The small clapboard house near the banks of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, N.C., went up in flames, and a black resident alleged to have wounded a white man fled for his life.
As he pleaded that he had five small children to support, a white member of the mob that had assembled struck him on the head with a gas pipe. A leader of a vigilante patrol unit told him to run for his freedom, but he made it just 50 yards before 40 guns were turned on him, sending bullets into his shoulders and back.
Daniel Wright, a well-known politician serving on the county’s Republican executive committee, was one of at least 60 — but possibly as many as 300 — black Americans massacred in Wilmington on Nov. 10, 1898, as bands of white supremacists used racial terrorism to destabilize the Southern port city and overthrow its multiracial government.
By the end of the day, the neo-Confederates had executed the only successful coup in United States history. The exact death toll is not known. Nor did the extent of the bloodshed matter to white business leaders, clergy and professionals who applauded when the man who would become Wilmington’s mayor, Alfred Moore Waddell, said he was prepared to “choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses” if it meant bringing white Democrats to power.
In recent days, President Trump and his allies in Congress and conservative media have repeatedly warned that he was the target of an attempted coup. “We’re not a banana republic,” Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, said on his show Monday, in a broadside that spilled out onto the president’s Twitter page — a platform to condemn reported discussions within the Justice Department about using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel would probe possible plotting of a “bureaucratic coup.”
But the claims don’t sit right with Irving L. Joyner, a professor of criminal law at North Carolina Central University who has been a leader in examining the one coup on U.S. soil. The alarm issuing from the White House suggests that coups are characteristic of far-off regions of the world. In fact, one transpired at the nadir of American race relations after the Civil War.
The Wilmington insurrection of 1898 was a barefaced assertion of white supremacy in a majority-black city, erasing fragile gains made during Reconstruction. The violent uprising hardly stands alone as an instance of paramilitary slaughter in post-bellum America. But its calculated political aims, and the sweeping changes it installed, make it historically unique, as a state panel concluded in a 2006 report.
The coup demands revisiting now, Joyner said, as white-nationalist violence is again ascendant, and as minority voting rights come under new threats. Among its numerous recommendations, the commission asked that New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington, be subject to special federal supervision under the Voting Rights Act, key provisions of which were invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
“The episode counsels us to be vigilant about this democratic process and what this democracy means,” said Joyner, who served as the vice chair of the panel, called the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission.
But he doubts Trump has any real knowledge, or interest, in this history. The president, Joyner said in an interview with The Washington Post, “couldn’t care less” about what a forceful seizure of government power looked like.
“The Trump rendition of a coup pales in comparison to what the real coup was like, where people lost their lives at the hands of a white supremacist government, which was designed to overthrow a democratically elected political body,” Joyner said.
The report of the riot commission details how tensions that had mounted during Reconstruction exploded during the November 1898 elections. Poor whites in the Populist Party had allied with black Republicans to form what was called a Fusion Coalition, placing black residents in prominent elected positions. Three of the city’s aldermen were black. There were also black-owned businesses and a black-owned newspaper, the Daily Record. Meanwhile, paramilitary wings of the Democratic Party, such as the Red Shirts, took up the work of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been subdued by the federal government.
Democrats made white resentment the centerpiece of their statewide campaign, rallying former Confederate officers and enlisting the Raleigh News & Observer, the dominant newspaper in the state, to whip up fear. In Wilmington, businessmen charting plans to retake economic control banded together in a group called the Secret Nine, which sought to coordinate the activities of the Red Shirts with vigilante groups and white supremacy clubs known as the White Government Union. Barely distinguishable from these collectives was the Wilmington Light Infantry, a volunteer militia group technically under state control.
Waddell, who had been a U.S. congressman for most of the 1870s, emerged as a local leader, using his gifts of oratory to “inflame white voters,” as the commission report notes. In a speech at a local town hall before the election, he spoke of the “intolerable conditions under which we live,” vowing that black “domination shall henceforth be only a shameful memory to us and an everlasting warning to those who shall ever again seek to revive it.” Republican and Populist leaders, meanwhile, failed to organize and coordinate an opposing message.
The statewide election swept Democrats into power, though the local Fusion government remained in place in Wilmington despite widespread suppression of the Republican vote. The next day, however, the local footmen of the white supremacy movement met to discuss replicating the gains at the city level in Wilmington. They selected a “Committee of Twenty-Five,” led by Waddell, to enforce demands called the “White Declaration of Independence.” The committee presented the demands to a group of black politicians and business leaders and asked for a response by the following morning.
Instead of waiting for an answer from the “Committee of Colored Citizens,” Waddell mustered a force of 2,000 men on Nov. 10, and marched on the Daily Record, the city’s lone African American newspaper. The black owner and editor, Alexander Manly, had incensed Democrats when he printed an article during the election campaign rebutting arguments about black men preying on white women. The marauding bands smashed kerosene lamps, which went up in flames when someone lit a match.
The destruction of the newspaper, the commission observed, “silenced the black press in the city for over a decade.”
Waddell regrouped his men at a nearby armory, instructing them to return home and lay low. But the fire had ignited panic among residents, and violent clashes erupted as the white militiamen fanned out across the city, firing their guns into black homes and businesses.
“Hell broke loose,” a local journalist wrote of the events. Wilmington’s white leaders, the panel stated, “successfully manipulated the masses into open warfare.”
The epicenter of the massacre was the black neighborhood of Brooklyn, on the north end of the city. Some residents tried to flee, carrying bedding and personal belongings to the outskirts of town, where they huddled in cemeteries and swamps. The chaos became an occasion for premeditated acts of terrorism. One black police officer was killed by a Red Shirt who professed to have waited for days to carry out the execution. There were no white casualties.
The Republican governor, Daniel Lindsay Russell Jr., who was white, gave the infantrymen the go-ahead to the join the fray, but they did little to quell the violence. One would later state that “two or three white men were wounded and we have not gotten enough to make up for it.” President William McKinley held talks with staff about the riot, but a request never came from the governor for him to send in federal troops.
With the city paralyzed by the rattle of gunfire, members of Waddell’s committee “worked to facilitate a coup d’etat to overthrow the Republican mayor, Board of Aldermen, and chief of police,” as the panel’s report records.
By 4 p.m. on the day of the uprising, a cascade of resignations had begun, elevating replacements handpicked by the committee. The transformed Board of Aldermen then moved to elect Waddell as mayor.
“The beneficiaries of the violence were the white leaders who regained control of city affairs through the coup d’etat,” the panel concluded. “In a multitude of ways, the foremost victims of the tragedy were the city’s African Americans, who suffered banishment, the fear of further murders, deaths of loved ones, destruction of property, exile into cold swampland, or injury from gunfire.”
Prominent black leaders and members of the Fusionist coalition who had not fled were arrested or put on trains out of town. Black municipal employees were fired en masse. Appeals for federal intervention went unheeded. One investigation, into a claim about the banishment of a U.S. commissioner, was closed without an indictment.
Waddell worked to rein in vigilantes and restore peace to give the new regime an air of legitimacy. White clergy hailed the city’s new leaders in sermons that Sunday, and the press wrote glowingly of the changes. The Wilmington Messenger, a Democratic-aligned paper, anticipated advantages for “white laboring men in this city.”
The mayor and his allies were reelected in March 1899, as they joined state Democrats in limiting black franchise and codifying a racial caste system through Jim Crow laws.
In working to uncover the events of 1898, Joyner said he was not shocked by the violence, as frightful as it was. What he found most disappointing, he said, was that the Republican Party leadership — the supposed champions of multiracial government — didn’t do more to stand their ground.
“Had that organ of government resisted what they knew was coming, then I think we would have had a different outcome,” he said. “The leadership stepped down and allowed this to occur.”
For a century, the violence that made the river’s muddy waters run red with the blood of black residents wasn’t considered a coup. It was labeled a race riot and blamed on the black population.
Reexamining the episode took more than four years, Joyner said. The 13-member commission, co-chaired by two state lawmakers, received its mandate from the North Carolina legislature in 2000, after a decade that saw new pressure from civil rights groups and academic institutions to revisit the uprising.
Over the years, revisionist accounts emerged, challenging the narrative of events told by beneficiaries of the power grab. Newspapers at the time were too eager to disseminate the dominant narrative, the commission found, calling on the News & Observer and other outlets to “study the effects of 1898” and to seek redress by supporting black journalists. In 2006, the Raleigh-based paper and the Charlotte Observer apologized for their roles in the plot, with the News & Observer saying that its part in the “propaganda effort” was “not a history we can undo.”
“They became the cheerleaders,” Joyner said. “And it took a century to set things straight.”
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