One hundred and twenty years ago, Wilmington was gripped by an outburst of violence that changed the history of the state of North Carolina. The bloody events of November 10, 1898, coupled with the overthrow of the city’s government made white supremacy the rule throughout the state for much of the 20th century.
After 1898, North Carolina’s General Assembly worked to pass laws that segregated blacks and whites. The legislature also took power from 13 black-majority counties and placed it in their own hands. And, they passed a suffrage amendment that disenfranchised African American male voters who’d gained the vote after the Civil War.
In Wilmington, where blacks comprised the majority of the population, African American residents had made a number of political and economic strides by the late 19th century. Black men were elected to state and local government. John T. Howe represented New Hanover County in the General Assembly in 1896, and Elijah Green and Andrew J. Walker were both elected to Wilmington’s Board of Alderman in 1897. And, John C. Dancy held a federal appointment in the city – he was appointed collector of customs for the port of Wilmington in 1891.
At the end of the 19th century, Wilmington had a small but thriving black middle class. Black entrepreneurs set up undertaking ventures, stables, construction businesses, and liveries. Alexander Manly gave public voice to African Americans’ concerns through the newspaper, the Daily Record. For those who didn’t own a business, there were some good jobs to be had – including working on the docks and working at the Cotton Compress on Front Street, and in other manufacturing businesses.
These economic and political advances upset portions of the state’s white population. And in 1898, the state’s Democratic Party, with Furnifold M. Simmons at the helm, decided to promulgate white supremacy in the state.
Wilmington became a target in the campaign. As historian LeRae Umfleet has put it, “Wilmington’s status as the state’s largest city, governed by Populists and Republicans supported by a large black voting majority, made it a perfect test case for Simmons’ propaganda program, which singled out the city with claims that it was under ‘negro domination.’” An editorial by Alexander Manly, published in August of 1898 in response to a speech by a Georgian white supremacist Rebecca Felton became a unifying factor for whites. In the editorial, Manly suggested that not all sexual relationships between white women and black men were rape. Those were inflammatory sentiments at the time, and white Democrats used this editorial to fan the flames of racial hatred.
November 1898’s elections became a turning point in the drive to create a whites-only government. On November 8, 1898, in a tense and corrupt election, Democratic candidates were elected in the Republican city of Wilmington. Voters were intimidated into not voting – in some precincts more Democratic votes were cast than there were registered voters. Things escalated the next day when a large meeting of local white residents issued what came to be known as the “White Declaration of Independence.” The declaration asserted whites should rule and demanded that the Daily Record’s editor, Alexander Manly, leave town.
On November 10, 1898, a large crowd went from the Wilmington Light Infantry’s Armory on Market Street to the Love and Charity Hall at 7th and Nun streets, the home of the Daily Record’s printing press. The white mob burned down the building. After Alexander Manly’s printing press was burned, gunfire erupted around town. A number of blacks were shot and killed. It’s not clear how many died in total. Estimates are wide-ranging and confused. Much of the violence happened on the Northside of town, and most of the violence was perpetrated by whites. In the chaos that ensued, African Americans fled to the swamps around the city for safety. And, a number of blacks and whites were forced to leave town, never to return.
Local Democrats also decided to use the “riot” to get rid of the city’s democratically elected government. They wanted to get rid of the Republicans and their Populist allies who had not been up for re-election. One by one, city officials were forced to resign, and a slate of Democratic Party members were put in their place.
The events in Wilmington caused ripple effects and a lasting effect on race relations in Wilmington and the state of North Carolina. The gains of Reconstruction were wiped out. African Americans were disenfranchised, and the Democratic General Assembly imposed legally sanctioned segregation. It would be more than six decades before African Americans were able to reassert their Constitutionally protected rights to the vote and to equal treatment under the law.
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