On Nov. 10th, 1898, a white supremacist mob brutally massacred African Americans in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Then deposed the duly-elected city and county government in a violent coup. The Wilmington Massacre has the ugly distinction of being the only successful coup in American history. Lost in the political overthrow were the lives of over 100 Black citizens, black businesses & leadership, and a most of all, a thriving southern Black community.
Before the violence, Wilmington, NC, a coastal city a few miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, was thriving and remarkably integrated for 1898. Three out of the ten aldermen were African Americans, and Black people worked as policemen, firemen, and magistrates. Two-thirds of the population were African American. Blacks owned barbershops, restaurants, tailors, and drug stores. They also held positions as firemen and policemen!
November 10th,1898 changed all that, starting in the morning with a mob setting fire to the Black newspaper building. It ended at sundown with dozens dead in the streets and the overthrow of the city government, replaced by the leaders of the white supremacist mob. Not a single person was later prosecuted for the murders. Even in the era of Jim Crow, such anarchy and brutality was exceptional for the South.
How did the Massacre and Coup come about?
The massacre was part of a carefully orchestrated coup that toppled a rare, multi-racial government in the American South, post-Reconstruction. The city also had a rare, Black Middle Class and some 65 black doctors, lawyers and teachers. The far-reaching goal of the coup stretched beyond just Wilmington – to prevent black citizens across the entire state of North Carolina from ever voting again.
In the election of 1896, 2 years earlier, white Democrats lost control of the state government in Raleigh. A group of white Populists and Black Republicans won control of the state house and senate. The white Democrats were furious and vowed to never let it happen again, at any cost. The party of the old Confederacy promised to forever end “Negro domination” in state elections.
The NC Democratic Party began a broad white supremacy campaign to drive Populist and Republican politicians out of office during the next election in 1898. The campaign used political speeches, printed propaganda, and fear-mongering with the threat of violent “Black Uprisings” to create support amongst whites. And it worked beautifully.
They focused on stoking white men’s bigotry and anger, along with white women’s fears of being raped by rampant black men. Prior to the next election, the white newspaper, The Wilmington Messenger, published a controversial speech given by a wealthy Georgia socialite. She supported lynchings for any “inappropriate relationship” of a Black man with white women to “protect women from the ravening Negro beast.”
Alex Manly, the Black newspaper editor of The Daily Record in Wilmington, wrote an editorial condemning unlawful lynchings. It pointed out the hypocrisy of describing Negro men as “Black Brutes,” when white men were guilty of regularly raping Black women at will. He daringly added that some relations between the races were actually consensual.
This editorial only fueled racial tensions, with Wilmington now the focal point of the state.
Alfred Waddell, a U.S. Congressman and former Confederate colonel, called for the removal of the Black Republicans and white Populists from power in Wilmington. In his own speech, he proposed that white citizens should “choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses,” if necessary, to keep Blacks from the polls. White supremacist rallies across the state kept white outrage at a fever pitch.
On Election Day, November 8th, Klan-like Red Shirts across the state used threats and intimidation to stop Blacks from voting. African American voters however again turned out in large numbers. White supremacists tampered with the returns and stuffed ballot boxes. Because of their illegal tactics, Southern Democrats swept the state election. The next day, The Wilmington Messenger proclaimed, “Yesterday was a glorious day for white supremacy in North Carolina.”
Democrats may have won every seat in the state legislature, but African Americans and white Populists still maintained power in Wilmington’s government. Alfred Waddell, white politicians and businessmen plotted an insurrection, which the city’s white soldiers, police, and vigilantes executed. The soldiers came from an all-white state militia stationed in Wilmington, commanded by white supremacist, ex-Confederate officers.
On November 9th, The Wilmington Messenger published a notice from Waddell:
“Attention White Men: There will be a meeting this morning at 11 o’clock at the Court House. Business of the furtherance of White Supremacy will be transacted.”Wilmington Messenger notice, 9 November, 1898
An estimated 800 people attended, including ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants and working men. They drafted a resolution known as the “White Declaration of Independence.” It stated, “We, the undersigned citizens of the city of Wilmington, do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.” More than 450 angry white men signed the declaration.
A group of African American leaders, the Committee of Colored Citizens, were then summoned to a meeting, and ordered to respond to the Declaration by 7:30 AM the next morning. They left to Jacobs’ Barber Shop and drafted a rebuttal reply. The Committee elected a young Black lawyer, Armond Scott, to deliver their reply. By now, Wilmington’s streets were filled with visibly armed white men. Fearing for his own safety, Scott drops the reply in the mail, and does not deliver it in person.
On NOVEMBER 10th, 1898, a crowd of white men gather at the Court House. When the Committee of Colored Citizens’ response does not arrive, Waddell leads the men to the Wilmington Light Infantry’s Armory where they arm the mob. They then march to The Daily Record’ s office a few blocks away. The whites demanded that both Manly and newspaper be forever banned from the community. Manly escapes, ironically because he was mistaken for white, due to his light skin. At 9:00 AM, the mob ransacks The Daily Record office.
The white mob then sets the newspaper building on fire.
Word of the arson spreads quickly through both White and Black neighborhoods. Tensions ignite at 11:00 AM when Black men at Walker’s Grocery Store face off against white men at nearby Brunje’s Saloon. A shot is fired and someone yells, “White man killed!” Gunfire erupts from the white mob. Unarmed Black men scatter, but were chased through the streets and gunned down.
Violence quickly spreads and the white mob grows to over 2,000 by day’s end. They poured into Black neighborhoods with rifles, revolvers, and even a Gatling gun. The mob now includes soldiers, police, lawyers, bankers, even clergy. Whites began to hunt and gun down black men, many of them simply running to get home safely. As many as 25 black men are killed trying to cross the 4th Street Bridge. The Gatling gun is even aimed at St. Stephen AME Church.
Waddell telegrams the governor to call out the other militias, wrongly claiming Blacks were rioting in Wilmington! Governor Russell puts Colonel Walker Taylor, a local militia officer in charge of the troops and calls for him to “Preserve the Peace,” at all costs. Wilmington is placed under Martial Law. In the chaos, hundreds of African Americans flee into the marshy swamps surrounding the city.
At City Hall, the coup occurs at 4 PM in the afternoon.
Waddell and Tayler throw out all the democratically-elected aldermen and install coup leaders. Republican and Populist city officials are forced to resign. Coup leaders then “elect” Alfred Waddell as mayor. The mob takes away Black leaders at gun point and jails them “for their own safety.”
The next day, an armed escort forcibly marches the elected city government to the train station and banishes them from the city. This included Thomas Miller, the richest Black man in town and three prominent white men—the Police Chief, County Commissioner and Mayor. The coup leaders then demanded that white men be hired instead of African Americans. So the Fire and Police Departments fire all the Black men and replace them with whites.
The new police force reported that only 25 black men had been killed. However, it’s believed that over a hundred African Americans had been murdered and their bodies dumped into the Cape Fear River. All of those known to have died in the massacre were Black. This official list of names never includes all those murdered.
Over the next few weeks, over 2000 African Americans flee the city in response to the Wilmington massacre and coup. Wilmington turned from a black-majority city into a white supremacist haven. In the months to come, No one was prosecuted or punished for the killings and destruction. A “Black Race Riot” was cited by the white mob as justification for the murder and violence.
In 1900, the NC state legislature effectively stripped African Americans of the right to vote through various Jim Crow Laws. President William McKinley ignored pleas from Black leaders to send in U.S. troops to protect NC Black citizens on election day. Two years before the coup, 126,000 black men were registered to vote in NC. Four years after the coup, the number was just 6,100.
What happened that bloody day was nearly lost to history.
For over 90 years, the perpetrators were cast as heroes in Southern textbooks. The black victims were continually described as rapists and rioters. It took nearly a century for the truth to finally creep back into the general public’s awareness. It was only as the 100 Year Anniversary of the coup grew near, that the city of Wilmington reexamined its own past and the suffering it caused its own Black community.
Today, there’s little physical evidence of what happened there in 1898. In 2008, one hundred ten years later, the Wilmington Massacre 1898 Memorial was unveiled in Wilmington. The monument consists of six, sixteen feet high paddles standing in a half circle. They represent the religious belief among African cultures that those who pass from the living to the dead, do so via water.
There are have been many violent moments in U.S. history, perpetrated against Native Americans, immigrants and African Americans. The Wilmington Massacre, committed by the white supremacist mob, was unique: It was the only successful coup d’état ever to take place on American soil.