Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Commemorating Wilmington's Racial Violence of 1898 from Individual to Collective Memory

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Commemorating Wilmington's Racial Violence of 1898 from Individual to Collective Memory

Article excerpt

Scholars do not dispute the essential facts about the racial violence that occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina, more than a hundred years ago, although interpretations of the event by the city's current residents reflect the racial divide that is their common heritage. On November 10, 1898, an armed mob of whites led by some of Wilmington's most respected and influential citizens destroyed the state's only daily African American newspaper by burning the building in which it was housed. They then turned their fury and guns on the city's black population, killing at least nine blacks, according to the contemporary white press, scores according to the oral tradition within the African American community. The mob then drove others, perhaps hundreds -- men, women, and children -- from their homes into surrounding swamps in search of safety. Over the next two days, while Wilmington's black citizens unsuccessfully appealed to the federal government for protection, groups of armed whites forcefully expelled from the city both black and white political and business leaders opposed to conservative Democratic rule and white supremacy. Led by the city's white elite, armed whites used the threat of paramilitary forces to remove from office Wilmington's duly elected, biracial city government, replacing it with representatives of the old elite in what has been called the only successful coup d'etat in the United States.(1)

Nor is there significant disagreement within the scholarly community over the reasons for Wilmington's racial violence. In 1894 North Carolina's large and aggressive Populist Party fused with the Republicans to capture control of the state legislature. This Fusionist majority rewrote the state's election laws, significantly increasing black participation in state and local politics for the first time since Reconstruction. As a result, the Republicans elected Daniel Russell of Wilmington governor in 1896, and the Fusionists retained control of the state legislature while winning control of a number of municipal governments, including Wilmington's. This challenge to Bourbon Democratic control of North Carolina politics led to a furious, highly emotional Democratic counterattack in 1898, one based largely on an appeal to white voters' fear of "Negro domination." Orchestrated by Furnifold M. Simmons of New Bern, state Democratic Party chairman, and Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, the state's most influential Democratic newspaper, the campaign employed Wilmington as a symbol of "Negro domination." Wilmington was a logical choice, since by 1898 the city had a black majority with a large and rapidly expanding middle class, and blacks served in both the municipal government and civil service.(2)

The efforts of one member of Wilmington's black middle class to refute Democratic charges ensured that Wilmington would remain at the eye of the storm of the 1898 campaign. The Democrat's sexually charged racial rhetoric drew a response from Alexander Manly, editor of Wilmington's Daily Record, the state's only black daily. Refuting the black-rapist charges of the Democratic press, Manly asserted that many blacks charged with rape were in reality discovered in consensual relationships and suggested that white men be more protective of their women against sexual advances from males of all races. Manly's editorial was carried daily by Wilmington's Democratic press in a successful effort to inflame white voter fears in preparation for the November 8 elections. His editorial, and the white Democratic response to it, provided the spark that ignited the white mob violence against the city's blacks following the election.(3)

Wilmington's 1898 racial violence represents an egregious example of the means by which the white South disenfranchised and imposed a strict form of racial segregation upon its black population at the turn of the century. The region maintained this system of Jim Crow through a variety of mechanisms, but primarily through the use, or threat, of violence, including state-sponsored violence, until well into the seventh decade of the twentieth century. …

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