As a horse-drawn machine-gun regiment fired into crowds and
frightened blacks fled into the cold swamps, the dream of a
Reconstructed South died on the streets of Wilmington, N.C., on Nov.
10, 1898 - more than 30 years after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender
at Appomattox ended the Civil War.
The uprising began a day after the election in Wilmington, then
North Carolina's largest city. The city's Democrats, who regained
power from the Republicans, proceeded to wrest control of the
government immediately. Supported by para-military networks,
historians now say, white Democratic leaders staged a planned
insurrection resisted by bands of black men. The party mob, which
grew to as many as 2,000, smashed the press and toppled kerosene
lamps in a black newspaper office, setting the press ablaze. As many
as 100 people were killed in the race riot.
For more than a century, the only violent overthrow of a local
government in US history has been hidden in mystique.
Now, a new report challenges the view that held sway for many
years - that a provocative statement about white women and black men
by a mixed race (then known as mulatto) newspaper editor caused the
1898 riot in a South gripped by fears of miscegenation.
Instead, LeRea Umfleet, a state government historian, writes that
a group named the Secret Nine, made up of white businessmen and
politicians, played a Wizard of Oz-like role, pulling strings on
trained paramilitaries to take control of the city - and the state.
It set the stage for Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century.
"Conspiracy is the proper word to be used for the things that
happened, which makes it so difficult to write what happened," says
Ms. Umfleet. "There are so many layers of conspiracy going on within
the Democratic Party, within the leadership in Wilmington, within
the white business community, so many layers of people planning for
the same end result."
The report is seen as another milestone for a country still
trying to come to terms with its violent racial history. It follows
similar race riot commissions in Florida and Oklahoma, the US
Senate's apology earlier this year for blocking anti-lynching
legislation, and renewed investigations into civil rights-era
"Wilmington was center stage for the country and it said: If you
cross this line, violence will be the answer ... and it shattered
the American dream," says former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson.
"We're still trying to recover what we lost. …