1898 Race Clash Ruled a Coup

Larry Thomas, shown in 2003, has pursued a reassessment of the Wilmington racial violence for years. Thomas said the economic losses caused by white supremacists' overthrow of the New Hanover County government would amount to billions in today's dollars.
Larry Thomas, shown in 2003, has pursued a reassessment of the Wilmington racial violence for years. Thomas said the economic losses caused by white supremacists' overthrow of the New Hanover County government would amount to billions in today's dollars. (By Karen Tam -- Associated Press)
By Mike Baker
Associated Press
Thursday, June 1, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C., May 31 -- North Carolina should provide economic and social compensation to victims of Wilmington's 1898 racial violence, said a panel that also concluded the attack was not a riot but rather this country's only recorded coup d'etat.

The report issued Wednesday from the state-appointed commission urged lawmakers to consider economic reparations in Wilmington, including incentives for minority small businesses, compensation to heirs of victims through court action and help for minority homeownership.

"There is no amount of money that can repair what happened years ago and compensate for the loss of lives and the loss of property," said Irving Joyner, the panel's vice chairman and a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law.

The commission did not provide any cost estimates, but compensation advocate Larry Thomas of Chapel Hill estimated that the economic losses calculated today are "probably in the billions of dollars."

"A crime was committed," said Thomas, a Wilmington native who has pursued the issue for years. "Irregardless of the race issue, you'd have to come to the conclusion that somebody lost property and someone needs to be compensated."

By killing and terrorizing blacks in Wilmington on Nov. 10, 1898, white supremacists were able to overthrow government officials in New Hanover County at gunpoint -- the only recorded violent government overthrow in U.S. history, according to the 500-page report, produced after six years of study. The plot ushered in a new anti-black political era for the Jim Crow South and ultimately cut black voting rights.

Some previous historical accounts had portrayed the incident as spontaneous, although more recently historians have described it as a coup.

"This sets the record straight," said state Rep. Thomas Wright (D-New Hanover), who helped establish and chair the panel. "Now there is an official document confirming this part of North Carolina's -- and America's -- history. Nowhere in the United States has a legitimate government ever been overthrown."

Wright said the next step is to file a bill with the recommendations -- which include that the parties responsible for the violence atone for their own involvement and that the true story of the incident be taught in North Carolina schools -- in the legislature. That won't happen before 2007 because the deadline for filing new legislation has passed this session, he said.

The violence began when white vigilantes, resentful after years of black and Republican political rule during Reconstruction, burned the printing press of a black newspaper publisher, Alexander Manly.

Violence spread, resulting in the death of as many 60 people and an exodus of 2,100 blacks, the commission concluded. Wilmington, then the state's largest city, flipped from a black majority to a white majority in the months after the violence.

Wilmington likely became a "catalyst" for the violent white-supremacist movement around the country, with other states taking note, lead researcher Lerae Umfleet said.

Later violence -- in Atlanta in 1906; Tulsa, Okla., in 1921; and Rosewood, Fla., in 1923 -- mimicked that in Wilmington, and some white leaders called on the North Carolina violence as an example to incite fear in blacks.

"Jim Crow had passed in a few other states," Umfleet said. "But the whole white-supremacy campaign in North Carolina was watched around the country. People built on what happened in Wilmington."

Glenda Gilmore, a Yale University professor who wrote about that turn-of-the-century strife in her 1996 book, "Gender and Jim Crow," said North Carolinians must understand their true heritage.

"The facts have been there for all to see -- it's the interpretation that's been a point of contention," Gilmore said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Even the most well-intentioned white people think there was a sort of riot, when indeed it had been a racial massacre."

Before the violence, which led to a Democratic takeover from Republicans and Populists, black men in North Carolina had been able to vote for about three decades. But Democrats quickly passed voter literacy tests and a grandfather clause that disenfranchised black voters until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"The growth of Wilmington was stunted as a result of what happened in 1898," Joyner said. "Wilmington has never recovered economically, socially or politically."

Lawmakers established the commission on the incident in 2000 under a bill sponsored by Wright and the late Sen. Luther Jordan.


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