “aroused the people to white heat.”

That last remark proved a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the Record’s offices burned to the ground in the first hours of the coup, and Manly fled the city, escaping in disguise on a north-bound train, ticket courtesy of a white friend. He lived in Philadelphia until his death in 1944, owning a house-painting business and pursuing community work, speaking only rarely about the events in Wilmington. He’d return to North Carolina only once, for his father-in-law’s funeral.

Violence continued in the streets with the goal of regime change. White supremacist leaders knew North Carolina’s largest city had to fall if the Democrats and their Jim Crow agenda were to have a chance in the 1900 elections. They enlisted the Red Shirts, a white-rights militia of the day, to do the dirty work. In Wilmington the Red Shirts were issued brand-new Winchester rifles, paid for by their wealthy backers.

As a supposed counterpoint, Republican Governor Daniel Russell detailed the decidedly upper-class Wilmington Light Infantry to keep the peace. Just back from the Spanish American War, they ended up instead alongside the Red Shirts, firing on defenseless African American citizens. The killers murdered African American men in their neighborhoods, and chased fearful families into the cold woods and swamps outside town. Over time, thousands of talented, hard-working African Americans and their white allies simply left Wilmington, taking with them their American dreams and Wilmington’s vitality.

The public leader of the coup was Alfred Moore Waddell, a Confederate veteran and failed politician, who had once lost a Congressional seat to Governor Russell. In Zucchino’s account he is manipulated by the conspirators, kept in the dark about the worst crimes. Dutifully, he engineered the forced resignation of the city’s black and white Republican elected leaders, following days of horror. The conspirators then proclaimed Waddell mayor in the name of white supremacy, to re-establish the civic order that white supremacy destroyed.

The success of the Wilmington coup emboldened white supremacists everywhere and, as hoped by the Democratic leadership, energized North Carolina’s Jim Crow takeover in 1900. Imposition of the poll tax and a literacy test (offset by the Grandfather clause to benefit illiterate whites) in that year effectively ended African American political power in North Carolina until the nineteen-sixties. In 1896 there were nearly 126,000 registered black voters in the state; after the Jim Crow amendments passed, only around 6,000 remained. Yet disenfranchisement was not inevitable – it had been plotted step-by-step by self-interested white supremacists, and then obscured for decades in a history of magnolia and moonshine.

White influencers of the Lost Cause school moved to characterize the murderous and illegal events of the Wilmington coup comfortably for a national audience. Thomas Dixon, whose novels inspired the orgiastic Klan celebrations in Birth of a Nation, re-plotted the destruction of a black-owned newspaper, and the forced resignation of a multi-racial city government for his book The Leopard’s Spots. In Dixon’s convenient fiction the white patriots of the fictional city of Independence, North Carolina, rise in revolt against their black oppressors as their forebears did against King George.

While not dripping with venom like Dixon’s falsehoods, mainstream historians glossed over the events more professionally for decades. In 1954 the definitive North Carolina history devoted a single paragraph to the Wilmington coup in its 600-page journey from Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony to post-World War II progressive prosperity. The authors attribute the massacre of Wilmington’s black citizens to an unfortunate “race riot,” and all but ignore the armed takeover of the state’s largest city.

Whatever official misunderstandings whites in power promoted, the lingering threat of Wilmington’s violence wasn’t lost in the common understanding of black citizens. As late as 1943, Governor J. Melville Broughton addressed a state-wide African American audience gathered in Wilmington on the dangers of pressing civil rights during war time – or ever, really. The occasion was the christening of a Liberty ship, named the John Merrick, after the founder of North Carolina Mutual Life, the nation’s largest minority-owned insurance company. Gov. Broughton, a moderate, celebrated the pride of the black community in Merrick’s business success, but still could not help pointing out that “Forty-five years ago … blood flowed freely in the streets of this city, feelings ran riot and elemental emotions and bitterness were stirred.” He didn’t need to add that he now led the political party whose agents caused the bloodshed unleashed by all those feelings and emotions. Everybody got the message.

After World War II, historians and journalists began to re-tell the Wilmington story. In 1951 the African American historian Helen Edmonds published The Negro and Fusion Politics, which laid bare much of the real history. Others followed. But it was not until 2000 that the state of North Carolina commissioned an authoritative account of the true scope of the tragedy, which was published in 2006. In that same year The News and Observer, Josephus Daniels’s old paper, published a multi-part series to correct the record and apologize for their role in the coup and its aftermath.

Still, popular knowledge of the event and its importance remained scant. White North Carolina baby boomers, products of the public schools, rightly admitted ignorance – they’d never been taught the history. David Zucchino’s highly readable and expertly researched account changes all that. Zucchino won a Pulitzer Prize for political reporting from apartheid-era South Africa, and his masterful handling of this wrenching material makes use of all his skills.

Indispensable for its authoritative popularizing of the history, Wilmington’s Lie is also haunting in its echoes of the recent past. Resentment of President Obama’s mixed-race identity and the successes of his government, similar to the resentment against 1898 Wilmington, led to open voter suppression in North Carolina — and elsewhere. After Obama won North Carolina’s vote in 2008, North Carolina Republicans, in charge of the North Carolina legislature for the first time in a century, but imagining themselves beleaguered, enacted multiple new barriers to African American suffrage. Their efforts to close down black voting power created ripe comparisons to the Democrats of 1900. The irony seemed lost on the legislators, but not on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In striking down most of the voter-suppression laws, the judges wrote memorably that these Republican descendants of the Jim Crow overlords had “acted with almost surgical precision,” to quell the black vote.

Wilmington’s Lie has turned history on a dime. One can’t imagine students of the southern past thinking of North Carolina’s murderous 1898 uprising, or other century-old cases of sugar-coated racist violence in the same way again. The question remains whether events now unfolding in this election year of 2020 will echo the tragedy of Wilmington — America’s coup d’etat — or manage to steer clear.

John Russell is a North Carolina-based writer, and a past winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. ALL THE RIGHT CIRCLES (Rare Bird Books) is his latest novel of southern society and politics. He can be contacted at info@johnrussellbooks.com.

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