The vile and disturbing comments from a public employee whose salary is paid in part by the tax dollars of the very people he wants to slaughter is even more egregious when we consider that white people in Wilmington have already slaughtered African Americans once. Indeed, the only successful coup d’etat, or violent overthrow of a duly elected government, in U.S. history occurred in the port city in 1898 when the state failed to protect black Americans. Wilmington demonstrated that many white Americans had no qualms about responding to progress and interracial democracy with violence and undemocratic practices.
Today, as people take to the streets in defense of black Americans’ civil rights and their very lives, it is imperative that the nation not stand idly by and allow white backlash to once again derail the fight for racial equality.
Wilmington in 1898 was the largest city in North Carolina and had a black majority. An interracial political alliance between black Republicans and white Populists resulted in black elected officials across the state but especially in Wilmington, where three of the city’s 10 aldermen, the justice of the peace and the deputy clerk of court were African American. Black people also served as policemen, postal workers, the coroner and the collector of customs.
The leaders of this interracial “fusion” movement called for popular control of local government, meaning officials would be elected rather than appointed — to the chagrin of Democrats. White supremacists opposed the change because it was more democratic and promoted black participation in electoral politics.
The opposition from Democrats to fusionism stemmed from more than just a desire to regain power, however. Fusionists provided debt relief to white and black Southerners alike by capping interest rates, which outraged lenders, who were overwhelmingly Democrats.
Wilmington proved to be the perfect storm, as its biracial government was antithetical to the kind of hierarchical, conservative society that white Democrats desired. Under the leadership of Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Executive Committee and a future U.S. senator, they pledged not to accept “Negro rule” and devised a plan to fracture the fusionist alliance between blacks and lower-class whites, replacing it with an all-white coalition joined by race. Democrats sought to redeem the state through a white-supremacy campaign that would deliver victory by any means necessary, including fraud, intimidation and violence.
White women participated in this campaign as well, with one prominent white woman calling for white men to “lynch a thousand times a week if necessary” to protect white women from black men. Lynching was an act of terror intended to promote the economic and political subordination of African Americans, and white men usually carried it out under the guise of protecting white women from black men. In many ways, lynching to protect white womanhood was a great white unifier that cut across class lines.
In an effort to ward off such attacks, Alex Manly, a Wilmington resident who owned the only daily black newspaper in the United States, refused to prop up an oft-told lie that every instance of sexual activity between black men and white women was an act of rape. He not only asserted that many white woman freely engaged in sexual encounters with black men but also that white men raped black women with impunity.
But this argument only aroused white anger. Democratic newspapers throughout the South reprinted Manly’s editorial, and the protection of white womanhood became a rallying cry and campaign issue that white supremacists could leverage to seize power.
And so, the white supremacists set their sights on the city’s elections in November 1898. On the night before the election, Alfred Waddell, a Confederate veteran and former U.S. congressman, told a group of assembled white citizens, “Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”
Even before Waddell’s calls for violence, many of his followers had terrorized Fusionists throughout eastern North Carolina. There were reports of property damage and citizens being taken from their homes and whipped in the weeks leading up to the elections. Fusion officeholders and seekers in Wilmington and elsewhere were afraid to speak out against the intimidation. The threat level led black Wilmingtonians to stay home on Election Day in hopes of avoiding violence.
Democrats secured victory at the polls but did not end their white-supremacy campaign there. Two days after the election, white mobs, led by Waddell, burned Manly’s printing press and office. Not stopping there, the white vigilantes marched through black neighborhoods demanding the resignation of Fusion politicians and killing African Americans with impunity. The mayor, every alderman and the entire police department were forced to resign under the shadow of guns.
The new undemocratically selected board of aldermen chose Waddell, one of the architects of the massacre, as mayor. Days after what can correctly be called a pogrom, a white Wilmington pastor boasted, “We have taken a city … to God be the praise.” No one knows exactly how many African Americans lost their lives at the hands of white vigilantes. Educated guesses range from seven to 300. What cannot be disputed is that those in power across the United States acquiesced to the erosion of African Americans’ constitutional rights. No one at the local, state or federal level stopped or challenged the undemocratic and unconstitutional reign of terror.
Wilmington in 1898 revealed how anger at black progress resulted in violent and undemocratic action. What occurred in the city is a striking reminder that we cannot turn a blind eye to state-sponsored violence from anyone, nor can the state allow vigilante violence as happened in Wilmington.
Acts of racist violence and police brutality must have clear and swift consequences. Wilmington also proves instructive as we move closer to the November elections. While voter suppression might not be as overt as it was in 1898 with whites threatening violence at the polls, we must guard against subtle attacks on citizens’ right to vote. The history of the Wilmington massacre reveals how devastating the consequences can be. We owe it to ourselves and to those who were slaughtered in the name of white supremacy to restore and protect all Americans’ rights.