Examining The Lasting Effects of Wilmington's 1898 Coup D'État

Feb 16, 2015

In 1898, the only known coup d’État in United States history occurred in Wilmington. After taking back control of the legislature during the state elections, white supremacists in Wilmington overthrew the elected local government, forcing both black and white city officials to resign and running many out of town. WHQR spoke with Philip Gerard, author of Cape Fear Rising, about the coup and its significance during Black History Month. "

Isabelle Shepherd: What drove you to write Cape Fear Rising?  

Philip Gerard: When I moved to Wilmington, and that was back in 1989, I noticed a division that ran very deeply in every aspect of life. If you went to a particular store, it would be all white, or if you went to a particular show, it’d be all black. But you never saw a mixture of the races very much, and I thought, “This is really weird.” I’d come from Chicago. I looked into it, and I came upon a story of a newspaper editor who’d been run out of town. His newspaper, the Daily Record, burned down. The editor’s name, Alex Manly, an African American. And a white supremacist coup, essentially. The white supremacist Democrats decided to take back “their city,” as they claimed it. They went to the streets. They rounded up their opponents, political opponents, put them on trains out of town at gunpoint. They killed a number of people, and the number is still disputed. Nobody was ever called to account for this.

IS: As you say, this history seems to underlie everyday life in Wilmington, yet many seem to be unaware of the details. How do you think that works?

PG: Ignorance of history is very a dangerous thing, and local history is, in a sense, the most important history because it tells you what foundation you have built your society on, what the backstory is, if you will. We always teach in creative writing classes that present action is determined by backstory, that’s what drives it. So, if people come to the city council meeting or they come to the school board meeting or they come to their church or their school or whatever it is with that backstory in their brains because of their grandparents or whatever, or they don’t know it because they came from Ohio and just moved here and they think everything is just fine, then you have very different ideas of what the drama is you’re involved in at the moment. So, I think it pays for everyone to understand what happened, to kind of deal with it in an honest way, and then say, “Okay, what’s the best plan going forward, knowing all that?”

IS: What are the lasting effects of this coup on Wilmington’s black community?

PG: People who participate in history have a future. William Rand Kenan is a very interesting guy, widely respected, thought to be quite brave, had this moment when he participated in this. But of course, that family went on to be one of the first families in the region. On the other hand, the black families, like the Manlys, who might have been the head of a giant newspaper fortune had they stayed and not been run out of town, all those people don’t have a fifth generation legacy, which they might have had. And so there’s not either that legacy of a) leadership or b) philanthropy that might have followed that. It’s as if the black community of Wilmington has to start over every couple of generations.

IS: How should we be addressing this now, during Black History Month?

PG: It’s great to have Black History Month, but I think you have to integrate African American history, African American literature, African American culture with American culture in general. When you go to Fort Fisher, instead of just having markers about this particular battalion was here, here this surrender happened, you also need a marker commemorating the 500 African American slaves and the Lumbee Indians, who were conscripted against their will to work, you know, bone-killing labor to get that fort erected, a fort that was helping in their own subjugation. And all across Wilmington, you need to do that. You can’t have statues of the Attorney General of the Confederacy whose main duty was to uphold slavery as our entry point into downtown Wilmington. If you’re going to have that, you at least have to have a statue next to it of Alex Manley, the newspaper editor. You know, you can’t bury him in a little tiny plaque. And you have to create a built environment that reminds everybody every day—when they see the face of a public building, when they see a statue in a public street, they go to a public park—everybody has to understand this has a very mixed history. You can’t just put the things up that you like to remember. We have to remember all of it, and then we have a real picture, and then within that, we can find an honest way to communicate and go forward.

IS: Thank you so much for coming in today to speak with me, Philip.

PG: It’s my great pleasure. This stuff’s important.

This week's CoastLine will focus on how we talk about race—in academia, in literature, and in the Wilmington community. We’ll hear from Todd McFadden, Director of UNCW’s Upperman African American Cultural Center, and Clyde Edgerton, who teaches Crossroads: Race & Southern Literature.