The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black voting rights activist confronts the ghosts of racial terror in North Carolina

Cynthia Brown visits Wilmington's Pine Forest Cemetery, where her great-grandmother hid during the 1898 massacre of African Americans during the country's only coup d'etat. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Cynthia Brown woke at 5 a.m., more than an hour earlier than she had planned. She was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, but her 65-year-old body was coursing with adrenaline.

It was Oct. 15, the first day of early voting in a state considered pivotal in the presidential race, and Brown and her husband, Phil, were determined to show up in person, despite the pandemic. After she downed her coffee and got dressed, Brown slipped on a pair of brown loafers with embossed monarch butterflies — a symbol of the political transformation she so desired.

At 7:30, the couple headed out to join the record number of North Carolinians who have been voting early across the state. Many, like her, are African Americans who have long been the target of voter suppression efforts, from literacy tests during the Jim Crow era to the state’s 2013 passage of a strict voter ID law that was later struck down by a federal appeals court.

But 2020, Brown said, felt different.

“There was something about this election, all the talk of voter suppression, all the paranoia about mail-in ballots, that was driving me to be present,” she explained as she and her husband stood masked in a long line outside Cape Fear Community College’s north campus.

For the retired human resources professional, the election wasn’t just about the future; it was also about the past.

“I thought about my great-grandmother Athalia,” Brown said, “and what happened here.”

On Nov. 10, 1898, two days after a contentious election, Athalia Howe, the 12-year-old granddaughter of prominent Black builder Alfred Augustus Howe, had crouched fearfully in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery as armed white supremacists stormed the city. The mobs massacred dozens of African Americans — the true number will never be known — dumping their limp bodies in the winding Cape Fear River. They seized prosperous Black people and their White allies and forced them onto trains out of town. After publishing a “White Declaration of Independence,” the marauders took over the county Board of Aldermen — the only coup d’etat in U.S. history.

Wilmington’s African American community, a shining post-Civil War model of Black upward mobility, has never recovered.

Until relatively recently, the devastating events of 1898 were largely lost to history. In 2000, the state General Assembly appointed a special commission to investigate the violence, resulting in a 2006 report with recommendations for restorative justice, some of which have been heeded, others not. A separate push for reparations has not gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, waves of young, White and often liberal newcomers have been arriving in the beachside city, renovating charming period houses, filling trendy restaurants in the gentrified historic district and making New Hanover County harder for President Trump to win a second time.

About three-quarters of Wilmington’s nearly 125,000 residents are now White. Many of them, Brown said, know little or nothing about the racial terror unleashed in 1898.

“I’ve seen so many people come here and think it’s a fun-in-the-sun place, and they operate as though the playing field is level for everyone,” Brown said. “They drive by underprivileged neighborhoods, and it’s like, ‘Ho-hum.’ … Not knowing the history can be destructive to a community. When people have no sense of the ground they are standing on, they just keep perpetuating what has already occurred.”

A far more recent act of violence — the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — prompted Wilmington to confront some of its ghosts.

In July, a park named for 1898 co-conspirator Hugh MacRae was renamed Long Leaf Park. In August, the city voted to erect a Black Lives Matter mural, after weeks of contentious debate. In October, the Cape Fear Garden Club scrapped its Azalea Belles program in which young women paraded about in colorful antebellum hoop skirts reminiscent of White enslavers. And last week, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, a White Democrat, kicked off a Rise Together initiative to address racial inequality.

Amid the change, three White Wilmington police officers were fired after they were inadvertently caught on video claiming that Black Lives Matter protests would spark another Civil War. “Wipe ‘em off the f---ing map,” Officer Michael “Kevin” Piner said of African Americans. “That’ll put ‘em back about four or five generations.”

All of this was on Brown’s mind — the push for racial progress and the countervailing winds of White resistance — as she stood in line to vote at Cape Fear Community College.

Brown knew that before the massacre and coup in Wilmington, the White men who ran the Democratic Party — defenders of slavery before the Civil War and resisters of Reconstruction after it — had terrorized African Americans at the polls. The Democrats employed threats and intimidation to keep Black voters at home and stuffed ballot boxes to win elections. In 1897, Black men in North Carolina voted in large numbers, but in 1900, the state stripped most of the right to vote. The political violence in 1898 Wilmington is now considered by historians to have been an opening salvo for the even more viciously racist period known as Jim Crow.

More than 120 years later, Brown wondered whether she was witnessing a revival of that dark time. As the election approached, a White teen was accused of opening fire on Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin and extremists of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. One group celebrated Trump’s refusal to disavow them.

In late summer, a woman claiming to be from a voting rights group called Brown on her cellphone and offered to bring Brown an absentee ballot. When Brown asked where she was calling from and to state Brown’s address, the woman was tongue-tied. Brown hung up and called the county Board of Elections.

“This doesn’t sound right,” the employee said. Brown reported the incident to the state, then stepped up her election involvement. She distributed voter guides, gave out information about spotting and responding to voter suppression, and volunteered to serve as a county Board of Elections monitor.

Then, a few weeks ago, Brown went to visit the grave of her great-great-great-grandfather Alfred Howe at Pine Forest Cemetery. The base of the stately obelisk bearing Howe’s name had been sprayed with reddish brown paint. Brown stared at it, startled and incredulous, wondering who would do such a thing.

Not long before, Brown had read a story in the Wilmington Star-News that reported a steep rise in pistol purchase permits issued in New Hanover County — in August, more than six times the number granted in the same month last year. She shivered and thought of the run on guns and ammunition in the days before Nov. 10, 1898.

Now Brown, a petite, emotive woman with wispy salt-and-pepper hair, was determined to do her part to keep time from rolling back. She adjusted her homemade cloth mask, and she and Phil moved forward slowly toward the door of the polling place.

The Secret Nine

Brown was about 8 years old when her mother took her to visit her great-grandmother Athalia, who was in failing health and living in Pennsylvania. As Brown and her brother stood by Athalia’s bedside, the old woman, drifting in and out of consciousness, suddenly grabbed Brown’s wrist.

“Don’t let it happen to you! Run!” Brown recalled Athalia screaming before her mother hurried the children out of the room.

Years later, when she was a young married woman living in Chicago and raising three children, her father would finally tell her about 1898 and make her promise to return to Wilmington to keep the family’s history from being forgotten.

Athalia’s father, William C. Howe, had left for work on the docks as a barrel maker on that chilly November morning. Athalia was home when she witnessed a Black neighbor on his way to work being shot to death by White men, Brown’s father told her. White men were running through the dirt streets, firing as they went.

Athalia and her mother and sister, along with other women and children, sprinted to the family’s church, St. Stephen AME, to seek refuge. But the White marauders had already positioned themselves in front of the heavy wooden doors.

The women and their children raced behind the massive brick church, east to the wooded Black cemetery. There, the family huddled together with nothing to eat for several days, while others found refuge in nearby swamps.

The massacre, the coup and the stealing of the state elections were part of a highly orchestrated white supremacist campaign led by powerful Democratic politicians and businessmen. A few years earlier in North Carolina, Abraham Lincoln’s integrated Republican Party had formed a coalition with the Populist Party founded by small White farmers who had suffered financial hardship. The partnership, known as “Fusion,” broke the hold of Democrats on the government, resulting in a sweep of statewide offices. Black male voters helped elect Fusion leader Daniel Russell as governor in 1896. In Wilmington, Fusionists took power.

The backlash from White Democrats was immediate. They began plotting to regain control of the government with the aim of removing Black men from public office and disenfranchising Black voters. They trained their sights on Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina and a flourishing port.

Wilmington had become a national symbol of Black success in the decades following the Civil War. African Americans, who were in the majority, owned 10 of the city’s 11 dining establishments and 20 of its 22 barbershops, according to Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University historian and co-author of “Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy.” Black people worked for themselves as architects, lawyers and doctors, jewelers, watchmakers and tailors, often in the prosperous Northside neighborhood called Brooklyn. They worked as builders, like Brown’s great-great-great grandfather Alfred Howe, his elegant homes with their distinctive sloping French-style roofs gracing the streets of the city’s downtown.

Black men occupied three of 10 alderman seats after the Fusionists claimed power. The federal customs collector was Black; so were the county treasurer and the city’s jailer. The literacy rate among Black men in the city was higher than that of Whites.

One of the most educated Black men in town was Alex Manly, editor of the Daily Record, believed to be the only Black-owned newspaper in the United States at the time.

To stir up racist sentiment, North Carolina Democrats exploited White fears that Black men who became successful would sexually violate White women. One of the organizers, Josephus Daniels, then editor and publisher of the state’s dominant daily, the Raleigh News & Observer, eagerly harnessed his presses in the service of the white supremacist campaign.

Meanwhile, in Wilmington, a group known as the Secret Nine began planning an attack, organizing armed white supremacist groups, including the Democrats’ paramilitary arm known as the Red Shirts. They created lists of Black and White Fusionists to be killed or driven from town, according to Tyson.

Then, Manly provided the plotting Democrats with a spark.

In August 1898, White-owned newspapers in North Carolina began reprinting a year-old speech by a White woman from Georgia named Rebecca Felton. The speech implored White men “to lynch a thousand times a week, if necessary, to protect white women from black rapists.”

In Wilmington, Manly published a stinging rebuttal. “You set yourself down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours,” Manly wrote. “ … Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seed — the harvest will come in due time.”

Manly a direct descendant of North Carolina’s White governor, Charles Manly, and an enslaved woman, braced for the fury, and it arrived, as Whites issued death threats and called for his lynching.

On Nov. 10, the White mobs set the Daily Record ablaze. By then, Manly and his staff had already fled. On that day and in the following months, more than 1,400 African Americans left the city, and Wilmington’s Black middle class was decimated as the vise of Jim Crow tightened.

Brown’s great-grandmother Athalia and her family remained in Wilmington, while other Howes of more means fled. In the early 20th century, Athalia Howe worked as a cook on a grand estate owned by the family of Walter L. Parsley — a member of the Secret Nine.

‘A lot of silence’

Geoff Ward, a distant cousin of Cynthia Brown’s, didn’t learn about his connection to 1898 until five years ago.

A history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, he was talking to an aunt about his work, which focuses on historical racial violence, trauma and redress.

“That’s what happened to us in Wilmington,” his aunt said. His mother’s side of the family — also direct descendants of Alfred Howe — had fled the city after 1898, he learned.

Ward, in his early 40s at the time, marveled that he had never heard about this racial trauma. But it also made sense to him.

“There’s a lot of silence around these histories,” Ward said. “For immediate descendants and survivors, there is undoubtedly a lot of pain and frustration. … But the silence of one generation means that the next generation will be silent without knowing it.”

History lives with us, even if we can’t or don’t acknowledge it, Ward said. He reflected on the parallels between 1898 and now: the determination by White people to maintain dominance as the country’s demographics shift, attempts to suppress the Black vote, the threat of armed violence.

He noted that in 1898, the entire state of North Carolina, including Republicans, chose not to intervene, “legitimizing racial terror.”

In the years after the coup, the White organizers acquired wealth and power. One became governor of North Carolina. Another was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Yet now, amid the country’s racial tumult, “there are people who are working against these tides,” Ward said, “to do the truth-telling and the bearing witness and the trust-building.”

One of them is Cynthia Brown, who moved back to Wilmington in 1993 to fulfill her promise to her father. She began researching the Howes’ history and became historian at St. Stephen AME, Athalia’s church. She watched as the streams of mostly White newcomers began changing the rhythms of her native city, without knowing what came before them. But some of the new arrivals gave her hope. They had bothered to learn history.

When White tech entrepreneur Joe Finley moved to the area from Chapel Hill in 2002, the racial inequalities unsettled him. “I could go out about my business in certain spaces and never see a Black person at all,” said Finley, co-founder of Castle Branch, a compliance management company.

The economic gulf is wide. At $27,733, the median Black household income in New Hanover County is less than half that of White households, according to 2018 Census data.

About five years ago, Finley watched “Wilmington on Fire,” a documentary about 1898 and learned of Wilmington’s long-ago history of Black entrepreneurship.

Finley, 51, is now trying to play a part in reviving it. He has invested in a start-up called Genesis Block, a minority-business-development services company founded by two young Black Wilmington-area natives.

He has also been encouraging Cedric Harrison, the 32-year-old founder and executive director of community nonprofit Support the Port, who grew up in a poor neighborhood near Brooklyn. Harrison wants to launch a tour company showcasing Wilmington’s post-Civil War African American community.

In a successful TEDx video pitch for a business development fellowship, Harrison dreamed aloud of reviving the city’s once-flourishing Black entrepreneurial class.

On a warm mid-October day, Harrison pulled up in the parking lot at the 1898 Monument and Memorial Park in Brooklyn and lumbered out of his teal 2008 Infiniti EX35. He was on a trial run for his tour.

There on the brick path before the memorial’s towering bronze oars stood “Miss Cynthia,” one of the “elders” whom he credits with helping him get the historic nuances right.

Brown set about explaining the memorial to a visitor. She gestured up at the oars, glinting in the bright sunlight across the highway from the Cape Fear River. The memorial’s important visual link to the river, she pointed out, is now blocked by a new condominium building.

The designer of the memorial, Ayokunle Odeleye, used the paddles symbolically to refer to water, a medium in African spirituality for moving from this life to the next. The memorial, dedicated in 1998, was also meant to symbolize Wilmington’s journey to acknowledging the events of a century before.

While Brown said the memorial was “a first step toward getting the history of Wilmington on the radar,” she worries the city’s commitment is not fully there.

There is no annual event commemorating Nov. 10, no museum, she notes. The oars stay blackened with tarnish too long, she said, before the city thinks to shine them again. And the low gray walls that are part of the memorial are already cracking and crumbling.

Standing before the memorial, she thought aloud about her great-grandmother Athalia Howe, who was living just a few blocks away that Nov. 10 when she saw her neighbor gunned down. Who in Wilmington would remember Athalia’s story and the slaughter and the coup and the stolen dreams, she wondered, once she and the other guardians of that history were gone?

‘Don’t worry’

After about an hour in line on Oct. 15, Brown finally entered the auditorium to vote at Cape Fear Community College. She checked in with the poll worker at a table near the wall and signed next to her name, then crossed over to another to pick up her white paper ballot. She walked over to the rows of blue polling stations, stopped at one near the exit door and began to ink in the circles of her choices.

As she marked her ballot, Brown said, she felt a surreal calm descend. She had done her duty. She was able to exercise the right to vote that her great-grandmother had suffered for.

She thought of it all — the push for racial progress and the attempts to roll it back.

“I had this very good feeling,” she said. Enough time had passed, enough had changed, there were more people trying. “Something told me: ‘Don’t worry. This is not 1898.’ ”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brown gives tours with the Cape Fear Museum historian. She partners with the museum to share her family story as part of a community leadership program. This version has been corrected.

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