• If you ever wondered what happened to Reconstruction, here’s the answer.
In 1898, Wilmington was a thriving port city on the coast of North Carolina. With a population of 25,000, it was the largest city in the state, and more than 55% of them were Black. Thirty years removed from slavery, Black people accounted for more the 30% of Wilmington’s skilled craftsmen. They owned restaurants and barbershops, they were butchers and they were tailors. In addition, they had a strong daily Black newspaper, The Daily Record.
In those days, Republicans were the party of Lincoln, and Black people joined it. Democrats were the conservative group who were often racists and bigots. This was the period of Reconstruction, with more than 2,000 African Americans elected to small local positions all the way to the United States Senate. Wilmington was no different.
The bi-racial Republican Party had political control of the city and Black people held prominent elected and non-elected positions including alderman, street superintendent, coroners, policemen, mail clerks, and justice of the peace.
In the region, poor White cotton farmers, fed up with the banks and railroad company’s high freight rates, turned on the Democratic Party, founded the People’s Party and merged with the Republicans who shared their hardship. The new interracial coalition with a platform of self-governance, free public education and equal voting rights for Black men became known as the Fusion Coalition.
Even though Blacks made up 60% of the population, because they couldn’t get bank loans, White people owned nearly 95% of the property, which means they paid 95% of the property taxes. Affluent Whites believed they were paying taxes in a disproportionate amount given the amount of property they owned, with the city’s Blacks, who now held the political power to prevent affluent Whites from changing this ratio. Additionally, tension began to grow between unskilled Whites who competed with Blacks in the job market and found their services less in demand than their skilled black competitors.
A Plan is Hatched
The Fusion Party maintained its control during the 1894 and 1896 elections, but the Democrats were determined to fare better in the 1898 elections. In late 1897, nine prominent Wilmington men who were unhappy with the Fusion government and what they called “Negro Rule” began conspiring to re-take control of the government.
At about the same time, the newly-elected Democratic State Party Chairman Furnifold Simmons was tasked with developing a strategy for the Democrats’ 1898 campaign. In order to win, Simmons knew he needed an issue that would cut across party lines.
A student of Southern political history, he knew racial resentment was easy to inflame.
So, Simmons decided to build a campaign around the issue of White supremacy. He recruited some of the most conservative anti-Black publicans to rile up White people with stories that disparaged African-Americans, presenting them as insolent, disrespectful, corrupt and unjust. They also built up a claim about Black men’s alleged interest in White women and accused the White fusionists of supporting Negro domination.
Simmons summarized the party’s platform when he stated:
“North Carolina is a White man’s state and White men will rule it, and they will crush the party of Negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever dare to attempt to establish Negro rule here.”
By late 1897 the plan was ready to put into motion and following a Democratic Executive Committee meeting, the first statewide call for White unity was issued.
Implementing the Plan
The election was a year away, the Democrats spent that year growing support for their White Supremacy movement.
Simmons created a speakers bureau of talented orators to deliver the message across the state. One of those orators was Alfred Moore Waddell, a four-time former congressman who had a reputation as “the silver-tongued orator of the east.” He was unemployed at the time, suffering from financial troubles and was seeking an opportunity to return to prominence as a politician. The Democrats hired him to attend elections and see that men voted “correctly.”
White Supremacy Clubs began to form across the state. The clubs were complemented by the development of a White labor movement created to oppose Blacks competing with Whites for jobs.
Manley’s Commentary a Championing Catalyst
As part of their campaign, many newspapers published pictures and stories implying African-American men were sexually attacking White women in Wilmington. A speech by a popular woman’s suffragist, about the problem farm wives face, said there was no problem greater than “the Black rapist.” She went on about the White men’s failure to protect White women and called on White men to resort to vigilante justice as a way for them to restore that protection.
The 32-year-old publisher of the Wilmington Daily Record – the Black newspaper — published a response:
“We suggest that the Whites guard their women more closely, as Mrs. Felton says, thus giving no opportunity for the human fiend, be he White or Black. You leave your goods out of doors and then complain because they are taken away. Poor White men are careless in the matter of protecting their women, especially on the farms. They are careless of their conduct toward them and our experience teaches us that the women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the White men with colored women. Meetings of this kind go on for some time until the woman’s infatuation, or the man’s boldness, bring attention to them, and the man is lynched for rape. Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big burly, Black brute,’ when in fact many … 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 fountainhead 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 helpless people. Tell your men that it is no worse for a Black man to be intimate with a White woman than for the White man to be intimate with a colored woman.
“You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites, in fact you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don’t ever think that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seed – the harvest will come in due time.”
Alexander Manly, 8,18,1898
Many Whites were appalled at the suggestion of consensual sex between Black men and White women. Within 48 hours, White supremacists, aided by newspapers across the South, used Manly’s words – though reprinting incendiary distortions of them – as a championing catalyst of their cause. Waddell and other orators began inciting White citizens with sexualized images of Black men’s uncontrollable lust for White women, and speeches of “Black Beasts” who threatened to deflower White women.
After his editorial, advertisers and subscribers withdrew their support, crippling the paper. His landlord evicted him, and for his own safety, he relocated his press.
Rallying the Base/Intimidation
The Democrats spent that fall leading up to the election rallying their base. A White supremacy convention held in Goldsboro attracted 8,000. They also started terrorizing Black citizens and their White allies. They destroyed properties, ambushed citizens with weapons fire, and kidnapped people from their homes and whipped them at night, with the goal of terrorizing them to the point where Republican sympathizers would be too afraid to vote.
Democrats sought to further capitalize on this fear by convincing the business community that a win by any political party opposing the Democrats would guarantee a race riot.
The Red Shirts, a White supremacist paramilitary terrorist group, began holding a series of marches and rallies around Wilmington. Just days before the election a parade of 1,000 men mounted on horses, marched through Black Wilmington neighborhoods. The next day, after a “White Man’s Rally” they repeated their march through Black neighborhoods – this time firing into Black homes and a Black school. The event ended at a park with a picnic and free barbecue. These types of marches were held daily, leading up to the election.
By this time, the level of fear among the city’s Blacks amounted almost to distress.
Most Blacks and many Republicans did not vote in the election, hoping to avoid violence. Red Shirts blocked every road leading in and out of the city and drove potential Black voters away with gunfire.
It wasn’t enough that Democrats won the election, they had a list of demands.
The White Declaration of Independence
The Secret Nine authored a document that called for the removal of voting rights for Blacks and for the overthrow of the newly elected interracial government, among other things. They called it “The White Declaration of Independence.”
In addition to calling for the end of “negro rule,” and the giving of jobs previously given to Negroes to Whites, and demanded that The Record cease publishing and that its editor be banished from the city, and that he leave town within 24 hours, they were to notify them with 12 hours of the notice of their acceptance or rejection of this demand.
They summoned the community’s Black leaders and told them their ultimatum. They drafted a response to the ultimatum and one of the members agreed to take their response to Waddell’s home by the deadline. He was so afraid, he left the response in Waddell’s mailbox instead of delivering it to him personally. When they didn’t receive the response by the deadline, Waddell gathered about 500 White businessmen and veterans who heavily armed themselves with rifles and guns. They led the group to the “former” offices of the Daily Record, broke into Manly’s building, vandalized the premises, and set the building on fire.
At the same time, Black newspapers all over the state were also being destroyed. In addition, Blacks, along with White Republicans, were denied entrance to city centers throughout the state.
Following the fire, the mob of White vigilantes swelled to about 2,000 men. When a rumor circulated the some Blacks had fired on a small group of White men a mile away from the printing office, White men then went into Black Wilmington neighborhoods, destroying Black businesses and property and assaulting Black inhabitants.
As Waddell led a group to disband and drive out, the elected government of the city, the White mob rioted. Small patrols were spread out over the city and continued until nightfall.
The Waddell group forced the city’s Republican governor, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint. The mob installed a new city council that elected Waddell to take over as mayor by 4 p.m. that day.
Once he was declared mayor, “The Secret Nine” gave Waddell a list of prominent Republicans to banish from the city. The next morning Waddell had six prominent Black leaders marched out of the city.
It is estimated that by the end of the day, Nov. 10, 1898, Waddell’s orders led to the killing of between 50 and 300 Black people, and to the banishment of about 20 more.
During the rioting, thousands of women, children and men rushed to the swamps to hide, despite the cold. The streets were dotted with dead bodies.
An army of White men, with swords by their side, walked through the streets disarming Black people of their weapons.
Along with Alex and Frank G. Manly, the brothers who had owned the Daily Record, more than 2,000 Blacks left Wilmington permanently, forced to abandon their businesses and properties. This greatly reduced the city’s professional and artisan class and changed the formerly Black-majority city into one with a White majority.
While some Whites were wounded, no Whites were reported killed.
Ushering in Jim Crow
In compliance with the White Declaration of Independence, the new Democratic state government took steps to take the vote away from Black people. On Jan. 6, 1899, a suffrage bill to keep Blacks from voting was introduced. The Legislature passed a law requiring new voters to pay a poll tax and passed a state constitutional amendment requiring prospective voters to demonstrate, to local elected officials, that they could read and write any section of the Constitution. They also invoked a “grandfather clause,” that guaranteed the right to register and vote, bypassing the literacy requirement, if the voter, or a voter’s lineal ancestor, was eligible to vote in this state of residence prior to Jan. 1, 1867. This excluded practically any Black man from voting.
The Democrats also set about passing its first racial hierarchy laws, prohibiting Blacks and Whites from sitting together on trains, steamboats, and in courtrooms, and even requiring Blacks and White to use separate Bibles. Nearly every aspect of public life was codified to separate poor Whites and Blacks.
Through 1908, Democrats in other southern states began following North Carolina’s example by suppressing the Black vote, through disenfranchisement laws or constitutional amendments, of their own.
For years after the coup, the Democrats again ran on “negro domination” with the disenfranchisement of Blacks on the ballot.