Emily Powell, Lucy Evans, and Eliza Johnson read their winning Mary Alice Jervay Thatch 1898 student essays
Students were asked to reckon with the 1898 Wilmington massacre and coup — an act of racial and political violence that forever changed the city. Today we memorialize the 125th anniversary, with essay readings from the three contest winners: Lucy Evans, Emily Powell, and Eliza Johnson.
The Wilmington Journal Breakfast Club partnered with the R.S. and T.C. Jervay Foundation to present the Mary Alice Jervay Thatch Memorial 1898 Student Essay contest, in honor of the longtime award-winning editor and publisher of The Wilmington Journal, who passed in 2021.
Students were challenged to reckon with the 1898 massacre and coup d'etat — an act of racial and political violence that forever changed the city.
The contest is part of thesecond 1898 symposium, being produced by the Breakfast Club and the R.S. and T.C. Jervay Foundation. The event is free and open to the public and will be held from 1-4 p.m. at Williston Middle School, 401 South 10th Street in Wilmington on Saturday, November 11.
You can find the winning entries below, along with audio of the essays being read by their authors.
First place — Emily Powell
Emily Powell is an 11th-grade student at Cape Fear Academy. Her essay, "Remembering Our Past: The Wilmington Coup d’Etat of 1898" was awarded the $500 first place price.
Over the years, certain aspects of history have been contorted and bent out of shape, only reconciled many years later. This was the case with the Wilmington Coup of 1898. Despite being the only successful coup d’etat in American history and a distinctively negative turning point for blacks’ rights, this event has been whitewashed and largely forgotten for the past century, a significant step-back until only recently.
After Reconstruction, the South rapidly regressed, as white “Redeemers” regained political office, and blacks were once again subjected to injustice (Wallenfeldt). In spite of this, however, Wilmington remained particularly progressive. Not only did it have a majority black-run city government, but it also had a thriving African American middle class. In fact, “by 1896, nearly 126,000 black men in Wilmington were registered voters” (Randle). However, this level of relative equality didn’t last long.
Leading up to the 1898 North Carolina state elections, the biracial Fusionist party was in political control, enraging southern white Democrats. As election day approached, whites resolved to reassert their position of dominance through any means necessary. Racist propaganda began circulating widely, and a paramilitary group known as the Red Shirts spread violent threats. As a result, most blacks stayed home on election day, and the Democrats won by a landslide.
However, since Wilmington’s local elections weren't scheduled until the following year, their Fusionist government remained, yet white supremacists weren’t about to wait. On November 10, 1898, two thousand men attacked and burned the office of the Daily Record, Wilmington’s black-run newspaper. The ensuing violence shook the town as Red Shirts, vigilantes, and militiamen killed up to 250 blacks, installing Democrats in office instead. Over the next few weeks, 2100 blacks fled from Wilmington, forever altering the racial makeup of the city (Neuman).
While this was a dark segment of our history, there were people who fought for their rights nonetheless. For example, prior to the riots, Alexander Manly, the owner of the Daily Record, used his newspaper to stand up for his people, publishing a strongly worded rebuttal to a racist speech made by a white woman. Although Manly fled soon after, it was the people like him—those who fought despite the consequences—who were the true heroes of this time. While the legacy of this event would become whitewashed and twisted for the next century, it was these fighters who furthered equality in America, a lasting impact that persists to this day.
As we continue to grapple with our past, it is tempting to sculpt these dark events into simpler narratives. However, in doing this, we not only deny the full truth, but we marginalize the struggles and sacrifices of those impacted. In this regard, those who explore the true facts of events like the 1898 Wilmington Race Riots are also heroes—of this event and of our future. By simply acknowledging these narratives, understanding them, and most importantly, learning from them, everyone can become protagonists of this story, promoting future progress and preventing history from repeating itself.
- 1898 Wilmington Coup, NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, www.dncr.nc.gov/1898-wilmington-coup. Accessed 16 Oct. 2023.
- Fonvielle, Chris. History Cruise with Dr. Chris Fonvielle. History Cruise with Dr. Chris Fonvielle, 24 Sept. 2023, Wilmington, North Carolina.
- Neuman, Scott. “A North Carolina City Begins to Reckon with the Massacre in Its White Supremacist Past.” NPR, NPR, 10 Nov. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/11/10/1053562371/1898-wilmington-coup-massacre.
- Randle, Aaron. “America’s Only Successful Coup d’etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898.” History.Com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Oct. 2020, www.history.com/news/wilmington-massacre-1898-coup.
- Wallenfeldt, Jeff. “Wilmington Coup and Massacre.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 22 Sept. 2023, www.britannica.com/event/Wilmington-coup-and-massacre.
Second place — Lucy Evans
Lucy Evans is an 8th-grade student at the Wilmington Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her essay, “The Wilmington Massacre of 1898,” was awarded the $300 second-place prize.
Larry Reni Thomas, a Black activist and author, said “serious damage was done to the soul of the town,” (Wilmington on Fire) about the 1898 Massacre and Coup. Before the massacre, Wilmington was the biggest town in North Carolina; it had a thriving Black community and a Black-run newspaper, Alexander Manly’s Daily Record. Unfortunately, white supremacists resented the fact that Black people had a strong role in the government and city. A white supremacy campaign rigged the 1898 election to remove Black people from positions of influence.
Prior to the massacre, Wilmington’s population was majority African American and it had a multiracial, Republican-Populist, ‘fusionist’ government. Many prominent white Democrats, including Josephus Daniels, Alfred Waddell, and Furnifold Simmons, planned to take control of the government that they felt had been taken over by African Americans. They created the white supremacy campaign, which called for stealing the upcoming 1898 federal and state election by exploiting racism. They used Daniels’ newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer, to publish offensive drawings, grotesque cartoons of Black people and their role in society, and articles saying Black men posed as a threat to white women, due to the alleged fact that they would rape white women often. In response, Manly published an editorial stating that some white women chose to be with Black men and vice versa. This, in turn, was used by the white supremacists to light the fuse for November 1898.
At election time, the Red Shirt militia, similar to the KKK and aligned with the Democratic party, threatened Black voters, surrounded polling places with armed men, and stuffed ballot boxes. The Democrats won, immediately releasing a White Declaration of Independence promising that whites would never again be ruled by African Americans and directing Manly to leave the city. Prominent Black citizens were expected to give a response to the demands that evening. However, their response didn't arrive on time because of how dangerous it was to deliver. Due to this, within thirty minutes of the response's failed delivery time, Waddell led 2,000 white men to The Daily Record building to burn it to the ground. More violence erupted and numerous Black people were killed. Bodies were said to litter the river and turn the water red. Some survivors fled the city, while others hid in the swamp behind a Black graveyard until they could escape. After the massacre, many Black people left causing the Black population to be cut in half.
Due to the Wilmington Massacre, many Black people died and the town was forever changed. If this hadn't happened, downtown Wilmington would most likely be very different, perhaps featuring a still-robust Black middle class, and Alexander Manly’s newspaper could still be in print. The horrendous racism that still continues in Wilmington could have been lessened if a class of white men and their followers hadn’t decided they deserved more power because of the color of their skin.
- Wilmington on Fire. Directed by Chris Everett, Speller Street Films, 2015.
- “Wilmington Coup and Massacre | History & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/event/Wilmington-coup-and-massacre.
- “Wilmington Massacre and Coup d’État of 1898 – Timeline of Events | New Hanover County, NC.” Www.nhcgov.com, www.nhcgov.com/604/Wilmington-Massacre-1898.
Third place — Eliza Johnson
Eliza Johnson is an 8th-grade student at the Wilmington Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her essay, “Wilmington’s Tragic Coup of 1898,” was awarded the $200 third-place prize.
“We, the undersigned citizens of the city of Wilmington and county of New Hanover, do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled, by men of African origin,” (Wadell) states the White Declaration of Independence. Wilmington was racially integrated until the 1898 massacre when Wilmington became segregated and the black community downsized. The massacre was a violent overthrow of the government by white supremacists who were not pleased with the Black community gaining voting power. The 1898 Massacre was a tragic day in Wilmington’s history that left the city forever changed.
The 1898 Massacre was one of the worst events in Wilmington’s history but many people avoid the topic and cover it up. Groups of democrats, the Red Shirts and Klu Klux Klan, intimidated Black and republican voters at voting booths which caused many frightened Black voters not to vote. On November 9, 1898, the White Declaration of Independence was published by The Wilmington Messenger . It was a list of rules that would make sure that the city would never be ruled by black people again. Armed, white mobs who were displeased about Black people gaining voting power attacked African Americans. “ The number of people who died ranges from about 60 to as many as 250, according to some estimates,” (Neuman) and many more fled the city. They raided The Daily Record, a local black newspaper, which resulted in a massacre and Alex Manly, the newspaper editor, was told to leave within the next 24 hours.
Many Black citizens left town while others hid throughout the city.
The 1898 massacre had a lasting effect on Wilmington and North Carolina. This city had a large economy based on the port located on the Cape Fear River. Black people had steady jobs including doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and different racial communities were integrated well.
The massacre led much of the Black population to flee, significantly damaging the Black community. Women and children hid in different places all over the town including a Black cemetery, and many of them ended up fleeing the city and never returned. Black citizens were also economically hurt as they lost lots of property including houses and businesses. After the 1898 massacre, Wilmington became a much more segregated city, as Jim Crow laws set in and started a long lasting cycle of division between races. Until the massacre, Wilmington was also on track to remain the largest city in North Carolina as it had a successful port industry and thriving community but the massacre changed the trajectory.
The 1898 Massacre was a fatal event in Wilmington’s history that forever changed Wilmington and its community. Recently, people have begun to speak up about this covered up history; however, there is no possible compensation for the damage that was done. The Wilmington Massacre of 1898 was a tragic event in Wilmington and African American history that highlights how many challenges people of color and minorities have faced throughout the years.
- Nueman, Scott. “A North Carolina city begins to reckon with the massacre in its white supremacist past”. NPR.org, 10 November, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/11/10/1053562371/1898-wilmington-coup-massacre
- Wadell, Alfred. The White Declaration of Independence. News and Observer, November 10, 1898
- “NCpedia | NCpedia.” Www.ncpedia.org , www.ncpedia.org/anchor/wilmington-coup.
- Randle, Aaron. “America’s Only Successful Coup d’Etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898.” HISTORY , 7 Oct. 2020, www.history.com/news/wilmington-massacre-1898-coup.
- Wallenfeldt, Jeff. “Wilmington Coup and Massacre.” Encyclopædia Britannica , Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 22 September 2023, www.britannica.com/event/Wilmington-coup-and-massacre.
- Wilmington On Fire. Directed by Chris Everett, Speller Street Films, 2015.
- “1898 Wilmington Coup.” Www.dncr.nc.gov , www.dncr.nc.gov/1898-wilmington-coup.
- “Wilmington Massacre and Coup d’État of 1898 – Timeline of Events | New Hanover County, NC.” Www.nhcgov.com , www.nhcgov.com/604/Wilmington-Massacre-1898.