An Anti-Democratic Force in Wilmington, NC, November 10, 1898 Part III
On November 8, 1898, Wilmington’s the Messenger warned that the city had “GONE TO THE N------. Today, on election day, for the sake of the city, for the continuation of white supremacy, the newspaper urged white citizens to vote. “Rise Ye Sons of Carolina…”
Proud Caucasians one and all…
Hear your wives and daughters call…
Rise, defend their spotless virtue…
With your strong and manly arms…
Rise and drive this Black despoiler from your state.
As David Zucchino writes in Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, the white newspapers called on Wilmington’s white population to act. For months, these newspapers created narratives of nightmarish scenarios in which the Black man, in particular, was always the villain, a haunting menace that threatened the purity of the white community. What was to be done with the “Negro problem?” End the reign of terror!
One hundred and fifty white men had assembled at the Fifth Precinct of the First Ward, “where 313 blacks and 30 whites had registered” to vote. Outside, men “turned off electric street lights” while others entered the polling station and began upending tables and knocking over all the lamps.
Among the men was former Mayor William Harrison who took advantage of the commotion to remove ballots from the Democrats’ boxes only to stuff them into an “unattended ballot box for the state senator race.” At the Second Precinct of the Fifth Ward," a group of men did the same stuffing of Democrat ballots into voting boxes.
The tally at the Fifth Precinct revealed an “astonishing” win for the Democrat William Davis, writes Zucchino, who received 456 votes, 113 more “than the total number of registered voters in the precinct.”
It was astonishing to count votes for Davis at the Second Precinct, particularly when he received “251 votes to just 39 for the Fusionist-Republican candidate,” despite the fact that Blacks out numbered whites 240 to 140.
The Republican vote was devastating. The Fusionists, counting on fairness from the Democrats, seemed to think the fight for equality and justice ended when, thanks to their organization, Black men won seats throughout the state.
The Fusionist majority 960-vote in 1896 flipped to “a 500-vote margin for Democrats in 1898” in the county. Not surprisingly, as Zucchino explains, the instigators of election fraud won seats in the state house (George Rountree) while others won seats on the county Board of Commissioners (Roger Moore).
The Republican governor, Daniel Russell had a strategy to protect his safety since he took the threats against his life seriously. His strategy for travel from Raleigh to Wilmington to vote worked well enough. But it fell apart on the way back to the state capitol. Forced to hide in the baggage car of the train, Governor Russell listened for hours as the Red Shirts stood outside calling for his death. “‘Where’s the governor. Bring him out! Lynch him! Lynch the governor!’”
The early edition of the Messenger warned that “there is retribution in history.”
The New York Times was Silent on Domestic Terrorism
The New York Times, reporting on election day in Wilmington, didn’t mention either the threats the governor received nor the cause of his delay in returning home. It didn’t mention the terror Black men faced as they approached polling stations manned by the Red Shirts. The Times was silent on the improbable victory of the Democrats in a majority Black city.
After polls closed on the night of November 8, the Red Shirts assembled in a church to hear Rev. Calvin S. Blackwell preach “white supremacy from the pulpit.” The attendees understood that the call to act initiated by the Messenger was still in effect. It was time to step up. Start searching out Black men to lynch! Zucchino writes that the Red Shirts searched the streets and found no Black to kill. Black men voted early on the morning of November 8th. And returned to the homes to wait out the results.
On the morning of November 10, 1898, the Red Shirts, “men from working class families,” writes Zucchino, met at the armory to await Alfred Waddell, the self-appointed white resistance leader. Waddell greeted men who, besides wearing red shirts, carried their cartridge belts tied “around their waist and staffed them with the rifle and pistol bullets.” Earlier, Waddell had been waiting to receive a response from the Committee of Colored Citizens. He had requested that the Committee denounce the Record’s editor, Alex Manly—by firing him! Send him packing! No more outrageous letters written by Manly, published in Wilmington’s Black newspaper!
The Committee drafted a response but it never arrived on that morning because the carrier, encountering armed whites, was concerned for his safety. He never made it to Waddell’s home. As Zucchino writes, the letter, addressed to “Hon. A. M. Waddell.” was dropped off at the post office. The Committee wrote:
We, the colored citizens to whom was referred the matter of expulsion from the community of the person and press of A. L. Manly, beg most respectfully to say that we are in no wise responsible for, nor in any way condone the obnoxious article that called forth your actions. Neither are we authorized to act for him in this matter, but in the interest of peace we will most willingly use our influence to have your wishes carried out.
Very respectfully, the Committee for Colored Citizens
But letter or no letter, Waddell had already made up his mind to act.
Not to be outdone by “Hon. A. M.” Waddell, Colonel Charles Taylor sent a message to Governor Russell requesting that he send the infantry to “suppress a purported black riot.” Taylor’s message read: “‘Situation here serious.’” Taylor, writes Zucchino, figured there would be an all-out attack on Blacks “as planned.” With the infantry on the streets, animosity toward the Blacks would send bullets flying. Blacks will die!
Bullied and cornered, the governor conceded to Colonel Taylor’s demand.
Wilmington Version of the Third Reich
On the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Red Shirts staged a parade. It would be the first of it’s kind but not the last. In Manhattan's Memorial Day parade, held on May 30, 1927 (Behold, America: The History of America First and the American Dream), 400 American Fascists marched. Most wore the attire of the Third Reich.
At 9:00, Waddell leads a group of 1500 American citizens who were determined to “‘kill the whole gang of Negroes’” that day. But first things first! Waddell, determined to rid Wilmington of it’s Black newspaper editor, leads the Red Shirts to the Record’s building.
The pageantry of this procession must have made the intent to kill a Black man seem reasonable. Sane. Zucchino describes Waddell, as a man full of himself, with his Winchester slung over his shoulder, calling out for his men to “‘halt’” at the newspaper’s front door. A dramatic showing of power! He knocks on the front door and waits. And waits. Then the men, growing impatient, start to shout.
Once the mob breaks down the door, they enter and begin ransacking the office, turning over furniture and “tearing apart the Hoe printing press,” writes Zucchino. It wasn’t long before the men discovered the kerosene. “Someone struck a match,” and the flames burned through the roof…
What Zucchino describes is a familiar scene. An historical. Whole swathes of Indigenous homes were destroyed in this manner. Wilmington, Tulsa, Rosewood. The looting of resources, the destruction of land, the terrorizing and kidnapping of people. The anti-democratic forces mock the younger generation’s call for a “woke” society just as the generation of the late 1960s and early 1970s was denounced for being “politically conscious.” To be aware of America’s history, at any time, has met with pushback from white resistance. But there it is: An angry white mob, a hunt for Black lives, a struck match and flames…
Later in the day, Waddell will inform the white press that he ordered the Red Shirts to go home. But, as Zucchino points out, reporters were embedded among the Red Shirts! They were there to describe to their readership the heroics of the Red Shirts! The reporters were there to report, as the AtlanticConstitution did, a lie: 1500 Black men were “hiding in the weeds!”
White Men Stoke Fears of Black Men
By 11:00 am, another rumor is circulating, and it’s as nightmarish as the first imagining 1500 armed Blacks on the streets. This rumor forced white men to arrive at North Fourth and Harnett where the rumor insisted that an army of armed Black men were waiting to attack white men. Needless to say, Red Shirts arrive to find a few Black men who were rightly angry about unfolding events.
For the most part, Black men were drawn to a fire that was consuming the Record’s building, a fire that had, according Zucchino, spread to other structures. Black firefighters were busy trying to save lives, homes, and businesses. But that didn’t deter the Red Shirts who couldn’t recognize human being when they looked on at these Black men. The Red Shirts ran toward the Black men and fired at them. As Zucchino writers, the Red Shirts ordered the Black men to disperse. When the Black men refused, the Red Shirts began firing in earnest.
Zucchino, describing the trap the Black citizens of Wilmington found themselves in, writes that the white men fired with impunity. “[F]our white men unleashed a fusillade from a 44-caliber Navy rifle, two 16-shot repeating rifles, and a double-barreled shotgun loaded with buckshots.” As Black men tried to flee, white men followed, writes Zucchino, shouting “‘Kill the n---ers! Kill the damn n----ers!”
The Black men of Wilmington were hopelessly outnumbered. Yet, the killing spree went on.
What seats not gained by election fraud on November 8, were stolen outright on November 10.
Waddell leads “a procession of committeemen, militiaman, Red Shirts, and armed citizens on a short march to city hall,” but not before conducting an “impromptu ‘election,’” in which he selects the police chief and aldermen. At city hall, Zucchino writes, Waddell informed the Black and white politicians that “their replacements had been elected.” Black politicians were ordered to leave immediately while Mayor Wright is ordered to resign on the spot.
The “eight Fusionists on the board—including three black men—had been replaced by eight white supremacists Democrats.” Waddell was sworn in as mayor, and his first order of business, writes Zucchino, is to “swear in 250 ‘special policemen’ to restore order.” These “special policemen” were some of the same men who had chased and killed Black citizens of Wilmington, earlier in the day.
Fleeing In a State of Terror
By late afternoon, the Red Shirts and the Infantry had staged a successful coup. The duly-elected government in Wilmington was removed. By force.
By nightfall, Wilmington’s Black community is “in a state of terror and panic.” Many had witnessed the killing of their family members or neighbors. By some estimates, anywhere from sixty to three hundred Black people were killed on November 10, 1898.
Zucchino describes another procession, of mostly working class Black men and women with their children in tow. The adults had been “stevedores and laborers, maids and washerwomen.” Now they were trying to reach the surrounding woods. Everyone leaving behind homes and businesses, and carrying only what they could on their person! When it began to rain on this cold night, children, writes Zucchino, could be heard sobbing “in their wet clothing.” “[M]others scooped them up and carried them. The women’s feet sloshed where the hard clay of the roadway had turned slippery in the rain.”
The Collier’s Weekly, writing of this procession, described a truly nightmarish image:
“In the woods and swamps innocent hundreds of terrified men, women and children are wandering about, fearing the vengeance of the whites, fearful of death… Fearing to light fires, listening for chance footsteps crushing fallen twigs… I heard a child crying and a hoarse voice crooning softly a mournful song.”
The facts: In 1898, before the Wilmington Massacre, there were one hundred and twenty-six Black voters, writes Zucchino. By 1902, Wilmington had a little over six thousand Black voters.
In 1898, Wilmington was a majority-Black city with fifty-six percent of the population. By 1900, the Black population dropped to 49%. In 1910, the Black population was at 47%. By 1990, Blacks made up 33% of the population which fell to 18.3% in 2018.
Zucchino writes: “The killings and coup in Wilmington inspired white supremacists across the South… They had murdered black men with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote and hold public office. They had forcibly removed elected officials from office, then banished them forever. They had driven hundreds of black citizens from their jobs and homes. They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.”
Note: This is Part III of a three part series. Click to read Part I. Click to read Part II.