An Anti-Democratic Force in Wilmington, NC, November 10, 1898 Part II
In San Domingue (Haiti), Dutty Boukman, an early leader of the Haitian slave revolt, attempted to free himself and others. He was later captured, tortured, and beheaded - his body thrown onto the slaveholder's woodpile to burn.
But eye witness accounts claim Boukman’s body, rose from the slaveholder’s woodpile, having never been touched by the flames. This sparked the beginning of the soon to come Haitian Revolution.
Inspired by the Haitian Revolution, Denmark Vesey of South Carolina decides in 1822 to organize enslaved Blacks—to free themselves from slavery in the US. Over nine thousand enslaved Blacks may have joined him; but eventually, his capture and hanging hasn’t dampened the memory of his effort to be free of tyranny.
By 1898, real and imagined narratives of unconfined Blacks, violent Blacks assured sleepless nights for white Southerners in fear of witnessing an uprising of freed Blacks demanding voting rights and even more power. Many, whites in Wilmington, in particular, recalled Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, who, in 1831, organized Blacks in Virginia, near the North Carolina border.
David Zucchino writes in Wilmington’s Lie, that despite white rule over Black residents, nonetheless, “white memories of a momentous black rebellion half a century earlier still had not faded.”
Nat Turner’s men, killed some fifty-five whites before his capture on November 11. No Boukman will escape the flames white fear produces here! Turner’s body, writes Zucchino, “was flayed and quartered. Scraps of his skin were later fashioned into a purse. His bones were handed out as souvenirs. His head was hacked off and put on public display.”
It was the task of the white newspapers to leave no room for Blacks to consider Turner a rebel. As Zucchino writes, the newspapers proceeded to publish “sensational stories of slave armies marching toward Wilmington.” Uprisings! Uprisings to butcher white women and children! White Wilmington bound its spirit to the perpetuation of more violence. As if enslaving Black people weren’t enough! “Alarmed whites,” writes Zucchino, picked up their weapons and went searching to Blacks to maim and to kill. Indiscriminately!
The white newspapers depicted a collective nightmare and its obligatory monster, Blackviolence, readying to pounce into action on every plantation and in every back yard. A “get you while you sleep” narrative that results in the kangaroo trial of twelve Black men who are forced to confess to a “‘diabolical plot’” to burn down Methodist and Baptist churches in the city. Monsters! Evil! Black! After days of killing indiscriminately, white Wilmington sentenced to death twelve Black men. “Severed heads were mounted on poles along a public highway,” writes Zucchino.
White fear. Quite a dangerous thing.
Abraham Galloway, the former escaped slave who became a state senator thirty years before, is dead in 1898. But it’s an election year. “Universal male suffrage provided under the new state constitution had represented the culmination of generations of struggle for Black Belt blacks led by Abraham Galloway.” As Galloway predicted, Blacks voted for the Republican Party, and many won key positions through the city, county, and state. Thanks to that struggle, Wilmington boasted of three Black aldermen out of ten, and, out of twenty-six policemen, ten were Black. “There were black health inspectors, a black superintendent of streets [along with] black postmasters and magistrates.” The city had “a Black barber, coroner, country jailer, and county treasurer.” In addition, President Benjamin Harrison appointed “a black man, John C. Dancy, as federal customs collector for the port of Wilmington.”
Some called Wilmington the “freest town for a Negro in the country.” But Wilmington just wasn’t free of white fear.
Blacks voting reasonable Republican leaders into powerful positions was no more tolerable than those Blacks who organized uprisings. Any uprising of any kind was a threat to the stability of white supremacy. And white leadership believed that something had to be done to rid Wilmington of this threat to white dominance.
The Conservative Party is renamed the Democratic Party in 1876, and, writes Zucchino, working hard to erase the “majority black vote,” it rallies white voters to demonize Black men. The playbook calls for “race-baiting tactics” that work in this election year. “Democrats returned to power statewide in 1876, taking over the legislature, the governor’s mansion, and the county governments.” Without hesitation, the Democrats eliminated the “popular election of county commissioners.” Under Democrats’ rule, the “commissioners were to be chosen by justices of the peace.” The selection of these “justices of the peace” would be the tasks of the state legislature. This measure, Zucchino explains, would leave the Black Belt counties “powerless to elect black county officials.”
Since Democrats “controlled local elections officials,” “procedural ruses” disqualified Black voters. In 1876, Democrats congratulated themselves “on redeeming the state in the name of white supremacy.” By the following year, when Reconstruction was effectively halted, the Redeemers had “suspended the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments in North Carolina,” and for the following seventeen years, they oversaw the triumph of white supremacy in state.
White fear literally killed democratic rule… But, enter the Fusionist Party!
Opposed to white supremacy, a group of white citizens began organizing to unite both white and Black against the Democrats. Their goal was to overturn white supremacy in the upcoming elections of 1894. “Many poor whites,” Zucchino writes, “were as virulently racist as any Democrat.” Against “moneyed interests,” the Populists were willing to align themselves with Republicans, “even at the risk of aligning themselves with blacks, at least politically.” In turn, Zucchino continues, Black Americans who might not have trusted a partnership with the Fusionists, agreed to give their votes, but not their hearts to the party.
And it worked! The 1894 elections was a “bold” and unprecedented experiment” that worked! The Fusionists won statewide, writes Zucchino, seizing control of North Carolina’s legislature. And, of course, the white supremacist leadership was far from pleased with an outcome that seemed stolen! How conceivable was it that white men would willingly join Blacks “in voting against white supremacists interests in a leading Redeemer state like North Carolina represented an existential threat to white supremacy everywhere—from Virginia to Louisiana”! Not possible.
Nonetheless, Black men returned to positions of power across the Black Belt, many “reclaiming positions they had during Reconstruction.” They served as “aldermen, magistrates, deputy sheriffs, police officers, and registers of deeds.” A Black man, Zucchino continues, represented the New Hanover County while another, George Henry White, served as the only Black in Congress. Once again, Wilmington emerges as the “leading majority-black city in the South.”
In 1894, four years before the Wilmington Massacre, twenty thousand citizens lived in Wilmington; however, the city is 56% Black, representing three thousand more Blacks than whites.
But by 1898, the white population of Wilmington had had enough. White leaders and promoters of white supremacy called for action. In March, powerful white men meet with white supremacist leaders Josephus Daniels and Furnifold Simmons in New Bern at the Chatawka Hotel (ninety-five miles from Wilmington) to discuss the “‘Negro Problem.’” The men, Zucchino explains, “believed that careful planning and execution by the Democratic Party and its capital city newspaper could end what they called Negro rule and restore Democrats in the November 1898 election.” And they added, violence might be required!
The gathering of Wilmington’s white supremacist leadership would first have to work on a strategy to frighten white voters. These voters would have to be feed images of “the twin menace of black suffrage and black beast rapists.” In addition, these men reasoned, three types of men were needed to carry out this coup d'état. One group would consist of speakers (Colonial Alfred Waddell and Charles Aycock), another group would consist of writers (Daniels and others), and the third group would consist of riders. The riders, Zucchino writes, would be known as the Red Shirts. Simmons would serve as coordinator for all three groups.
Simmons’ first act was to produce “a two-hundred-page screed” called The Democratic Party Hand Book that would appeal to ingrained racist views of Black Americans. Those Wilmington citizens who believed Blacks to be an “inherently ignorant and incompetent race” were urged to read the handbook and then join the brotherhood. As Zucchino notes, thousands of white voters received the handbook with instructions to vote “‘the white man’s ticket.’”
… [T]here is one thing the Democratic Party has never done and never will do—and that is to set the negro up TO RULE OVER WHITE MEN…
The first act of Daniels was to hire Norman E. Jennet, a cartoonist. Blacks, Daniels insisted, were “particularly ripe for cartoon ridicule. Jennet would draw and he would supply the content. Then both men were handed a fortuitous gift in the person of a Rebecca Latimer Felton.
Mrs. Felton writes letters to the editor in Georgia. As Zucchino recounts, one day, Felton reads an article in the paper in which the reporter cites an increasing number of Black men lynched for violating the purity of white women. This news alarms her and she dashes off a letter to the Atlantic Journal. In the letter, Felton blames voting for the uptick in lynching. Give Black men the vote and look at the South now! These Black men believe themselves to be equal to white men! Felton advocating for the death of any Black man bold enough to touch a white woman, urged white men to take action to protect white women’s purity. Felton hit the lecture circuit, delivering speeches in which she continued to offer her solution to Negro Problem. And the solution “was the lynch rope.” Lynching! “‘A thousand times a week if necessary.’”
And the men in the room, Zucchino points out, shouted and cheered Felton on!
In Wilmington, the Democrats print Felton’sspeech in the Atlantic Journal. Somehow the Morning Star in Wilmington failed to mention that the speech was delivered on August 12, 1897, a year before.
In the meantime, Alex Manly, the city’s Black editor of the Daily Record, tries to ignore the incendiary reprint of Felton’s letter. At first. “Manly was not only deeply offended but also outraged” by the Felton’s opinion on what kind of violence should be carried out against Black men. He kept thinking that silence could be interpreted as an acknowledgment of truth in what could only be a lie to justify violence to be directed at Black men. Manly thought about a response, and finally, his letter appeared in the Record, titled “Mrs. Felton’s Speech.”
Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big, burly, black brute,’ when in fact many of those who have thus been dealt with had white men for their fathers, and were not only ‘black’ and ‘burly’ but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them as is very well known to all…
Mrs Felton must begin at the fountain head if she wishes to purify the stream. Teach your men purity. Let virtue be something more than an excuse for them to intimidate and torture a helpless people. Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman, than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman.
For several days, Wilmington’s white leaders were silent, but in Raleigh, Josephus Daniels reprinted Manly’s editorial under the headlines: “VILE AND VILLAINOUS.” Another gift misused again to advantage white supremacy.
Now, Black leadership is seeing red. John C. Dancy, the Republican customs collector, gathered other Black men to approach Manly and demand that he “suspend” the paper. At least until white tempers settle down. But, Zucchino writes, Manly refused to acquiesce to demands to shut down the Record, even temporarily. Perhaps a retraction? To which Manly, again, said no. No retraction! What about an apology? Dancy himself wrote it. Just print it! Manly refused.
Back home, Dancy appealed to Black readers of the Record: For the sake of all of us, let’s agree that Manly needs to be removed from the Daily Record! He doesn’t wait for a response. Aware that whites were organizing for violence, Dancy believes that if Blacks disassociate themselves from the “radical” Manly the majority of Blacks in Wilmington will escape the violence whites are gunning for. Dancy places a letter in all the Black churches’ newspaper expressing the community’s refusal to endorse Manly’s editorial. That should do it, he believes. But a few days later, Manly receives a warning: His printing press will go up in flames! It’s not just Manly! Not just one!
Manly, standing by his editorial, declares he spoke the truth. However, as Zucchino points out, “for the white men who sought to rule Wilmington, the truth was explosive.”
Waddell wants nothing more than to prevent Blacks from voting. His rival, a man who thinks Waddell a “has-been,” George Rountree, was a Harvard-educated lawyer, even more determined to see to it that the “Negro Problem” is solved in ways suitable for the preservation of white supremacy. Roger Moore, commander of the Klu Klux Klan, who challenged Abraham Galloway’s leadership thirty years before, and lost, never lost his fervor to eliminate Black people from life in Wilmington.
On October 18, 1989, less than a month from election day, readers awoke to headlines in the News and Observer: “THE WILMINGTON NEGROES ARE TRYING TO BUY GUNS.” Not all! Two men.
As Zucchino recounts, two Black men wrote to Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Jersey requesting “two dozen Winchester rifles and 16-shot pistols.” Of course the company manager didn’t reply; instead, he notified the authorities. News reached Wilmington. “‘Sambo is seeking to furnish an armory here,’” according to the Messenger.
To the white leadership, this business of Blacks reaching out to weapons manufacturers sounds like another “diabolical plotting” of an uprising. Rountree, writes Zucchino, hires a Black detective to spy on the Black community and report whether or not Blacks aimed to attack white citizens. But when the detective reported that he hadn’t seen or heard anything alarming, two Black Pinkerton men were called upon to do some proper spying that would result in useful information. The two Black men understood and reported back that they overheard two Black women plotting to burn down their employee’s houses.
Zucchino writes that the report spread from one white newspaper to another: Blacks were plotting against whites! Could the whites see Nat Turner handing out instructions?
By September, Manly assures Black readers that there would be no “danger of bloodshed and riot.” William Henderson, the Black lawyer, told Blacks to go to the polls, “‘cast ballots quietly and go home.’”
But more and more, white men were appearing on the streets of Wilmington. And they were wearing red shirts.
Note: This is Part II of a three part series.