The 1898 Wilmington Uprising, also known as the Wilmington Massacre or Wilmington Coup, is still felt in our country after its appearance 122 years ago on November 10, 1898. It was essentially the overthrow of a government led by black and white people in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, by white racists. The parallels to recent events, or at least to recent rhetoric, are shocking.
At the time, the white press in the area described the events as a racial uprising caused by former slaves and their descendants. Time soon showed that it was in reality a coup d’état by the elected government of the city, led by white racists. The coup was led by the South Democrats, who fanned the flames of racial unrest and not only overthrew the government, but also banned black and white opposition leaders from Wilmington, destroyed the homes and businesses of black citizens and killed between 60 and 300 people.
The tensions had been simmering for some time before the events of that November. The American South was still feeling the effects of the Civil War, and many whites in Wilmington were still not too happy about the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed blacks legal citizenship, individual rights and equal protection by law. After the war, the Freedmen had left plantations and rural areas for cities like Wilmington, which became a city with a black majority population of about 55% and the largest city in the state. The influx of new people meant a shortage of supplies, while the wealthy whites complained about paying too much tax, with many black politicians who found leadership responsible. Added to this was concern in the working class, where poor whites now competed with blacks in the labor market.
The Ku Klux Klan became very active in the region, with many Confederate war veterans filling the occupied ranks, while other paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts also emerged. Alfred Moore Waddell, a white member of Wilmington’s upper class and former congressman, became known as a speaker who stirred up the angry whites. Along with other prominent Democrats, Waddell attempted to bring white citizens back to the forefront by expelling, or at least driving out, blacks.
The circulars and pamphlets of the white racists of the time caused further unrest by portraying black American men as aggressors against white women. This aroused Alexander Manly, the owner of the only black newspaper in Wilmington, The Daily Record, who wrote an editorial that white women were not often raped by black men but willingly slept with them. This editorial, which aimed to combat hurtful stereotypes and violence, only made the angry white racists more explosive and prompted action.
In the November 8 state elections, many black and black-sympathetic Republicans did not vote out of fear, especially since armed red shirts intimidated them at polling stations and along city streets. The Democrats successfully won back the state legislature, but still lost the city elections against a mixed-race “fusion government.
Waddell then led an uprising of about 500 heavily armed white businessmen and veterans to the office of The Daily Record and burned it to the ground. Waddell’s ranks of white racists had grown to about 2,000 men by the time he faced the city government. The armed men forced the Republican mayor, Silas P. Wright, the city council and the police chief to resign at gunpoint. Waddell’s mob appointed a new city council that elected Waddell as the new mayor. When he took office, Waddell drove out the entire opposition. No one was ever prosecuted or punished for the murders, and President William McKinley ignored requests for help from black leaders.
The aftermath of the coup helped us usher in the “Jim Crow era” of the South. No black citizen served in public office in Wilmington until 1972, and no black citizen from North Carolina was elected to Congress until 1992. But racial tensions in the city persist to this day. Only this summer, in June, three police officers were fired from Wilmington after a recording of them appeared with racist insults when a police officer wanted to “slaughter” and “wipe black people off the map.