RALEIGH, N.C.—As a horse-drawn machine-gun regiment fired into crowds and frightened blacks fled into the cold swamps, the dream of a Reconstructed South died on the streets of Wilmington, N.C., on Nov. 10, 1898—more than 30 years after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War.
The uprising began a day after the election in Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city. The city’s Democrats, who regained power from the Republicans, proceeded to wrest control of the government immediately. Supported by para-military networks, historians now say, white Democratic leaders staged a planned insurrection resisted by bands of black men. The party mob, which grew to as many as 2,000, smashed the press and toppled kerosene lamps in a black newspaper office, setting the press ablaze. As many as 100 people were killed in the race riot.
For more than a century, the only violent overthrow of a local government in US history has been hidden in mystique.
Now, a new report challenges the view that held sway for many years—that a provocative statement about white women and black men by a mixed race (then known as mulatto) newspaper editor caused the 1898 riot in a South gripped by fears of miscegenation.
Instead, LeRea Umfleet, a state government historian, writes that a group named the Secret Nine, made up of white businessmen and politicians, played a Wizard of Oz-like role, pulling strings on trained paramilitaries to take control of the city—and the state. It set the stage for Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century.
“Conspiracy is the proper word to be used for the things that happened, which makes it so difficult to write what happened,” says Ms. Umfleet. “There are so many layers of conspiracy going on within the Democratic Party, within the leadership in Wilmington, within the white business community, so many layers of people planning for the same end result.”
The report is seen as another milestone for a country still trying to come to terms with its violent racial history. It follows similar race riot commissions in Florida and Oklahoma, the US Senate’s apology earlier this year for blocking anti-lynching legislation, and renewed investigations into civil rights-era crimes.
“Wilmington was center stage for the country and it said: If you cross this line, violence will be the answer . . . and it shattered the American dream,” says former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson. “We’re still trying to recover what we lost.”
To some, the report is a way of getting to the truth of an event wrapped in family memories and rumors. Critics say it attempts to judge a former era by modern standards. Wilmington race riot commissioners, however, hope that the report will provide a fuller understanding into how a seemingly spontaneous riot can have conspiratorial roots, and how a long-ago event can affect African-Americans today.
“We do have a national amnesia about these incidents and about the degree to which force and terrorism were part of American politics, especially in the Southeast,” says Brooks Simpson, a Civil War historian at Arizona State University and the author of “Let Us Have Peace,” about the Reconstruction era.
Umfleet says that the coup d’etat ended the social progress blacks had made in Wilmington after the Civil War.
“North Carolina can point to 1898 and say, ‘This is when Jim Crow started,’“ says Umfleet. “Wilmington happened, and it was that catalyst that proved that the Democrats could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.”