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The Only Successful Coup in the US Began as a Campaign to Curb Black Voting Rights

Lawrence Goldstone on the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898

By Lawrence Goldstone
May 20, 2020

By August 1898, Alex Manly, a thin, handsome man, only 32 years old, had made himself into a remarkable American success story. He was a respected community leader in Wilmington, North Carolina, owned and edited The Daily Record, the city’s most widely read newspaper, served as the deputy registrar of deeds, and taught Sunday school at the Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church. Although he was the grandson of Charles Manly, a former governor of North Carolina, Manly’s achievements were in no way a result of family connections.

That was because his grandmother, Corinne, had been one of Charles Manly’s slaves.

Although he was light-skinned, with features that could easily be taken for white, Alex Manly never forgot his African American identity. In fact, The Daily Record was billed as “The Only Negro Daily Paper in the World.” What made Manly’s achievements more unusual was that by 1898, virtually all of the gains made by African Americans during Reconstruction had been swept away, and white supremacists had once again taken control of state governments across the South.

But Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city, was an exception, a thriving port on the Atlantic coast that was also an outpost of racial harmony. More than 11,000 of its 20,000 residents were African American—former slaves or their descendants—and black men owned a variety of businesses frequented by members of both races, from jewelry stores to real estate agencies to restaurants to barber shops. Although the mayor and city council remained almost entirely white, there were black police officers and firemen.

African Americans voted Republican, then the party of equal rights, and exerted a good deal of influence in Wilmington. Democrats, however, the party of white supremacy, had for decades controlled the state house in Raleigh. But in 1894, North Carolina’s Populist Party, a group of mostly small farmers, almost all of whom were white, had tired of the Democratic ruling elite and joined with black Republicans to attempt to force Democrats from state government.

From On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights by Lawrence Goldstone. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Goldstone.
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Although almost all the whites in this coalition continued to believe in the racial inferiority of African Americans, they needed the black vote to defeat their enemies. And defeat them they did. In the November 1894 elections, Fusionists, as they called themselves, took control of the general assembly and the state supreme court, and won in most of the state’s congressional districts. Although once again the vast majority of new officeholders were white, some black men were elected to local and state office, by then almost unheard of in the South. Once in power, Fusionists made it easier for blacks and poor whites to vote, imposed taxes to fund public education, and passed a number of laws that favored small farmers and businessmen over large financial interests.

One of the main Democratic campaign themes was that if their party were not returned to power, there would be an epidemic of attacks by black men on white women.

Democrats were enraged at these changes, but nearly all of their anger focused on the measures that improved voting prospects for blacks. The Fusionists were again successful in 1896, even adding the governorship to its trophy case, when Daniel Russell, a Wilmington native, was elected to that office. Democrats were determined to win it back.

As the 1898 elections approached, Daniel Schenck, a leading Democrat, warned, “It will be the meanest, vilest, dirtiest campaign since 1876. The slogan of the Democratic Party from the mountains to the sea will be but one word—nigger.” One of the main Democratic campaign themes was that if their party were not returned to power, there would be an epidemic of attacks by black men on white women.

To stoke those fires, a statewide Democratic newspaper, The News and Observer, reprinted an August 1897 speech by Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Georgia suffragette, who would later become the first woman to serve in the United States Senate. “If it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she had told an enthusiastic white audience, “then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week.”

Alex Manly had generally avoided controversy, but the accusation in The News and Observer that black men preyed on white women was too much. Manly, whose very existence was due to a white man preying on a black woman, responded with an editorial in which he charged white lynch mobs with murdering African American men because white women had chosen to become romantically involved with them.

“Meetings of this kind go on for some time,” he wrote, “until the woman’s infatuation or the man’s boldness brings attention to them and the man is lynched for rape. Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big, burly, black brute,’ when in fact many of those who have thus been dealt with had white men for their fathers, and were not only not ‘black’ and ‘burly’ but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them, as is very well known to all.”

It is difficult to imagine an accusation that could enrage white supremacists more.

Manly’s editorial was reprinted across the South, accompanied by thinly disguised calls for violence against him. Typical was an article in the Jacksonville Times, which read:

Last week the editor of the Daily Record of Wilmington, the only negro daily printed in the state, published the following slander about the white women of the south. Strange to say the wretch has not been lynched, but poses before the people as one of the grand achievements of republican rule and a hideous example of one of the many that have come to the surface since white supremacy was relegated to the rear by selfish politicians.

The editorial and the fact that Wilmington had so many successful African Americans made the city perfect for Democrats to inflame white rage as the November election approached. When South Carolina senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman visited his neighboring state to campaign for white rule, he thundered to a cheering crowd, “Why didn’t you kill that damn nigger editor who wrote that? Send him to South Carolina and let him publish any such offensive stuff, and he will be killed.” (Tillman had acquired his nickname for threatening to stick a pitchfork into President Grover Cleveland, who he called “a bag of beef.”)

Sprinkled through Tillman’s audience were men dressed in red shirts, paramilitaries who had been active in Mississippi and South Carolina since the 1870s, but who had only recently formed up in North Carolina.

At a rally on the night of November 7th, 1898, the eve of the election, Alfred Waddell addressed a Red Shirt rally. Waddell was a former Confederate cavalry officer who had served three terms in Congress before losing his seat in 1878 to Daniel Russell, who at the time was a Republican. He told the Red Shirts, “You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. 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.”

With Red Shirts and other armed white men roaming the streets, Democrats regained all they had lost, winning in Wilmington by 6,000 votes, where they had lost by 5,000 votes only two years earlier. Fraud was everywhere. Ballot boxes were stuffed so openly with phony votes for Democrats that in some districts the number of votes for Democratic candidates exceeded the total number of registered voters. In one precinct, for example, although only 30 Democrats were registered, 456 Democratic votes were reported out. Another precinct, with only 343 registered voters, reported out 607 votes, almost all for Democrats.

And where the white Democratic vote was inflated, Red Shirts made certain the Republican vote, especially among African Americans, was suppressed. One predominantly black precinct reported only 97 votes, although 337 Republicans had registered. The Red Shirts were so brazen that they met the train carrying Governor Russell, who was returning home to vote, and threatened to lynch him. Russell, almost 300 pounds, ran through the train and hid in a baggage car to escape.

Although Democrats had achieved almost total victory across North Carolina, triumph had only increased their thirst for revenge, especially in Wilmington, where Alex Manly’s editorial and a thriving black community remained irresistible targets. In addition, since many local officials had not been up for reelection in 1898, Fusionists remained a power in city government.

On the morning of November 9th, one day after the election, Waddell again called a meeting of Red Shirts. He waved in front of him a “White Declaration of Independence,” which insisted that the American Constitution “did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin.” The Founding Fathers “did not contemplate for their descendants a subjection to an inferior race.”

The following morning, Waddell, “his white hair flowing in the light breeze,” led an armed band of more than 100 armed men on a procession to Alex Manly’s newspaper office. Manly was not there, so they stormed inside, poured kerosene on all the printing equipment, and set it ablaze. Soon, the wooden building was consumed in flames and totally gutted.

The soaring flames seemed only to make the rampaging mob more furious at black residents of Wilmington, even those who lived peacefully and were not at all involved in politics.

And so, the shooting began.

Rev. Charles S. Morris, a Wilmington pastor, gave an eyewitness account in a speech to the International Association of Colored Clergymen in Boston in January 1899.

Nine Negroes massacred outright; a score wounded and hunted like partridges on the mountain; one man, brave enough to fight against such odds, who would be hailed as a hero anywhere else, was given the privilege of running the gauntlet up a broad street, where he sank ankle deep in the sand, while crowds of men lined the sidewalks and riddled him with a pint of bullets as he ran bleeding past their doors; another Negro shot twenty times in the back as he scrambled empty handed over a fence; thousands of women and children fleeing in terror from their humble homes in the darkness of the night, out under a gray and angry sky, from which falls a cold and bone chilling rain, out to the dark and tangled ooze of the swamp amid the crawling things of night, fearing to light a fire, startled at every footstep, cowering, shivering, shuddering, trembling, praying in gloom and terror: half clad and barefooted mothers, with their babies wrapped only in a shawl, whimpering with cold and hunger at their icy breasts, crouched in terror from the vengeance of those who, in the name of civilization, and with the benediction of the ministers of the Prince of Peace, inaugurated the reformation of the city of Wilmington the day after the election by driving out one set of white officeholders and filling their places with another set of white officeholders—the one being Republican and the other Democrat. All this happened, not in Turkey, nor in Russia, nor in Spain, not in the gardens of Nero, nor in the dungeons of Torquemada, but within three hundred miles of the White House.

The killing did not end until the following day. Two dozen African Americans were officially reported murdered, but scores more may have been killed and their bodies dumped into the river. One local historian, Harry Hayden, an eyewitness, insisted more than 300 had died.

While African Americans were either slaughtered or ran in terror to hide in the nearby woods, Waddell and his men invaded City Hall and informed the mayor, the aldermen, and the police chief, all Fusionists, that they must either resign on the spot or be shot down. All complied, and by late afternoon, November 10th, 1898, Wilmington had a new government, led by Mayor Alfred Waddell. Those local officials lucky enough to not be murdered, both black and white, were marched to the train station, some with nooses around their necks, and told they would be killed if they ever returned. None did.

In all, more than 2,000 African American men, women, and children fled Wilmington, most of them, like Reverend Morris, never to return.

Although the white press would later term the events in Wilmington a “race riot,” it was in fact the only violent overthrow of a local government in United States history.

Harry Hayden, interviewed later by reporters, insisted that he and his fellows were not thugs. “The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office yesterday were . . . men of property, intelligence, culture . . . clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.” North Carolina authorities evidently agreed, since no one was punished for the crimes and Waddell and his fellow Democrats were allowed to remain in the jobs they had seized by force.

As for the terrified black citizens who had been forced to flee to the woods and sleep without blankets in a cold rain, only a few attempted to sneak back to town to gather some possessions before leaving Wilmington for good. In all, more than 2,000 African American men, women, and children fled the city, most of them, like Reverend Morris, never to return. Those who remained would live in total subjugation for the rest of their lives.

The victors, proud and triumphant, posed for a group picture in front of Alex Manly’s burnt-out newspaper office, which was later reproduced in newspapers and magazines across America. But they had failed in one of their main objectives—to lynch Alex Manly. Years later, Manly’s son Milo described how his father escaped.

A German grocer who knew my father got in touch with him, and said, “Look, you’ve got to get out of town . . . This gang, there’s all these people out there, but they’ve lined it up that nobody can leave the vicinity of this area, with this cordon, unless they have a certain password.” He said, “Now, if it ever got known that I gave you the password, they’d kill me. But I know you. I trust you. I want you to get out of here.”

He gave my father the password. My father come up the line. They stopped him. “Where are you going?” He said—named a town up there. “What are you going up there for?” “Going to buy some horses. There’s an auction up there.” Or something like that. “Oh, all right.” He gave the password. “Okay, but if you see that nigger Manly up there, shoot him.” And they gave him two rifles. That’s right. Off away he went.

North Carolina authorities, appalled at the events in Wilmington, vowed to make certain such an incident could never take place again. The following year, the state legislature passed an amendment to the North Carolina constitution with provisions making it almost impossible for any African American to vote in the state.

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From On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights by Lawrence Goldstone. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Goldstone.
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