On November 10, 1898, a politically motivated attack on Wilmington’s leading African American citizens began. The 1898 Wilmington race riot now recognized as a coup, shows the lengths to which Southern White Democrats went to regain political domination of the South after Reconstruction.
The violence, according to historical accounts, began in the predominantly African American city of Wilmington, North Carolina, the state’s largest metropolis at that time. Democrats took over the North Carolina State Legislature after the statewide election.
However, the Wilmington city remained in the hands of Republicans, essentially because of its rock-solid base of African American voters. A former Confederate officer and a white supremacist Alfred Moore Waddell led a group of white mob to oust the Wilmington’s city officials, relying on an editorial in the African American-owned Wilmington Daily Record as the catalyst for the coup. The editor of Daily Record, Alex Manly was said to have published an editorial in early November arguing that “poor white men are careless in the matter of protecting their women.”
Rephrasing articles by Ida B. Wells on the subject of lynching, Manly observed that “our experiences among poor white people in the country teaches us that women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than the white men with the colored women.”
Manly’s public discussion of the taboo subject of interracial sex exposed the reality of sexual exploitation of black women by white men and challenged the myth of pure-white womanhood, opined Tekla Ali Johnson, an academic Historian in an article for Black Past.
Waddell led 500 white men to the headquarters of Daily Record barely 48 hours after the publication of the editorial, according to multiple reports. The mob set the building on fire. Manly and other high profile African Americans reportedly fled the city; however, at least 14 African Americans were slain that day. Also, according to an eyewitness accounts later African Americans fled to the swamps, or hid in the African American cemetery at the edge of town.
Waddell reportedly formalized their control of Wilmington and his mob forced the Republican members of the city council and the mayor to resign. Waddell assumed the mayoral seat and over the next two years North Carolina passed the “grandfather clause,” as one in a series of laws designed to limit the voting rights of African Americans.
After over a century of not speaking about 1898 coup d’etat and not being taught in history classes, despite its immense impact on the city, a highway historic marker has now been unveiled to acknowledge it.
Nearly 200 people gathered on a chilly Friday to witness the official unveiling of the “Wilmington Coup” marker, reports Wilmington Star-News. The marker stands on the north side of Market Street between Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. It was erected from Wilmington Light Infantry building, which served as the meeting place for the white supremacists on Nov. 10, 1898, before they marched to burn down the black-run newspaper, The Daily Record.
The Waddell-led coup d’etat was the first successful one in American history. With the unveiling of the marker, local community leaders are hoping Wilmington is taking another step to ensure no one is ever kept from learning the story again.
“The reason why we are here is because our ancestors could not tell the story,” Deborah Dicks Maxwell, chairwoman of the New Hanover Chapter of the NAACP, said Friday at the ceremony. “They were unable to tell the story. So we are here to remember a tragic event that should never have occurred.”
The wording of the marker, according to Wilmington Star-News was a topic of conversation at the ceremony, which refers to the 1898 event as a coup instead of a “race riot” or “massacre” as it had been characterized as for years. It also described the aggressors of the coup as an “armed white mob,” as historical research has shown them to be.
“This is a long time coming,” Maxwell said.
Bertha Todd who was an integral part of the 1898 Foundation, formed in 1995 to begin researching the uprising said: “On behalf of those citizens who participated for 13 years in this effort, I salute them for their courage and tenacity.
“And for those of you here today who were instrumental in the erection and dedication of this marker regarding the 1898 violence and massacre, thank you very much.”
Before the unveiling, Tracey Burns, assistant secretary for Diversity and Cultural Inclusion for N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program is vital to the betterment of the state.
“If you don’t know the stories of a place, you don’t know that place,” Burns said. “You have to know a place to care about a place, and you have to care about a place to try and better that place. So today we pause to remember a story from our shared past, from our shared place. Here we tell the story of the coup of 1898 for all who pass by, every time they pass by.”
Another historic highway marker dedicated to Alex Manly, the editor of The Daily Record at the time of the 1898 violence, was installed at Third and Church streets in 1994.