Wilmington Race Riot
The Wilmington Race Riot of 10 Nov. 1898 constituted the most serious incident of racial violence in the history of North Carolina. It has been variously called a revolution, a race war, and more accurately a coup d'état. The outbreak stemmed from an editorial published on 18 Aug. 1898 by the Wilmington Daily Record, an African American newspaper edited by Alexander Manly. In response to an appeal for the lynching of black rapists made by crusader Rebecca Felton in Georgia on 11 Aug. 1897, Manly wrote that white women "are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women." Moreover, Manly argued, many accusations of rape were simply cases where a black man was having an affair with a white woman. Because it involved the sensitive issue of interracial sexual relations, the editorial struck a raw nerve with many whites and led to bitter denunciations of Manly in the Democratic press.
The entire thrust of the white supremacy campaign, in which the Democrats were attempting to regain control of state government, had been racially inflammatory. It was no surprise that after the Democrats, bolstered by bands of armed Red Shirts, overturned Republican-Populist Fusionist control of the state in the 8 November election, the Wilmington Democratic Party leadership decided to discipline Manly and take over the city administration. An order was issued under the name of Alfred M. Waddell, a former congressman and the Democratic candidate for mayor, that editor Manly leave the city with his press and inform Waddell of the action by 7:30 a.m. on 10 November. Unfortunately, Manly had already left Wilmington and the response by local black leaders to Waddell's ultimatum did not reach him in time to forestall the subsequent violence. A white mob of 400-500 people marched on the Daily Record office, smashed the press, and burned down the building. The rioters delayed a black fire company long enough to ensure destruction of the property. Thereafter white bands roamed the city, hunting down Fusionists and indiscriminately shooting into neighborhoods believed to be black political strongholds. Many African Americans fled to the forest outside of town. Waddell, backed by armed men, demanded and received the resignation of the entire city board of aldermen, including Republican mayor Silas P. Wright. Waddell immediately took over as mayor and appointed Democratic aldermen.
Republican governor Daniel L. Russell belatedly directed the state militia to stop the violence, but Walker Taylor, the Democratic commander of the guard at Wilmington, arrested only blacks. The new all-white city government forced selected white Fusionists, deemed "decidedly persona non grata," to leave town. In his Memoirs, Waddell boasted that the rioting Democrats had "choked the Cape Fear with [black] corpses." In fact, the most-often-cited estimates of black casualties place the number at 11 killed and 25 wounded. Only 3 whites were wounded. Nevertheless, one report noted that at least 2 whites were killed, and another placed the total death toll as high as 250.
Most modern accounts of the violence discount contemporary partisan news stories that a black mob, near the corner of Fourth and Harnett or Nixon Streets, fired the first shots in the riot. From the casualties it is clear that white Democrats did most of the shooting, while blacks were largely defending themselves.
The Wilmington race riot marked a bloody end to increased black participation in North Carolina politics, which had been made possible by Fusionist control of state government from 1894 to 1898. The emergence of an essentially all-white electorate and one-party Democratic rule was solidified two years later with the adoption of the disfranchisement amendment to the state constitution.
The painful legacy of the Wilmington race riot continues to be the subject of study. In 2005, after nearly a decade of research, a special commission formed by the General Assembly under the auspices of the Office of Archives and History released a report chronicling the riot and identifying its long-term effects on African American life in the area. The document concludes that the violence actually resulted from the actions by local whites to gain permanent and unchallenged control of the city. Because of the perceived success of the insurrection, Wilmington blacks were politically dispossessed and had no effective representation until the national civil rights initiatives of the 1960s.
David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (1998).
John DeSantis, "North Carolina City Confronts Its Past in Report on White Vigilantes," New York Times, 19 Dec. 2005.
Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901 (1951).
Bennett L. Steelman, "Black, White, and Gray: The Wilmington Race Riot in Fact and Legend," North Carolina Literary Review 2 (Spring 1994).
1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report, North Carolina Office of Archives and History
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Wilmington Race Riot 1898.
Wilmington Race Riot, Powerpoint, North Carolina Office of Archives and History
1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission. 2006. Final Report. http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/1898-wrrc/report/report.htm
Crow, Jeffrey J., and Robert F. Durden. 1977. Maverick Republican in the Old North State: A Political Biography of Daniel L. Russell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
East Carolina University. Politics of a Massacre. http://core.ecu.edu/umc/wilmington/
Edmunds, Helen. 1951. The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Prather, H. Leon, Sr. 1998. We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press.
Umfleet, LeRae S. 2009. A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The North Carolina Election of 1898. http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/1898/1898.html
1 January 2006 | Faulkner, Ronnie W.