Today in history: the Wilmington Race Riot

This past Saturday Wilmington, North Carolina, dedicated a new memorial to the victims of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. The memorial site includes an installation of six 16-foot-high bronze paddles created by sculptor Ayokunle Odeleye.

Today, November 10, is the 110th anniversary of the event. Ten years ago, UNC Press published Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, edited by David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson. The editors set the scene (p. 4):

On a chilly autumn day one hundred years ago, armed columns of white business leaders and working men seized the majority-black city of Wilmington by force. For almost a year, the Democratic Party–the self-avowed ‘party of white supremacy’–had conducted a statewide campaign of racist appeals and political violence aimed at shattering the coalition of black Republicans and white Populists that had been in office since 1894. Advocating freer elections, popular control of local government, and regulation to contain the excesses of monopoly capitalism, this interracial ‘Fusion’ coalition had captured the governorship, the General Assembly, and countless local offices, threatening the power of both the remnants of the old planter class and the emerging industrial leaders of the New South. For the first time since Radical Reconstruction in 1868-70, black North Carolinians and a sizable number of whites had come together in a common cause. White Democrats found this unbearable. ‘We will not live under these intolerable conditions,’ Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell told a crowd of cheering Democrats. ‘We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of negroes, even if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses.’

An editorial exchange became the tipping point for white supremacists in Wilmington. From Ronnie W. Faulkner’s entry on the Wilmington Race Riot in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina:

The Wilmington Race Riot of 10 Nov. 1898 constituted the most serious incident of racial violence in the history of North Carolina. It has been variously called a revolution, a race war, and more accurately a coup d’etat. The outbreak stemmed from an editorial published on 18 Aug. 1898 by the Wilmington Daily Record, an African American newspaper edited by Alexander Manly. In response to an appeal for the lynching of black rapists made by crusader Rebecca Felton in Georgia on 11 Aug. 1897, Manly wrote that white women ‘are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women.’ Moreover, Manly argued, many accusations of rape were simply cases where a black man was having an affair with a white woman. Because it involved the sensitive issues of interracial sexual relations, the editorial struck a raw nerve with many whites and led to bitter denunciations of Manly in the Democratic press.

Waddell demanded Manly leave Wilmington by the morning of 10 November. Manly did, in fact, leave Wilmington, but notification did not reach Waddell before his deadline. A mob of hundreds of armed white men destroyed the press at the Wilmington Daily Record and set fire to the building. They shot and killed an unknown number African Americans (accounts range from 7 to 300). They ousted the council of aldermen and the mayor. Waddell declared himself the new mayor and appointed a new board of aldermen.

White rule was reinstated in Wilmington for another half-century.

In 2000, the North Carolina General Assembly called for a commission to conduct a formal investigation of the events of 1898 to establish a historical record and examine the economic consequences of the event for African Americans in the state of North Carolina. The commission presented its report in April 2006. They opened their report with an epigraph from Charles Waddell Chesnutt‘s The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899):

Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years. God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!

The commission documented a conspiracy among white Democratic elites in Wilmington and New Hanover county to overthrow, by force, a legitimately elected municipal government. The report cited the media as playing a role in the conspiracy, specifically naming Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer (N&O) at the time, as the “precipitator of the riot.” This prompted the N&O and the Charlotte Observer to turn to historian Tim Tyson to help create a special section on the event to be distributed in newspapers statewide, documenting the history of the “riot” and the papers’ involvement in it. In November 2006, “The Ghosts of 1898″ was published.

In 2008, Wilmington dedicated a memorial to the unknown numbers of African Americans who “choked Cape Fear with their carcasses” — just four days after the nation elected the first African American president of the United States. Tim Tyson spoke with the Huffington Post a week before the historic presidential election, helping put the possible Obama victory in historical perspective for North Carolina. He predicted an Obama victory in North Carolina¬† (which has, after some delay, come to pass) would demonstrate “that we are on the edge of yet another new South, a forward-looking South that will rise again but with school books, not bayonets, with health care, not a Confederacy of Dunces.”

In the spirit of moving forward — together — perhaps this historic election can indeed bring “some little foretaste of this golden age.” May we all work to create another new South.

–ellen