1898 Audio Drama from WHQR’s Archives
In 1898, Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest city. It was also a majority Black city, with 56% of the population non-white. The Republican Party joined forces with the Populist Party in the election of 1894 to form a Fusion party, which led to victories at the ballot box in 1894 and 1896, giving Wilmington a Fusionist local government. White supremacists campaigned in the 1898 election to restore white control of government, and suppressed the opposition by using their paramilitary group, The Red Shirts, to block Blacks access to the polls, among other means. White supremacist Democrats won every election for which they stood. However, some in Wilmington’s Fusion government were not up for reelection that year. Two days after the statewide election, white supremacists staged a coup in Wilmington, deposing Fusion office holders, shooting Black Wilmington residents and chasing them from the city.
This radio program, written by Philip Gerard and produced in 1988 by WHQR for the 100th anniversary of the coup, is a fictionalized dramatization of those events.
For more context and comments from historians, see below.
– Kevin Crane, WHQR Station Manager
Angie Zombek, Associate Professor of History UNCW, response to WHQR 1998 archived broadcast on the 1898 Coup
The Red Shirts as a whole need broader context. Listeners are likely more familiar with the KKK, though that organization could also use some contextualization for those unfamiliar with its formation, purpose, and tactics. For the Red Shirts, I’d suggest Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (UNC Press, 2000). It also contextualizes the history of white male supremacy in the US & the KKK’s founding.
The notation of the McKinley failing to intervene in the coup is good, but the broader context of reconciliation between the white north and white south after the Civil War is also important for context. Northern whites lost interest in supporting measures that advanced Black rights, as did the federal government. The Supreme Court, in cases like the Slaughterhouse Cases & U.S. v. Cruikshank ruled that the 14th Amendment only offers protection on the federal level, leaving states in control of individual rights.
The part where Waddell is credited for stopping a lynching along with the Catholic Priest runs the risk of making Waddell into a hero, at least for a moment. His motives & commitment to white supremacy need to be clearly articulated in addition to how local legal strictures & economic conditions/job prospects changed for Blacks in the aftermath of the coup. At one point, the host expresses surprise that this type of violence could happen in Wilmington. This needs context: The scale of violence in Wilmington was surprising, but violence towards Blacks in the South certainly was not. Lynchings were widespread & are seldom talked about in historical memory, especially public memory. The coup happened in this context.
Closing comments about “good people” being involved in the events of the coup are unsettling. The events of 1898 reflected the broader notion of white supremacy that gripped the south & the nation at large as outlined by Kantrowitz, Brundage, & Silber. An estimate, to the best of scholars’ knowledge, of the casualties needs to be present otherwise the show’s presentation could be interpreted as minimizing violence.
A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (UNC Press, 2020) by LaRae Sikes Umfleet
Race, Place, & Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina (Univ. Press of Florida, 2018) by Margaret M. Mulrooney
Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (UNC Press, 2000) by Stephen Kantrowitz
North Carolina: Change & Tradition in a Southern State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018) by William Link
The Romance of Reunion: Northerners & the South (UNC Press, 1997) by Nina Silber
Lynching in the New South: Georgia & Virginia 1880-1930 (University of Illinois Press, 1993) by W. Fitzhugh Brundage
Reconstruction Updated Edition: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper Perennial, 2014) by Eric Foner
Devin Kelly, Collections Specialist and Dr. Jan Davidson, Historian, Cape Fear Museum response to WHQR 1998 archived broadcast on the 1898 Coup
This radio play was created in 1998. Over the past 25 years, more scholars and researchers have examined and explored the 1898 white supremacy campaign, massacre and coup. Listening to this play in the 21st century is challenging. In places, the tone of the piece creates a false impression of the African American community. At around the 30-minute mark when asked about the violence a man says, “the whole history of the black community in Wilmington is that we keep our heads down and don’t make trouble.” This ignores and downplays the ways in which Black community members worked to resist systems of oppression such as slavery and segregation. It is also problematic to suggest 1898 featured “good people who did bad things, and good people who prevented bad things from happening,” which the radio play does towards the end of the program.
There are factual inaccuracies in the program that are misleading. The Daily Record offices were not commonly referred to as “Free Love Hall,” and James Walker Memorial Hospital did not exist at the time. William Mayo, a man who was injured in the violence, is first called George and then later referred to as Bill. Additionally, although this is a creative choice, the ways in which the press reported in the 1890s was vastly different to the ways the radio play uses, which can lead to misunderstanding of the times in which this piece takes place.