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Historical Parallels: 1898 Wilmington Massacre And Capitol Siege

Henry Cronenberg
New Hanover County Public Library
A group of men stand in front of the destroyed printing press of African American newspaper owner and editor Alex Manly on Nov. 10, 1898. Shortly after this, the coup began in the streets of Wilmington.

WILMINGTON — On Wednesday, as rioters broke into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and a nation watched in disbelief, Americans got a real-time lesson in a startling concept – insurrection.

But the Wilmington community — at least those people enlightened about its history — already got this lesson in seditious behavior when they learned about the 1898 Wilmington Massacre.

Watching coverage of Wednesday’s chaos at the heart of this nation’s capital, it was hard for some not to draw parallels between the unrest emboldened by President Donald Trump himself to overturn an election he lost and the massacre that laid siege to Wilmington 122 years ago.

Journalists wrote of 1898 as they documented the violence in Washington, D.C., live on social media. Later in the evening on his late-night NBC show, Seth Meyers sat aside the jokes to speak to his hundreds of thousands of viewers about the stark similarities between the events in Washington and Wilmington. Chris Hayes also mentioned 1898 in his MSNBC broadcast.

By the end of the day, the two disgraceful events had a fatal commonality: Both claimed lives.

One woman was shot and killed, and three others died of medical emergencies Wednesday. Even more tragically in 1898, an untold number of African Americans were murdered in the streets of Wilmington by neighbors who shot them with impunity by the dozens.

The difference, however, was Wednesday’s attempt at a coup of a sitting government through violence failed. Wilmington’s coup was successful. In fact, it is the nation’s only successful coup of a sitting government – a title it retained even after the stunning images of D.C.

For a nation that woke up Thursday looking for answers, there is a real possibility the full extent of what happened in Washington won’t come to light in the coming days or even months.

“We are still learning about the various nuances of what happened in 1898 and we certainly don’t yet know everything that happened at the Capitol,” said LeRae Umfleet, a research historian who led North Carolina’s commission on 1898 and authored the book “A Day of Blood.” “Historians will be studying Wednesday for the next 50 years and beyond, and therefore we may not understand what machinations created this in our lifetimes. That is the job historians do for us.”

What’s clear is Wednesday was a dark moment that will be preserved in history, one Umfleet said she, like most Americans, is still trying to process.

Historical marker in Wilmington
This new marker labeling the event as a "coup" was placed at 411 Market Street in Wilmington in 2019.

But even without the benefit of distance and further investigation, there are a few undeniable connections between Wednesday’s insurrection and the one that took to Wilmington’s streets.

Both events erupted in the aftermath of an election that saw central agitators mount sustained and duplicitous campaigns aimed at riling up their bases. They claimed injustice that wasn’t true in order to stoke distrust in the system and its people.

For months, Trump has claimed the 2020 election was stolen, even before a single ballot was cast and long after dozens of courts dismissed his claims as unfounded. Then, on Wednesday, he praised efforts by members of the Republican Party to protest the certification of his loss, and encouraged his supporters who had gathered in mass outside the Capitol to march as a sign of strength.

Umfleet said she is not ready to draw connections between Washington and Wilmington just yet, but she did note that an election sits at the heart of both events.

“The election season of 1898 beginning in the summer and carrying through the fall was a political campaign that inflamed voters and created tension in the community,” she said. “It was meant to accomplish a political goal, which was white supremacy. They accomplished their goal, first at the ballot box on Nov. 8, 1898, and then overflowed into murder and the political overthrow of the government on Nov. 10.”

Not satisfied with the sweeping power they had stolen through voter intimidation and suppression on Election Day, the white supremacists who led the charge on Nov. 10, 1898 threatened African American residents with violence unless they fled town – and kill many who didn’t. Then, they forcibly removed the city’s government and placed their own people in their seats.

Henry Cronenberg
New Hanover County Public Library
The intersection of 4th and Harnett streets where the first fatal shots of the coup rang out. The white "X" on the left and in the center mark where two Black men were killed.

The man at the center of the 1898 coup – and the one fraudulently appointed Wilmington mayor – was Alfred Moore Waddell, a leading figure of the Democratic Party at the time who gave impassioned speeches about the dangers of African-American progress in the city, which had become an example of racial opportunity in business and politics during Reconstruction.

He spent months egging on supporters with fiery claims they were being pushed out of their own city by the success of Black citizens, urged them not to sit idly by and watch it happen.

In a speech from the stage at Thalian Hall, Waddell famously threatened to “choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses” in order to preserve white supremacy.

“What happened Wednesday is very similar to what happened in Wilmington, just in terms of people turning a blind eye,” said Christopher Everett, director of the “Wilmington on Fire” documentary on 1898. “The Black residents of Wilmington knew this would happen and many people claimed the same of what happened this week.”

Everett is on the ground in Wilmington making “Wilmington on Fire: Chapter II,” a sequel to his 2015 film, for which he has spent months documenting the 2020 election. He filmed the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and interviewed Trump supporters when the president came to town last September.

Wednesday’s insurrection will be an unexpected but unsurprising addition to his sequel, he said.

“We will definitely include this, we have to,” he said. “We were documenting the election and this is a direct result of it. We are using a cinematic camera style, but we’ve also asked for personal cell phone documentation from folks that we have been interviewing. We’ve had them document their reactions to these current events like the night of the election, and I called them up on Wednesday to do the same.”

Even a day later, Wednesday’s stunning events still bore striking similarities to what happened in Wilmington. In 1898, the white supremacists movement that led the massacre and coup immediately worked to reframe their actions as an effort to “take back their city” from unruly African-American residents. That is not what happened and they knew it.

On Thursday, less than 24 hours after police finally pushed back the crowd from the Capitol and Congress resumed certifying the election, an attempt to again rewrite history was already underway, with some participants and Republican officials claiming the violence was not the insurrection it was. Some even shifted the blame for the violence to rumors of false actors who infiltrated the crowd to cause unrest and damage.

Even at the rally prior to the riot that Trump spoke at earlier in the day, the supporters he later called “very special” were already using familiar language to explain their intentions – they said they were there to take back their country.

Many people processed what happened in the capital on Wednesday as “surreal,” and one of those rare moments when a nation watches history unfold.

What’s different for the country and for Wilmington is that so many people learned what a coup was for the first time on Wednesday because they saw one being attempted on their TVs.

But in Wilmington, the word is engraved on a North Carolina highway historic marker in the heart of downtown, where this already happened 122 years ago.