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wilmingtons lie

The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacyby David Zucchino

Wilmington, North Carolina, is a pleasant old seaport on the Cape Fear River. It has been the state’s main seaport since colonial times. Its population in 2019 was estimated at 120,000, with 20 percent Black, 73.5 percent White, and 6 percent Latino. It is governed by a nonpartisan city council presently consisting of a White male mayor, a White female Mayor Pro-Tem, and five male councilmembers (two of whom are Black). Among other assets, it has a campus of the University of North Carolina.

Zucchino has given us a meticulously researched study of the White coup that laid the groundwork for the legal regime of White Supremacy.

That this tranquil place was the site of one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in the long, sad history of this country’s racial conflicts, tells us much about how the South and the country have changed in a bit more than a century—and how they have not changed.

David Zucchino has given us a meticulously researched, exquisitely detailed study of the White coup that laid the groundwork for the legal regime of White Supremacy that prevailed across the South into the 1960s.

After the Confederate defeat in 1865, Wilmington, like the rest of the South, was subject to Federal supervision under Reconstruction until the troops were withdrawn in 1876. This decade enabled the freedmen to exercise their citizenship for the first time, in close alliance with the Republican Party, and against the Democratic Party which represented the old White ruling class.

After 1876, the Democrats returned to political power in Wilmington and most of North Carolina, but substantial numbers of Black men still voted, and the Republican Party remained active. The emergence of Populism in the 1890s led to an alliance, Fusionism, between the Populists and the Republicans that took control of state government and of Wilmington in 1896. A significant number of Black men held elected or appointed office in Wilmington at that time, reflecting the fact that the population of the city was 56 percent Black.

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That was the context, in Wilmington, for a conspiracy designed to subvert the election of 1898 by means of intimidating Black voters and stuffing the ballot boxes. This was part of a coordinated campaign across the state, especially in the counties in the east where there was often a Black majority. The purpose was to reestablish and solidify White Supremacy and Democratic Party control by terrorizing the Black population. This plan was carried out more viciously in Wilmington than anywhere else.

After the election returned a sweeping Democratic victory, the plan was to wait until two days later (November 10) and then falsely allege an armed Black uprising to justify hundreds of armed White men from Wilmington and surrounding areas in shooting any Black men they could find. Hundreds of Black men were killed that day and on succeeding days. Black families fled to the surrounding swamps, or got out of town by train, wagon, or on foot. Prominent local Black men who were not killed were escorted to the train station and told never to return. The same fate awaited the local Republican office-holders, who were coerced into resigning, then sent into exile.

The White Supremacist Democrats surged into complete dominance not only in Wilmington, but across the state. The result was legislation that laid the legal basis for White Supremacy: literacy tests for voters backed up by the so-called “grandfather clause,” which excused Whites from the literacy test if they could show that their father or grandfather had voted before 1865. Subsequently, the racially exclusive Democratic primary was adopted, assuring victory to a Democratic nominee in any race in November, because the Democrats had stacked the decks in their own favor. The same pattern took place across the South, giving rise to the Democratic “Solid South” that was the foundation of Democratic power nationally right up to the 1960s.

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The South and the Nation have changed in a century, but not completely. Josephus Daniels, the publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, was a key White Supremacist and intimately involved with the plot in Wilmington. He later served Woodrow Wilson as Secretary of the Navy, and Franklin Roosevelt as Ambassador to Mexico. His newspaper remained under family control for decades, but evolved into a strong supporter of Black civil rights.

After the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, White Supremacists across the South migrated to the Republican Party. We now have a Republican “Solid South,” that uses many of the same justifications for keeping Blacks from voting, most notably guarding against fraud, which apparently is only committed by Blacks. We don’t much hear the open, virulent racism that was common in 1898, but the basic agenda has not changed.

A violent coup like that of 1898 is almost inconceivable today. Today’s Republicans are more subtle than the Democrats of yore. But the rise of Donald Trump and his incitement of the violent attack on the Capitol suggests that the mentality of 1898 is not totally behind us.

impeachment unavoidable

Racial oppression is just as much the original sin of our society today as it was then. We have perhaps made some progress, but the journey to redemption is long.

John Peeler

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