It's the 122-Year Anniversary of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898—What Have We Learned?

Alternately known as the Wilmington Massacre or the Wilmington Coup, the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 still reverberates throughout our country after its occurrence 122 years ago on November 10. It was essentially the overthrow of a government run by black and white citizens in the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, by white supremacists. The parallels to recent events or at least to recent rhetoric are staggering.

At the time, the white press in the area described the events as a race riot caused by former slaves and their progeny. Time soon revealed that it was in fact a coup d'état of the city's elected government by white supremacists. The coup was led by Southern Democrats, who stoked the flames of racial unrest and not only overthrew the government but also banished opposition black and white leaders from Wilmington, destroyed homes and businesses owned by black citizens, and killed somewhere between 60 and 300 people.

confederate monuments
Protests erupted throughout the country this summer over Confederate monuments. Racial unrest was especially high in Wilmington, North Carolina, which has a long and troubled history between races. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty

Tensions had been simmering for some time before the events of that November. The American South was still feeling the effects of the Civil War, and many whites in Wilmington were none too happy still about the Fourteenth Amendment that guaranteed Black legal citizenship, individual rights, and equal protection under the law. After the war, freedmen had left plantations and rural areas for cities like Wilmington, which became a city with a black majority population of about 55% and the largest city in the state. The influx of new people meant a shortage of supplies, while the affluent whites complained of paying too much in taxes, many blaming black politicians who found leadership roles. Add to this anxiety in the working class, where poor whites now competed against blacks in the job market.

The Ku Klux Klan became very active in the area, with many Confederate war veterans filling the sheeted ranks, while other paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts also sprung up. Alfred Moore Waddell, a white member of Wilmington's upper class and former Congressman rose to prominence as a speaker who riled up the angry whites. Waddell, along with other prominent Democrats, sought to restore prominence to the white citizens by driving out or at least driving down black people.

White supremacist newsletters and pamphlets of the time sough further discord by portraying black American males as aggressors toward white women. This stirred up Alexander Manly, the owner of Wilmington's only black newspaper, The Daily Record, who wrote an editorial that white women were not being widely raped by black men but willingly slept with them. This editorial that was designed to combat hurtful stereotypes and violence only caused the angry white supremacists to become more explosive and prompted action.

In the November 8 state election, many black and black-sympathizing Republicans did not vote out of fear, especially since armed Red Shirts intimidated them at poll sites and along city roads. Democrats successfully regained the state legislature but still lost the city elections to a biracial "fusion" government.

Waddell then led the insurrection of about heavily armed 500 white businessmen and veterans to the office of The Daily Record and proceeded to burn it down. Waddell's ranks of white supremacists had grown to about 2,000 men by the time he confronted the town's government. The armed men forced the Republican Mayor, Silas P. Wright, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint. Waddell's mob installed a new city council that elected Waddell to take over as mayor. Upon taking office, Waddell drove out all opposition. No on was ever prosecuted or punished for the killings, and President William McKinley ignored pleas from Black leaders to help.

The aftermath of the coup helped usher in the "Jim Crow" era of the South. No Black citizen served in public office in Wilmington until 1972, and no Black citizen from North Carolina was elected to Congress until 1992. But racial tensions still persist to this day in the city. Just this summer, in June, three Wilmington police officers were fired after a recording surfaced of them using racial slurs as one officer wanted to "start slaughtering" black people and "wipe 'em off the f—-ing map."