Posted on November 17, 2006

Wilmington’s Race Riot And The Rise Of White Supremacy

Timothy B. Tyson, The Observer (Charlotte, N.C.), Nov. 17, 2006

On Nov. 10, 1898, heavily armed columns of white men marched into the black neighborhoods of Wilmington. In the name of white supremacy, this well-ordered mob burned the offices of the local black newspaper, murdered perhaps dozens of black residents — the precise number isn’t known — and banished many successful black citizens and their so-called “white nigger” allies. A new social order was born in the blood and the flames, rooted in what The News and Observer’s publisher, Josephus Daniels, heralded as “permanent good government by the party of the White Man.”

The Wilmington race riot of 1898 stands as one of the most important chapters in North Carolina’s history. It is also an event of national historical significance. Occurring only two years after the Supreme Court had sanctioned “separate but equal” segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, the riot marked the embrace of virulent Jim Crow racism, not merely in Wilmington, but across the United States.


Those truths include that what occurred in Wilmington on that chilly autumn morning was not a spontaneous outbreak of mob violence. It was, instead, the climax of a carefully orchestrated statewide campaign led by some of the leading figures in North Carolina’s history to end interracial cooperation and build a one-party state that would assure the power of North Carolina’s business elite.

The black-white coalition

At the end of the 19th century, Wilmington was a symbol of black hope. Thanks to its busy port, the black majority city was North Carolina’s largest and most important municipality. Blacks owned 10 of the city’s 11 eating houses and 20 of its 22 barbershops. The black male literacy rate was higher than that of whites.Black achievement, however, was always fragile. Wealthy whites were willing to accept some black advancement, so long as they held the reins of power. Through the Democratic Party, whites controlled the state and local governments from 1876 to 1894. However, the party’s coalition of wealthy, working class and rural whites began to unravel in the late 1880s as America plunged into depression.

North Carolina became a hotbed of agrarian revolt as hard-pressed farmers soured on the Democrats because of policies that cottoned to banks and railroads. Many white dissidents eventually founded the People’s Party, also known as the Populists. Soon they imagined what had been unimaginable: an alliance with blacks, who shared their economic grievances.

As the economic depression deepened, these white Populists joined forces with black Republicans, forming an interracial “Fusion” coalition that championed local self-government, free public education and electoral reforms that would give black men the same voting rights as whites. In the 1894 and 1896 elections, the Fusion movement won every statewide office, swept the legislature and elected its most prominent white leader, Daniel Russell, to the governorship.

In Wilmington, the Fusion triumph lifted black and white Republicans and white Populists to power. Horrified white Democrats vowed to regain control of the government.

Race baiting fuels vote

As the 1898 political season loomed, the Populists and Republicans hoped to make more gains through Fusion. To rebound, Democrats knew they had to develop campaign issues that transcended party lines. {snip}

The Democrats did not rely solely upon newspapers, however, but deployed a statewide campaign of stump speakers, torchlight parades and physical intimidation. Aycock earned his chance to become North Carolina’s “education governor” through his fiery speeches for white supremacy.

Issue of race and sex

As in the rest of the state, Wilmington Democrats founded their campaign upon propaganda, violence and fraud. Their efforts to persuade white men to commit wholesale violence was made easier in August 1898 when Alexander Manly, the black owner of The Daily Record, answered a speech supporting lynchings. Not all interracial sex is rape, he noted; many white women willingly sleep with black men. For Democrats, Manly’s editorial was a godsend, allowing them to support their lies about predatory blacks. And no one was better at spreading that message of hate and violence than Wilmington’s Alfred Waddell.

The former Confederate soldier was a passionate speaker, who riled crowds with his famous line: “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”

As Waddell spoke, the Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, thundered across the state on horseback, disrupting African-American church services and Republican meetings. In Wilmington, the Red Shirts patrolled every street in the days before the election, intimidating and attacking black citizens.


Stealing the election would not be enough for the conservatives. For one thing, Wilmington’s local Fusionist government remained in office. Many local officials — the mayor and the board of aldermen, for example — had not been up for re-election in 1898. And Wilmington remained the center of African-American economic and political power, as well as a symbol of black pride. White Democrats were in no mood to wait.

The day after the election, Waddell unfurled a “White Declaration of Independence” that called for the disfranchisement of black voters. The following morning, Nov. 10, Waddell and a heavily armed crowd of about 2,000 marched to Love and Charity Hall, where the Record had been published. The mob battered down the door of the two-story frame structure, dumped kerosene on the wooden floors, and set the building ablaze.


At the end of the day, no one knew how many people had died — estimates ranged from nine to 300. The only certainty in the matter of casualties is that democracy was gravely wounded on the streets of Wilmington.

While the violence raged, white leaders launched a coup d’etat, forcing the mayor, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint. By 4 p.m. that day, Waddell was Wilmington’s mayor.


Effects of 1898 linger

When the new legislature met in 1899, its first order of business was to disfranchise blacks. In the years that followed, the leaders of the white supremacy campaign were largely responsible for the birth of the Jim Crow social order and the rise of a one-party political system.

More than a century later, it is clear that the white supremacy campaign of 1898 injected a vicious racial ideology into American political culture that we have yet to transcend fully. Our separate and unequal lives attest to the fact, though much has changed for the better and a few things have changed for the worse.