Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy

Article excerpt

Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy. Edited by David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 301. Foreword, preface, introduction, acknowledgments, contributors, and index. $45.00, cloth; $18.95, paper.)

This fine book is a model of what an anthology of essays can accomplish. Written to commemorate the centennial of the Wilmington race riot of 1898, this volume tells the story of the riot, but explains its meaning in ways as diverse as the contributors themselves. The event and its explication in this book can teach us much about changing race relations at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Wilmington riot took place on November 10, 1898 when leading white citizens of North Carolina's largest town went on a rampage that began with the burning of the office of the town's black newspaper and ended in a street battle that left dead black bodies clogging the Cape Fear River. Estimates of people killed ranged from 11 (a count given by the perpetrators) to 300 (one estimate by victims), and we will never know the true number. More interesting than the course of the riot was its cause. Wilmington had before experienced relatively harmonious race relations and provided substantial economic opportunities for its black-majority population. The situation changed abruptly, however, with the success of North Carolina's agrarian populist movement in the 1890s. White small farmers defected from the Democratic Party to the Populist Party, which entered into a fusion agreement with the Republicans in 1894. This fusion ticket, backed by poor white farmers and African American voters, won control of the state legislature that year and the remaining state offices in 1896. Democrats determined to win back control in the 1898 election by fraud or force, if necessary. They succeeded, nowhere more thoroughly than in Wilmington. But, in North Carolina's largest and blackest town, reclaiming power was not enough. Two days after the election, whites, bent on putting African Americans in their place, hauled their Gatling guns into black neighborhoods and the violence began.

This anthology explains the riot from several perspectives. It begins with a masterful telling of the tale by H. …

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