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.