We’ve Had a White Supremacist Coup Before. History Buried It.

The 1898 Wilmington insurrection showed “how people could get murdered in the streets and no one held accountable for it.”

People stand under the new North Carolina highway historical marker to the 1898 Wilmington Coup during a dedication ceremony in Wilmington, N.C., on Nov. 8, 2019. Matt Born/The Star-News/AP

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The parallels between the only successful coup in the United States and the failed insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 are uncanny.

On November 10, 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina a mob inflamed by out-of-power white nationalists attacked a thriving majority Black coastal port. The insurrectionists embraced racist propaganda, and they doubted the legitimacy of Black political power. Led by former elected-official, Democratic Alfred Waddell, they marched to The Daily Record, a Black newspaper, demolished property, and lit the building ablaze. “Hell broke loose,” an observer wrote in a letter. In the historically Black neighborhood of Brooklyn, where workers from the waterfront yards confronted an armed white mob, cries and blood filled the streets. 

Gaining steam, Waddell, armed with a Winchester rifle, shepherded the men to Wilmington City Hall. Inside the chamber, they forced the resignations of the mayor, Board of Aldermen, and police chief as gunfire ripped through the city. At least 60 were killed in the spates of violence, and thousands of Black residents fled while others were arrested.

The Wilmington insurrection was, unlike the Capitol siege last week, immediately successful. A white mob overthrew the government. But, crucially, it was also a turning point for the wider history of Reconstruction. “It was a demonstration of how people could get murdered in the streets and no one held accountable for it,” says LeRae Sikes Umfleet, author of the 2009 book, A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. She has written how this lack of punishment for the coup led to “Jim Crow legislation and subjugation of African Americans resulted statewide.” In the aftermath, the story was told as a “race riot,” caused by Black people in Wilmington—not a coup led by white politicians. This is still the test of the Capitol siege. Even if not successful on January 6, will it set a lesson?

I spoke with Umfleet, head researcher of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report, about the causes and response to that coup, its lasting influence, and how the white establishment buried the history.

What do we know about what unfolded in Wilmington?

There are two things that are huge that are happening at the same time on November 10. We have African-Americans being murdered in the streets. At the same time, we have a coup happening where the legally elected government is being overthrown. We know all about the coup, because the perpetrators were proud of what they did, and they left a huge narrative for what they did there. The murder in the streets, we don’t know as much about that, because the perpetrators—the winners, so to speak—said, it’s a sad thing that people died, but we had to do what we had to do to take control of this town and bring it under white man’s control.

We don’t know all the names of the people who died. We don’t know the names of the shooters. And we may never know those two things. Understanding the truth of 1898 is why we’re still studying. 

Up until around 1998, which was the centennial, the overarching narrative of what happened in Wilmington was dictated by what the white men had written about that event. It wasn’t spontaneous. It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t that Wilmington was corrupt. But that was the story that the white perpetrators put out there to justify what they did.

Could you describe the origins of what happened in Wilmington 1898? I read that you once said that to understand the moment, you have to go back a few years.

North Carolina’s political spectrum contains three parties by 1898. We have the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Populist Party. Democrats of 1898 are most often former Confederates. They are the party of white supremacy. The Republican Party of 1898 is the party that most African Americans are members of and progressive white businessmen. The Populist Party is a fragment of the Democratic Party. Most often they are farmers who felt like the Democratic Party wasn’t meeting their economic needs, and so they split.

In 1896, the Republican Party and the Populist Party merged their voting power together in this thing called Fusion. It was an uneasy alliance, but they knew that that was the only way that they were going to be able to defeat the Democrats at the ballot box. In 1896, they were able to elect a Republican governor for North Carolina, and then overwhelmingly control the legislature in Raleigh. That new Fusion legislature made North Carolina more accessible in government, in services, and in education, and made it more accessible for all people—African Americans, whites, lower class, upper class. It was a more egalitarian state after Fusion.

In 1898, the leadership of the Democratic Party chose white supremacy as its platform and decided that they needed to have an all-out campaign to win control of the state legislature. This is a long-range plan. The Democratic Party wants to win control of the state legislature in 1898, and in 1900, they want to take control of the governor’s office. They have to win in 1898 to make it all happen. Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina at the time, and it became a focal point for the programs of the Democratic Party. They’re like, if we can’t take Wilmington, we can’t take the state.

You have to remember, this is an election campaign in a time of no television, no radio, no Twitter, no nothing. So what worked for the campaigns were newspapers, and speechwriters, speechmakers, and this new element of the Democratic Party called the Red Shirts—the light domestic terrorist arm of the Democratic Party. And this three-prong approach with papers, speechmakers, and the Red Shirts would come into a community, give speeches, write inflammatory articles in the newspapers. The Red Shirts would ride through African American and Republican neighborhoods and intimidate the voters to keep them away from registering to vote. And then on Election Day, they were in the precinct areas, preventing people from voting at the polls.

It’s all about politics. The Democratic Party was out of power, and they were willing to do whatever it took to get that power back. Wilmington’s mayor and Board of Alderman, the people who ran the city, were also a Fusion coalition. We had African Americans and white Republican populace and a couple of Democrats running the city. They were not up for election in 1898. But by the time the Democrats had won on Election Day on November 8, by the next day, the next phase of the plan in Wilmington took place when the Democrats said, You know, we won all the elections, and we don’t want to be subjected to what they use the word “Negro rule.” They demanded, with this “White Declaration of Independence,” what they called it, that the mayor and Board of Aldermen resign. They also had other demands, like a Black newspaper needed to close and its editor needed to leave the city, and that there needed to be a concerted effort to fire Black employees and hire white ones. All of these demands were put to the African American community.

On the morning of November 10, everything went haywire. The white leadership led a group of white rioters to the African American newspaper offices and burned the newspaper. Not long after that, shots were ringing out in the streets, and people were dying in the Black community in Wilmington. The coup happened that afternoon, while shots were still being fired all through downtown Wilmington.

It reminded me of part of the report where you write: “The ultimate goal for Taylor and other leaders was the resurgence of white rule of the city and state for a handful of men through whatever means necessary.” How did that play out on the 10th? 

Let me take you to November 7, the day before the election. Alfred Moore Waddell was one of these really good speech makers who would inflame crowds around North Carolina. He was from Wilmington. The day before the election, he gave a speech at the county building where he said: “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.” You can’t get much more clear about how white people thought about the role of Black people in politics and voting. And he had another quote that said, if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with the carcasses of dead Black bodies, then let’s do that. The whole effort was to remove African Americans not just from the political sphere but also from the economic sphere in Wilmington and to solidify their second class status not just in the city, but North Carolina as a whole.

After this happened in Wilmington, it was an example. The white leadership in any given city in North Carolina could say, you know what happened in Wilmington, do you want that to happen here? Then you best remember your place, kind of thing. It was a demonstration of how people could get murdered in the streets and no one held accountable for it. It was a catalyst for lots of things in North Carolina, and it became a blueprint for how to have a riot in other cities—Atlanta 1905 happened not long after. People from Atlanta visited Wilmingtonians to take notes on how to do this, which was horrendous. 

So you have these white supremacist actors who are airing their grievances around who’s in political power and taking active steps to change the status quo. For that moment, it was Black people in power and having economic opportunity. To what extent was that an explicit goal of this faction who engaged in the coup?

The leadership of the Democratic Party was most often businessmen, particularly in Wilmington. From their perspective, regaining control of city government, county government, state government meant that their business interests had a better opportunity of being addressed. The Fusion government in Wilmington built better roads in all areas and didn’t pay attention just to the business district. It was more egalitarian. And if a businessman’s in control, he’s going to make sure that the business interests are dealt with first and then Average Joe’s interests are taken care of secondly.

For the rank and file members of the Democratic Party, the ones who were out in the streets rioting and shooting, those folks were day laborers. They were clerks at the railroad office. They were wage-earning employees, and they had been promised better-paying jobs and more opportunity if the Black members of the community were removed from the equation. So once the coup and the violence happened on the 10th, the next day, Blacks were being fired across the board, and whites were being hired in their place.

There is an economic benefit for the people who were doing the shooting on the streets in Wilmington to do what they did. Plus, they had been fed all of this propaganda throughout the entire election campaign, about how sinister Black men are, and how white men need to do everything they can to protect the sanctity of their home and their women. There was this speech by this woman out of Georgia [Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman to be US Senator], and she points out that in her opinion, all Black men do is rape white women, and if it takes lynching a Black man a day to protect white womanhood, then I say, lynch. There’s all of this type of dangerous rhetoric flying around throughout Wilmington and North Carolina at that time.

You wrote that the government at all levels failed to adequately respond. That echoes the conversation around the Capitol attacks around policing, and how the difference in police response to the Capitol rioters from Black Lives Matter protesters were treated. In that moment of 1898, how did the government fail?

The coup definition is an armed overthrow of the legally elected government. So on the afternoon of November 10th, the mayor and the Board of Aldermen are summoned to City Hall. Waddell was there. He was the head of the committee to meet with the board of aldermen and the mayor. One by one, members of the Board of Aldermen resigned and other members were put into their place based on a list that Waddell had in his hand of good Democratic representatives from each precinct in the city. The government changed in a matter of hours from legally elected people to people who were put in place with 200 armed men in their vicinity. They stayed in office representing their precincts until the next election that following march in 1899. Their election was affirmed by vote. So it was successful. A lot of times when there’s an attempted overthrow of a city or county government in United States history, it’s very temporary. Particularly during Reconstruction, there were lots of attempts throughout the South to overthrow the reconstruction governments, but military authorities stepped in and re-establish control. But this time, it stuck.

We didn’t have the National Guard like we do today in the South at that time. We’re still too close to the Civil War to have that kind of thing still in place, and so we have local militia units that are like a pseudo-National Guard, and they sort of report to the governor. [Daniel] Russell was the Republican governor. And when he got the telegram that things were happening in Wilmington, he deployed the Wilmington Light Infantry to press for the peace. That was his word. Similar infantry groups from surrounding cities were summoned to Wilmington to assist later that afternoon. The kicker is that the Wilmington Light Infantry was populated by people who were members of the Democratic Party. So they were sympathetic to what was going on in the city at the time. They weren’t necessarily going to do much to stop what was happening.

President McKinley had spies in Wilmington who were sending him telegrams about what was happening in the city. At that point in time, the powers of the president didn’t give him the authority to do much unless federal employees or affected by the activities and prevented from doing their jobs. The folks in Wilmington knew this. They made every effort to make sure that federal employees, particularly black federal employees, were protected and not harmed during the event.

McKinley couldn’t do much more than watch. And later, businessmen were sending letters to McKinley, and these are in the McKinley papers, the presidential papers that say you don’t need to send troops to Wilmington, we got it under control. But at the same time, there were African Americans who were visiting with McKinley and pleading for him to step in.

How did that set the stage for other acts of violence in the early 20th century?

You’ve got to add this to the layers of Jim Crow and segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson happened in 1896, which was a Supreme Court decision that said that the separation of the races and public spaces is constitutional and legal. North Carolina didn’t have any Jim Crow legislation on its books. There was no segregation of any sort until after this new legislature was seated because of the 1898 election. We first see things start to happen around 1899 in North Carolina, and then you build upon all of the white supremacy rhetoric of the period, and you start to see more sanctioned violence against African Americans across the board.

The lynchings that you see as a civil rights era, that stuff starts happening more often following 1898, because white men don’t feel that they’re going to be held accountable for the murder of Black men. It legitimizes violence in so many different ways against African Americans in North Carolina. Atlantans even said, if we have to do what they did in Wilmington, we will. So they sort of did. You follow up with Tulsa and Rosewood, and you have all of this early 20th-century violence against Black men happen. Tulsa and Wilmington serve to threaten Black folks into making sure that they’re satisfied with living and dealing with that second class status without having to challenge it, because challenging what was happening meant that you would be a target and probably killed. 

What were the economic ramifications for Black people in Wilmington?

For the Black community before 1898, the wage earners in Wilmington were making more than any other group of African Americans in the state. Education levels were higher for African Americans. Homeownership was higher in Wilmington for African Americans. It wasn’t a rosy situation by any sense of imagination, but it was a better place to be and to have more opportunity to make it financially for African Americans in Wilmington than anywhere else in North Carolina.

After the violence, all of that reversed. Entrepreneurship disappears. People who owned businesses and had originally been in the business district with white patrons and Black patrons, they were forced to leave the white business district and move into the Black community to run their businesses.

You also wrote “Although white leaders attempted to justify their actions in every word and deed after November 10th, the truth of what happened lies within their clouded narratives.” How did that affect the historiography of how the Wilmington coup was framed?

As soon as the smoke cleared, bodies were removed from the streets, Alfred Waddell, that fiery speechmaker who said let’s kill everybody we can kill pretty much, wrote an article for a newspaper. It was his take on what happened and why it happened. It began the narrative of, “We did what we had to do. The city was in bad shape, the government was corrupt. We had African American men who were threatening our women.” So all of the standard narrative pieces, he put into that newspaper article, and that became the first story of November 10, 1898, written by a winner.

James Sprunt, who was one of the Democratic Party leaders and a businessman, was an amateur historian. He wrote a history of Wilmington and the Cape Fear region, and he again says that what happened was tragic, but it was necessary, in essence. So that narrative makes it into the next layer of history books. All of the prominent historians for North Carolina at that time were all members of the Democratic Party, and part of that lost-cause narrative with the Civil War and Reconstruction stuff. So the story of 1898 gets written into early history books in early textbooks as a tragic set of events that were necessary. Not until the 20th century, in the 1960s, I think, do you get people willing to research and write an alternative narrative based on historical research.

At the time that things happened, we have a couple of African Americans who write newspaper articles and later a book that was thinly veiled fiction about what happened from the African American perspective, but they were largely discounted in the newspapers. So the white winners truly wrote the history on this one until the 20th century.

What lessons can we draw from looking back at 1898 and particularly, its aftermath?

There’s this push and pull that always comes around in history. So the Civil War granted African Americans full citizenship, the right to vote, and by 1898, African Americans had made good on the promises that the Constitution gave them—the Declaration of Independence and all that. They were business owners, they were entrepreneurs, they were succeeding, They were owning houses, they were going to school, serving in political office. The push back from the white supremacy movement in 1898 ground all of that to a halt. African Americans were able to re-establish and get themselves organized, and they pushed back, and the civil rights movement was the result. We have President Obama elected as the first Black president, so there was the pushback again. So there’s always a give and take, a push and pull, between various pieces of our society. We’re in another phase of what that means. We don’t know. We’ll be old and wrinkled and maybe we’ll see what it all means because our country is always evolving. But one lesson is there’s always change. [laughs]

There was one guy, Timothy Fortune. He was an African American activist in the north who wrote an article that I always thought was resounding. This was a letter Booker T. Washington on December 17 after the violence: “The destiny of a race is not in the keeping of one President or one party or one epoch of history. I have an abiding faith in the future.” And so, a lot of times I looked to that quote and go, I have an abiding faith in the future. 

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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