Documentary traces Wilmington coup, failures of N.C. press

By Emily Sides

SmART Writer-in-Residence Emily Sides first learned about the white supremacist-led coupdetat in 1898 Wilmington at a March 29, 2016 screening of “Wilmington on Fire” at Goldsboro’s Paramount Theater and made it her goal to bring the award-winning documentary and its director, Christopher Everett, to Kinston this spring.

Everett will be in Kinston’s Arts & Cultural District this weekend for a free screening of “Wilmington on Fire” documentary at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 15 at the Neuse Regional Library at 510 N. Queen St through a residency with SmART Kinston.

While it’s been almost two years since marriage equality was extended to same-sex couples, this summer marks 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that banning interracial marriage was wrong. Prior to that ruling, and especially during Reconstruction, interracial couples were targets for abuse and in many cases men of color were lynched as rapists.

Perhaps nowhere in North Carolina was there a more vivid example of this vigilante injustice than New Hanover County, where, in 1898, leading up to a murderous political overthrow of Wilmington’s local government, white supremacists waged an anti-black campaign leading up to the November election. Across the state they marched white men to sign up for the club called the White Government Union. If they refused, they were told to leave town or be hanged.

“Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy,” edited by David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, is available at Neuse Regional Library.

In fact, the white supremacist Alfred Waddell slammed black men, racistly saying they use obscene language around white women. Waddell also blamed the white men who partnered politically with black men, calling them traitors.

If a “race conflict” occurs “the white leaders of the Negroes will be chiefly responsible,” Waddell said.

Two years before 1898, Fusionists, the party of white and black men, received 5,000 more votes than the Democrats. In 1898, the Democratic Party “stuffed the ballots” with fraudulent ballots for Democrats, in addition to killing an unknown amount of people and banishing more than 1,400 black people. The Democrats won by more than 6,000 votes.

The Democratic Party, utilizing a terrorist wing of men known as the Red Shirts, partnered with wealthy white business owners across the state, including editors at the state’s white-owned newspapers such as the Raleigh News & Observer, the Fayetteville Observer and the Charlotte Observer.

The Democratic Party terrorized black people so they would be afraid to vote on Election Day. The party positioned itself as the savior of North Carolina from the “Negro domination.” The racists used speeches, torchlight parades and physical intimidation.

Waddell said that “we will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” At another speech he echoed similar racism that they would force out black people and white allies even if they had to “throw enough dead black corpses into the Cape Fear River to block its passage to sea.”

The mayor of Durham at the time, William Guthrie, said in a speech that white people have proven their supremacy in the U.S. with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

Guthrie said to Fusionists, “resist our march of progress and civilization and we will wipe you off the face of the Earth.”

‘Symbol of Black Achievement’

Indeed the white supremacists loathed Wilmington because not only was it the largest city in the state at the time, black people prospered and outnumbered white people. Black men had a higher literacy rate than their white counterparts. They owned businesses of all kinds from real estate and fish and oyster shipper and dealers to barber shops and even the country’s only black-owned daily newspaper at the time.

On Nov. 9, Waddell unveiled the White Declaration of Independence. Waddell declared white men wouldn’t permit black political participation. A committee added the demand that the Wilmington Record be forced to cease publication and the editor, Alexander “Alex” Manly, be banished from the city.

Manly’s father was the white former Governor Charles Manly, who fathered Alex with an enslaved woman.

Alexander Manly

Alex Manly bought a printing press from the Wilmington Messenger, a newspaper, and started publishing the Record across the street from the Wilmington Star newspaper. Thomas Clawson, editor of the Messenger, said Manly’s paper, which started as a weekly but flourished into a daily that was read across the state, was “a very creditable colored paper.” White businesses advertised in the Record.

Manly wrote an opinion piece against the racist speech that was re-printed in the Messenger a year after a white woman from Georgia named Rebecca Felton gave it. Felton’s racist speech praised white men for lynching black men for raping white women. She said she supported “lynching a thousand times a week if necessary.”

Manly wrote an editorial in response to Felton’s work that if printed today would make total sense. He argued that not all interracial relationships are rape. He called white men hypocrites for publicly smearing black men as criminals while saying nothing about the white men who raped black women.

“Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman,” Manly wrote.

Newspapers ran headlines reacting to Manly’s editorial: “Negro Editor Slanders White Women.” “Infamous Attack on White Women.”

Interracial marriage wouldn’t be legalized nationwide for another 69 years in 1967.

In 2006 North Carolina completed an investigation into the murderous political overthrowing, 108 years after white supremacists took and maintained control of the port city. The report recommended paying descendents of the victims and told newspapers, such as The News & Observer, to publish the truth.

In 1898, a headline in the News & Observer after the attack said that black people “precipitated” or caused the violence. Political cartoons before the attack showed black men portrayed with wings that said “Negroe rule.” Another showed a man labeled Fusionist and portrayed him with horns, wings and a tail overseeing a white man in a blazer and plaid pants at the ballot box.

“Don’t be tempted by the devil,” the cartoon read.

Another cartoon showed a boot labeled “the negro” squashing a man labeled as “white man.” Underneath, the cartoonist asked in all caps, “how long will this last?”

Now that the story is told, the report says, somebody has to pay, and it offers broad recommendations for reparation by government and businesses. They include incentives for minority business development in areas that were affected and the easing of barriers to minority home ownership.

Newspapers accused of inflaming tensions at the time will be asked to provide scholarships for minority students, and to help distribute accounts of the story, which for so long was sheathed in awkward silence.

A local paper once known as The Morning Star is now owned by The New York Times Company and is called The Star-News. The others are The Washington Post, The Raleigh News and Observer and The Charlotte Observer.

The New York Times, June 4, 2006 Wilmington, N.C., Revisits a Bloody 1898 Day and Reflects

November 10, 1898

On November 17, 2006, the News and Observer published a 16-page edition called “The Ghosts of 1898” by Tyson. Tyson wrote that “riot” is not accurate to describe the events that began on November 10, because of how well organized and funded the white supremacists were for months before the massacre.

The plan had four parts: steal the election, riot, stage a coup and banish the opposition.

A white Democrat wrote at the time that Manly’s “article would make an easy victory for us…”

Although many black men avoided the polls, others attempted to vote.

The white supremacists burned the two-story building that housed Manly’s newspaper. They even took a photograph, posing in front of the burnt building with their guns. Manly had already fled the city.

The armed white supremacists forced the mayor, the board of Alderman, and the police chief to resign at City Hall. They were replaced with the attacker’s white allies. Silas Wright, a white Republican, was called a “white n—–” and replaced by Waddell.

White supremacists smile for the camera after burning down the only black-owned newspaper in Wilmington during the 1898 massacre. Alexander Manly, the publisher of the paper, was forced into exile along with hundreds of other black citizens.

Armed men, including the racist vigilante Red Shirts, descended on the city on horseback, shooting and killing many black people. They had a list of black people and white allies that were targets to be banished or killed. They also used “disciplined military action” to attack black neighborhoods.

The number of murdered is unknown; numbers range from 9 to more than 300 people. Daniel Wright, a black politician, was shot 40 times in the back.

The Governor at the time, Daniel Russell, “eventually” sent the Wilmington Light Infantry, but the infantry “brought more fear than peace to black neighborhoods.”

More than 1,400 black people were banished. Many people ran and hid in the neighboring wilderness, terrified of being found.

People were exiled because they were leaders who wanted citizenship or openly opposed the anti-black campaign; other black people were too successful and offended white people. In addition, white leaders who allied with black people were banished.

White Fusionist and Deputy Sheriff George French was almost hung, but instead he was exiled. Chief of Police John Melton was accosted by a mob and only escaped because soldiers intervened. Melton was put on a train to Washington, D.C. Black businessmen, Salem J. Bell and Robert B. Pickens, were also forced onto a train.

The Wilmington Morning Star explained that Ari Bryant, a black barber shop owner, was banished because he was “looked upon by the Negroes as a high and mighty leader.”

Thomas C. Miller, a black loan provider, among other things, was murdered outright. A white supremacists said Miller was “one Negro that we could not make keep quiet and he talked and talked until Ed McKoy’s gun went ‘click click’ and when we told him to shut up, he kept a little quieter.”

Two weeks after the violent political attack Waddell lied to Collier’s Magazine that “there was no intimidation in the establishment of the present city government.”


Reports varied as to how many blacks were slaughtered, as newspapers reported nine deaths, while members of the mob suggested as many as 100 had been killed. Other figures suggest as many as 300 blacks were killed during the coup.

Republican President at the time William McKinley received telegrams and visitors who told him black North Carolinians needed help. McKinley did nothing.

The following year Democrats passed literacy tests and poll taxes for voters. The News & Observer published an editorial that these initiatives would prevent a partnership between poor white people and black people, or “low-born scum and quondam slaves.”

More than 85 percent of the state’s eligible voters at the time voted in 1896. That number dropped by roughly 41 percent to less than 50 percent voter turnout in 1904.

White people began outnumbering black people in Wilmington after the 1898 attack. The U.S. Census said the city’s population was more than 106,400 people in 2010. The white population comprised about 73.5 percent while black people represented about 19.9 percent of the population.

White Christians attended church the Sunday after the violent overthrow. Rev. Payton H. Hoge said “we have taken a city, to God be the praise.”

The New York Times wrote decades later that, “Northern men no longer denounce the suppression of the Negro vote in the South as it used to be in Reconstruction days. The necessity of it under the supreme law of self-preservation is candidly recognized.”