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CoastLine: The 120th Anniversary of Wilmington's 1898 Coup

It was 120 years ago on November 10, 1898, when a mob of white supremacists burned property, terrorized Wilmington citizens, murdered anywhere from one dozen to 300 people, and forced elected officials from office. We’ll hear from New York Times Magazine Writer John Jeremiah Sullivan and his research partner Joel Finsel…We’ll talk with former city councilman, political science professor, and Wilmington native Earl Sheridan… 

But first, in the event you’re not familiar with this part of Wilmington’s history, WHQR’s Vince Winkel explains.

Segment 1: WHQR's Vince Winkel explains how 1898 came to be...

Hollis Briggs, Jr., community activist: “African Americans actually controlled the commerce and when you've got a race of people that control commerce and that were well off to say, to put it mildly, and then you've got a whole other group of people that were upset by this economic boom for African Americans. What you had was a bomb getting ready to explode.”

Jan Davidson, Cape Fear Museum historian: “So that's 25 years after emancipation. Wilmington is still the largest city in North Carolina and it has been the largest city since before the Civil War. It is a majority African American city and county and it is a place of relative opportunity, commerce, business. The railroad is still important …”

Deborah Dicks Maxwell, NCAAP President, New Hanover County: “1898 occurred because, people don't believe it, the city of Wilmington had a majority of black businesses that were successful, a middle class, politicians and there was some, some whites who were not happy with that. And that was part of why this massacre occurred and led up to it to overtaking, which was the only known Coup d’état that ever occurred in the United States.”

Vince Winkel: In the 1890’s … Wilmington was thriving.

It was North Carolina’s largest city.

Almost 60 percent of the population was black or non-white.

The Civil War, and slavery, were in the past.

Black people in Wilmington were elected to local office, and held prominent positions in the community.

Three of the city's aldermen were black.

Black people were also in positions including justice of the peace, deputy clerk of court, street superintendent, coroners, policemen, mail clerks and carriers.  

Black people also held significant economic power in the city.

All that was about to change.

White people geared up for the 1898 elections.

Colonel Alfred Waddell, a confederate veteran and former U.S. Congressman, told a crowd before election day that year, and I quote:

“We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of negroes, even if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses. Go to the polls, and if you find a negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses, kill him.”

VW: Meanwhile, Alex Manly, publisher of Wilmington’s black newspaper the Daily Record, was encouraging blacks to vote.

Jan Davidson is the Cape Fear Museum’s historian: “So the Daily Record, which was Alexander Manly's newspaper, it was a daily African American newspaper and he was a Republican. So he was encouraging people to vote. But that's one of the things that causes some of the tensions is, is there is a, an editorial that was written in August of 1898. So Manly wrote this editorial in response to a speech by a woman named Rebecca Felton,  … that said that you should, um, lynch black men if they're rapists and lynch as many of them as it takes to, to make them stop. And this is kind of this trope of the idea the African American men will attack white women. So Manly writes back and basically says, you know, there are a number of relationships that happened that are consensual. And if you're going to say those things about taking care of white women, you should make sure that black women are protected from white men. This caused a lot of consternation.”

Vince Winkel: This prompted the white leaders and newspapers in the city to fight back.

Tensions grew.

Davidson says there was already a strong movement to create a white supremacist Democratic party that would take over places like Wilmington.

In 2007, Duke University professor and historian John Hope Franklin addressed the National NAACP Convention about the 1898 coup:

“And it was … locals who were smarting over the fact that there were black office holders, black property owners right in the downtown section and so forth, and they just couldn't stand it, couldn't take it, couldn't accept that measure of, of manhood on the part of blacks. And so they said no, they out place we have to cut them down to size, And that's what they proceeded to do in 1898. Whether it was a provocation, which was slight. Except on the one hand, the agitators, the ones who whipped the flames of the fire were vigorous as well as bitter.”

Vince Winkel: Manly’s paper runs an editorial suggesting that white and black people are equals. And that African American citizens were not the provocateurs.

JHF: “And that was, that was putting, not oil but gasoline on the fire. It blew up. It blew up the town for Manly to suggest that.”

VW: Election morning.

It’s Tuesday, November 8, 1898.

The Wilmington Messenger newspaper headline that day asks, “What will you be”… it states “today white men of North Carolina must declare where they stand.”  The sub-head reads, “Question of race, not politics.”

The Democrats, meaning the party of white people, won the election.

Historians say they won because of fraud and the threat of violence.

But it wasn’t enough. Municipal offices up for election in off years remained in Republican hands.

So the white Democrat conservatives put a plan into action to make sure blacks would never again be a force in politics.

At 422 South 7th Street in Wilmington, a stone’s throw from Church Street, there is a dirt parking lot. It’s next to the Saint Luke AME Zion Church.

This is where the Daily Record newspaper building used to sit.

Hollis Briggs, Jr., a community activist, is standing in this vacant lot. He says the Democrats of 1898 did not want blacks to have any power or prosperity:

“They weren't about to let that happen here in this area. And they saw this as the weak link to the fencing and they wanted to take that, take that down. So let's just, let's just build it like that.

And, and, and to say now that even some of the third generation people here in Wilmington that have money and assets and power, it was, it was achieved about what happened in 1898.”

VW: The morning after the election, November 9th, a group known as “the Secret Nine” held a meeting at the County Courthouse. Reports indicate that 600 white men attended.

Hugh MacRae of the Secret Nine attended along with other prominent white Democrats.

The so-called “White Declaration of Independence," was read to the crowd. It "asserted the supremacy of the white man.”

The group decided that Alex Manly, publisher of the Daily Record on South 7th Street, must leave the city. And it ordered the Daily Record not be published again.

On the morning of November 10, hundreds of white men armed themselves with rifles and a Gatling gun, the forerunner of the modern machine gun, and walked to the two-story publishing office of the Daily Record.

A few hours later, the white mob gutted the building, and burned it to the ground.

It’s estimated by the end of the day between 60 and 300 black people had been killed. David Cecelski and Timothy Tyson wrote in “Democracy Betrayed” that African Americas in Wilmington believed more than 300 were killed. A leader of the secret nine said there were 20 deaths.

Hundreds more fled to Brunswick County and beyond.

At the site of the Daily Record, if you kick around in the dirt for a few minutes, you can still see some of the foundation bricks.

Museum historian Jan Davidson:“They ran into the, to the swamps, into pine forest cemetery, tried to get away and try to hide.”

“Some people were put on trains and sent out of town. Alexander Manly escaped before all this happened because somebody tipped them off and that he knew it was happening when the dust settled, the city of Wilmington had undergone this experience of violence at the same time, the, the political, the local machine, maybe a machine, I guess the political, the political party went into action.”

According to Deborah Dicks Maxwell, President of the NAACP of New Hanover County, the exodus had begun: “And then you also have to look at the decimation and the reduction of blacks within the community known as Wilmington and New Hanover County occurred instantly. One only has to look at the census records before and the census records afterwards to see such a total reduction in the black population of this area.”

Hoggard High School Teacher Craig Underwood. He teaches about the 1898 Coup, in his American History class for juniors:

“While it's a terrible story it is one that also draws awareness to, again, the importance of learning history.”

VW: He says a lot of his students come in with no knowledge of the events of 1898.

CU: “So when you can present a new topic and one that is as controversial as the events of 1898 there is just the genuine interest. I've had student feedback of, you know, what? Wow! Because you know, I had no idea about that and I want to read more about it. Do you have anything on it and you know, I'll own up, you know, the books I have and things like that. So just the genuine interest in the topic. Being that it was right here in Wilmington is the greatest impact that I see.

VW: There’s a plaque along 3rd Street. It reads: “Alex Manly, 1866 to 1944. Edited black-owned Daily Record four blocks east. Mob burned his office, November 10, 1898, leading to race riot and restrictions on black voting in North Carolina.”

Listen to Segment 1 here.

 Segment 2: New Revelations about 1898 with Researchers John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel

John Jeremiah Sullivan might be best known for his collection of essays entitled, “Pulphead.”  He is also the author of Blood Horses and is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.  He is a current Guggenheim Fellow.  He writes for GQ, Harper's Magazine, and Oxford American. His research on 1898 will be published in the New York Times Magazine in an upcoming issue.  

Joel Finsel has written a memoir about coming of age behind bars:  Cocktails & Conversations from the Astral Plane.  Joel’s articles and recipes have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Devour, The Oxford American, SALT, Playboy.com, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.   He has a biography coming out soon about Artist Franz Kline

Listen to Segment 2 here.

 Segment 3: How Wilmington still grapples with 1898 with former city council member and retired UNCW political science professor Earl Sheridan 

Earl Sheridan served on Wilmington’s City Council for twelve years, from 2005 - 2017.  He is a Retired Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  Earlier this year, Governor Roy Cooper bestowed upon him the state’s highest honor:  the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.  Earl Sheridan is a Wilmington native who left briefly to earn his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in political science.

He’s researched and published on the intersection of political ideology and race.  

He was also president of the New Hanover County Branch of the NAACP from 1987-1996, he served on the 1898 Memorial Foundation, and on the City Commission on African American History.

Listen to Segment 3 here.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.