Wilmington insurrection or Wilmington massacre
November 10, 1898
Notable: Coup d’état and massacre
Location: Wilmington, NC
In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which among other things freed those who were enslaved within the rebel states. When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 it theoretically ended the American Civil War. Though the war didn’t officially end until a proclamation was issued by President Johnson in 1866.
During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Confederacy was dissolved and slavery was officially abolished throughout the United States. Efforts were made to integrate the former Confederate states and the newly freed into the Union. Additional amendments were ratified with the intent of establishing the criteria for and the rights of citizenship for the newly emancipated.
The formerly enslaved began to acquire property, sought education, and established businesses. Now, citizens, Black men had been granted the right to vote. And the large concentration of Black people in the South created the potential for powerful voting blocs in some areas.
Bitter from losing the war and still clinging to ideas of White supremacy, some Southern White people were angered by these changes. When federal troops were withdrawn from the South it signaled the end of Reconstruction. In the years that followed, communities across the South began to implement new laws and policies aimed at limiting the rights of Black people. This was combined with oppressive social practices to effectively create a new form of quasi-slavery. In some areas, violence and acts of terrorism were used to reinforce these efforts to subjugate Black people.
Wilmington, North Carolina was one such place.
A former Confederate general and soldiers became the police chief and police officers in Wilmington mere months after the Civil War. The police force had no Black officers and regularly brutalized the city’s Black residents. Despite these hostilities, Black citizens exercised their right to vote which helped elect multiple Black men for public office.
Fueled in part by recognizing their shared interests White farmers in the Populist Party and Black Republicans formed a political coalition within North Carolina. This group of “Fusionists” as they were called made a pact to not run candidates against each other during elections of the 1890s. By combining their votes, they outnumbered those of the Democrats (the party of white supremacy until the mid-1900s).
The Fusionists successfully elected representatives at the local and state levels who worked in the interest of Black and working-class White people. The increasing political power and financial success of Black residents along with there being several Black public servants angered Democrats. They viewed this progress as “Negro domination”. Over several months, White supremacists plotted the demise of Black progress throughout North Carolina.
A campaign of disinformation was carried out via newspaper articles, political cartoons, and speeches. They utilized the often repeated claim of Black men raping White women. And cast Black people’s aspirations for greater political power as a ploy to increase access to White women. Politicians and other speechmakers called for White men to do all that was possible, including committing acts of violence, to ensure the election of Democrats.
The Red Shirts, a group similar to the KKK, roamed on horseback terrorizing Black people and communities. They placed particular focus on those who voted or were otherwise politically active. On election day they stalked Black neighborhoods armed with guns. This led to low Black voter turnout across the state, allowing Democrats to win key state races.
By 1898, Wilmington was prosperous with a slight majority Black population and a growing Black middle class. The Black men who held local political office weren’t up for re-election until the following year. And thus this city, especially, drew the attention of white supremacists.
Alexander Manly, a city resident and owner of the Wilmington Daily Record, responded to a speech that called for lynchings to prevent these Black-on-White rapes. He stated that this supposed epidemic of Black men raping White women was unfounded. It was more likely that sexual contact between the two groups was consensual. He also pointed out the hypocrisy of these outraged White men. As they were more accurately describing themselves and the crimes they committed against Black people, Black women in particular.
Alfred Moore Waddell was one of the politicians who had called for violence against Black voters. On November 10th, two days after the state elections, he and several hundred White men armed themselves with a Gatling gun and other weapons and entered Wilmington. The mob promptly burned down the Daily Record offices, though fortunately, Manly had already left town.
In the months leading up to this event, some stores had declined to sell guns to Black people. Some went so far as to record which Black people had attempted to purchase weapons. And the city’s 10 Black police officers had been pushed out of the department.
Painting the situation as Black residents rioting, members of the mob pushed for the governor to send in the state militias. Now reinforced by the local police force and other government agencies, the mob moved through town destroying property and attacking and killing Black people as they went. Waddell and some of the mob invaded city hall and forced the democratically elected members of the local government to resign at gunpoint.
Largely unarmed and outgunned, many Black residents were forced to flee and hide in the wilderness outside the city. Thousands would leave the city completely and relocate elsewhere. The exact number of casualties is unknown but estimates are in the range of 14 to tens or hundreds. It’s believed that some bodies were dumped in the nearby river or otherwise destroyed. The incident resulted in the Black population becoming the minority within the city.
Waddell was declared the city’s mayor later in the day completing the coup d’etat. Within a few years, a grandfather clause and other laws were implemented to restrict Black voting rights. Coupled with new Jim Crow laws Black people were once again relegated to being treated as second-class citizens.
In the years that followed, the events of November 10, 1898, would be referred to as the Wilmington Riot or Wilmington Incident. Waddell and other members of the mob were portrayed as heroes. Their attack on Wilmington was openly discussed with pride until public opinion on openly violent acts of white supremacy changed in the 1900s. At that point, the incident was simply less discussed. It wasn’t until around the event’s centennial that the true story of what took place began to be discussed publicly though it remains less widely known.
- Johnson, Tekla Ali. 2023. “Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.” Blackpast.org. January 23, 2023. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/wilmington-race-riot-1898/.
- Luckhurst, Toby. 2021. “Wilmington 1898: When White Supremacists Overthrew a US Government.” BBC News. BBC. January 17, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55648011.
- Neuman, Scott. 2021. “A North Carolina City Begins to Reckon with the Massacre in Its White Supremacist Past.” NPR. NPR. November 10, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/11/10/1053562371/1898-wilmington-coup-massacre.
- Newkirk , Vann R., and Adrienne LaFrance. 2021. “The Lost History of an American Coup D’état.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company. May 16, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/wilmington-massacre/536457/.
- “Nov. 10, 1898: Wilmington Massacre.” 2022. Zinn Education Project. November 11, 2022. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/wilmington-massacre-2/.
- Wallenfeldt, Jeff. 2023. “Wilmington Coup and Massacre.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. January 13, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/event/Wilmington-coup-and-massacre.
- Zucchino, David. 2020. “The Wilmington Massacre Is a Lesson in American History.” Time. Time USA, LLC. July 1, 2020. https://time.com/5861644/1898-wilmington-massacre-essential-lesson-state-violence/.
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