On Nov. 10, 1898, one of the worst “race riots” in U.S. history left 30 to 100 African Americans dead in Wilmington, North Carolina and the elected Reconstruction era government was deposed in a coup d’etat.
Before the violence, this port city on the Cape Fear River was remarkably integrated. Three out of the ten aldermen were African Americans, and blacks worked as policemen, firemen, and magistrates.
Democrats, the party of the Confederacy, vowed to end this “Negro domination” in the 1898 state legislative elections. Their strategy was to enlist men who could write (white journalists and cartoonists), men who could speak (white supremacists who whipped up emotions at rallies), and men who could ride (the Ku Klux Klan-like “Red Shirts” who were basically armed ruffians on horseback).
The white supremacists used an editorial by Alex Manly, the editor of Wilmington’s black newspaper the Daily Record, to stir a firestorm at the time of the elections. The editorial responded to a speech by a Georgia socialite who promoted lynching as a method “to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beast.”
Manly condemned lynching and pointed out the hypocrisy of describing black men as “big burly, black brute(s)” when in reality it was white men who regularly raped black women without impunity. He added that some relations between the races were consensual.
White supremacist rallies kept white outrage at the editorial at a fever pitch. Former Confederate colonel Alfred Waddell gave a speech suggesting that white citizens should “choke the Cape Fear (River) with carcasses” if necessary to keep blacks from the polls.
On election day, the Red Shirts patrolled black neighborhoods with guns. Democrats won every seat, but these were state legislative seats. African Americans still maintained power in Wilmington’s city government.
Some 800 white citizens led by Waddell met at the county courthouse and produced the “White Declaration of Independence” which stated: “We, the undersigned citizens… do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.”
The following day—Nov. 10—Waddell led a mob of 2,000 armed men to the Daily Record and burned the building to the ground.
Rumors tore through the black neighborhoods. The tinderbox ignited at the corner of Fourth and Harnett, where African Americans at Walker’s Grocery Store faced off against white men at Brunje’s saloon. A shot was fired and someone yelled, “White man killed.”
Gunfire erupted. Unarmed black men scattered in all directions and were gunned down. Violence quickly spread. The Wilmington Light Infantry, the White Government Union, and the Red Shirts poured into the black neighborhoods with rifles, revolvers, and a Gatling gun.
As bullets were still flying, Waddell threw out the democratically-elected aldermen and installed his own. This was nothing less than a coup d’état. The hand-picked men “elected” Waddell mayor. Many black leaders were jailed “for their own safety” and then forcibly marched to the train station under military escort and sent out of town.
After the riot, thousands of black citizens fled. In 1900, the North Carolina legislature effectively stripped African Americans of the vote through the grandfather clause and ushered in the worst of the Jim Crow laws.
This text is adapted from a description provided by Barbara Wright, author of Crow, an excellent book of historical fiction from grades 7+ about the Wilmington Massacre.
Learn from the documentary film, Wilmington on Fire.
Read about more massacres in U.S. history.