Joshua Halsey was buried in an unmarked grave at Pine Forest Cemetery in Wilmington, North Carolina after being killed by a militant group of white supremacists during the city’s massacre in November 1898. Halsey was 40 years old and among an unknown number of Black people who were murdered on November 10, 1898, as a part of an orchestrated coup by white supremacists and police officers in Wilmington. The city at the time had a multiracial government.
Halsey and many other Black people hid in swamps around the Pine Forest Cemetery at the edge of town during the unrest which became known as the only successful coup d’etat in U.S. history.
This October, a nonprofit group called the Third Person Project found Halsey’s grave after handwritten maps of the cemetery were digitized. Halsey’s grave was the first to be identified of the massacre victims. John Jeremiah Sullivan, who worked with the Third Person Project, told CNN there could be as many as 250 other Black victims, adding that the exact number of Blacks killed may never be known since their bodies were tossed in a river or interred privately at unknown places.
Halsey’s descendants, who were shocked when his grave was found, honored him with a funeral over the weekend. The funeral was organized as part of commemorative events ahead of the massacre’s 123rd anniversary. It was attended not only by descendants of Halsey but also local political figures, activists and those who supported the cause behind the research into the massacre, Star News Online reported.
A horse-drawn hearse carried soil collected from the site of Halsey’s home to the funeral on Saturday, according to CNN. The Rev. William Barber II, a co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, a group inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., delivered Halsey’s eulogy.
“We must find the vestiges of systemic racism that are still happening today and that are still going on today,” Barber said. “And we must call them out in Joshua’s name. I’m here to tell you that what killed Joshua is still alive today.”
Barber said Halsey was killed by “a charismatic, racist orator who went all around the state and country warning people against ‘Negro domination’ and the dangers of white and black people working together.”
The Wilmington massacre
Wilmington, before the massacre, had a thriving Black community that worked as policemen, magistrates, firemen, skilled artisans, industrial workers and maritime crew members. Black people were also part of the city’s government, with three out of the ten aldermen being African Americans.
In the 1898 state legislative elections, Democrats, the party of the Confederacy, vowed to end what they called “Negro domination” in the elections. According to the Zinn Education Project, the strategy of the Democrats was “to enlist men who could write (white journalists and cartoonists), men who could speak (white supremacists who whipped up emotions at rallies), and men who could ride (the Ku Klux Klan-like “Red Shirts” who were basically armed ruffians on horseback).”
What the white supremacists also did was to use an editorial by Alex Manly, the editor of Wilmington’s Black newspaper the Daily Record, to incite violence at the time of the elections. Manly condemned lynching in his editorial and discussed the taboo subject of interracial sex while exposing how Black women were sexually exploited.
Former Confederate colonel Alfred Waddell and white supremacists ensured that there was white outrage at the editorial. Waddell, moments before the election, also gave a speech suggesting that white citizens should “choke the Cape Fear (River) with carcasses” if necessary so as to ensure that African Americans are kept away from the polls.
On election day, Democrats won every seat. However, these were state legislative seats. African Americans still had power in Wilmington’s city government. About 800 white citizens led by Waddell subsequently met at the county courthouse and produced the “White Declaration of Independence” which read: “We, the undersigned citizens… do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.”
The following day, which was November 10, 1898, Waddell led some 500 white men to the headquarters of the Daily Record and burned the building to the ground. Manly and other prominent African Americans fled the city in the violence that ensued. Some Black people were killed by white supremacists who paraded Black neighborhoods with guns.
Amid the violence, Waddell threw out the democratically-elected aldermen and installed his own, according to the report by the Zinn Education Project. The men Waddell brought into power “elected” him mayor. The report by the Zinn Education Project said Black leaders were jailed “for their own safety” and were marched against their will to the train station by the military, where they were sent out of town.
Two years after the insurrection, North Carolina passed the “grandfather clause” to limit the voting rights of African Americans. “The events of the 1898 coup marked a turning point in the post-Reconstruction South that changed the trajectory of race relations in North Carolina and marked the start of Jim Crow laws in the state, which further enforced racial segregation through the mid-20th century,” according to a guide of the events published by the William Madison Randall Library and cited by CNN.
Gwendolyn Alexis, Halsey’s great-granddaughter, told CNN that when she found that Halsey was one of the people killed in the insurrection, it took her breath away.
“Because not only did I find family, I found history,” she said.