On November 10, 1898—114 years ago today—Wilmington, North Carolina, descended into racial and political violence that would leave many African Americans dead and the political and demographic landscape severely altered.
The riot occurred in the aftermath of the 1898 elections, when Fusionists and white supremacist Democrats faced off in a tense election. The Fusion coalition, made up of individuals from the Populist and Republican parties, had gained power in 1894, and sought to reverse disfranchisement practices commonly used against African Americans following the end of the Reconstruction era. Wilmington, at the time, was a majority-African American city, but white supremacists sought to suppress African American voting through violence, intimidation, and fraud.
They were successful; Democrats won control of Wilmington and most of the state. However, not satisfied merely with their victory, white supremacists formed a Committee of Twenty-Five and demanded that the Committee of Colored Citizens evict Alexander Manly, editor of the Wilmington Daily Record (an African-American owned newspaper) no later than November 10. Two months earlier, Manly had published an editorial, written either by himself or an associate editor, discussing white men’s hypocrisy in the frequent lynching of black men accused of raping white women while at the same time “debauching” African American women.
When the Committee of Twenty-Five’s demands were not met, more than 1500 Democratic white supremacists took matters into their own hands. They burnt down Manly’s newspaper building, killed many African Americans, and destroyed the majority-African American Brooklyn neighborhood.
Although federal Naval Reserves and the Wilmington Light Infantry were sent to quell the violence, they ended up killing several African Americans themselves. Some whites were wounded, but none were reported killed; African American casualty estimates, however, ranged from 8 to 100. Ultimately, more than 2,000 African Americans left Wilmington permanently, significantly altering the city’s demographics from majority African-American to majority-white. The political landscape changed dramatically too, as white supremacist Democrats seized control.
The Democratic white supremacists’ violent ascent to power foreshadowed changes to come across North Carolina, which would soon pass its first Jim Crow laws, including a constitutional amendment requiring poll taxes and literacy tests as a means to disfranchise African Americans. Democrats won in a landslide again in 1900; African Americans would have to wait and struggle for decades before legislation such as the Voting rights Act of 1965 finally began to roll back disfranchisement measures.
More than a century later, the riot stands as a haunting reminder of the intimidation and danger African Americans faced for decades in the South. A commission established in 2000 by the North Carolina General Assembly conducted a formal investigation. To read the committee’s 2006 report, which outlines a conspiracy among white supremacist Democrats and several news organizations, click here. The 1898 Foundation in 2008 unveiled a monument and memorial park commemorating those who were killed that day.
To learn more, check out David Cecelski and Timothy Tyson’s edited volume, Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (UNC Press 1998).
To read Alexander Manly’s editorial, which would later fuel white supremacists’ anger, check out this link from the North Carolina Collection.
To read early perspectives on the riot, check out this page from Documenting the American South.
The Wilmington Riot was later followed by other race riots, such as the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, the Elaine Massacre of 1919, and the Rosewood Massacre of 1923. To learn more about other race riots, check out Ann Collins’ All Hell Broke Loose: American Race Riots from the Progressive Era through World War II (Praeger 2012).
To learn more about postbellum racial violence, check out Kidada Williams’ They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (NYU Press, 2012).