One of the most difficult chapters in North Carolina’s history is getting some more recognition. On November 10, 1898, white supremacists backed by the Democratic party murdered dozens of black residents in the streets of Wilmington and overthrew the local Republican government in a coup. It’s known as the Wilmington Race Riot and it helped to usher in Jim Crow laws across the state.
“I really don’t think for the role it played, for the impact it has had, that we are discussing it enough,” says Wilmington resident Rend Smith. He’s with Working Narratives, a group that combines social justice and art.
For many years, the Wilmington Race Riot was largely lost to history. Discussion of it surfaced again in 1998 around the 100th anniversary, when the city of Wilmington began holding forums to discuss the wounds that still existed. In 2008, the city erected a monument to the riot.
Smith hopes there will be more discussions about the riot once a new state highway marker goes up at an intersection in downtown Wilmington. He asked the state to put up the marker after he found out there wasn’t one.
“The intention is to confront the fact that we all tend to avoid talking about the hardest parts of America's history. By doing so, in the end, we're creating more problems, more tension, more conflict,” says Smith.
“We need to talk more about race. We need to talk more about both its historical and contemporaneous impact. Basically, we need to start a truth and reconciliation process. That's particularly true here in the south. So when it comes to things, like 1898, the unrecognized history of it ends up paining us. By integrating these unrecognized histories into our national consciousness, we begin to heal and we come together.”
The marker is expected to go up later this year.
The history of the Wilmington Race Riot
Wilmington was the largest city in the state in 1898. Half of its residents were African-American and half were white. The board of aldermen had black members and a Republican majority.
“The Democratic party of the state of North Carolina knew that Wilmington was a catalyst for them, that they had to take Wilmington and win,” says LeRae Umfleet of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. She spent three years researching the riot for a state report.
“If they couldn't win Wilmington, they couldn't win the rest of the state. So Wilmington became a flash point for the Democratic party in 1898 election season activities.”
In a campaign based largely on white-supremacy rhetoric and voter intimidation, Democrats swept the state and regained control of the General Assembly in that election. Republicans maintained control in Wilmington though.
Local offices there were not up for reelection until the following spring. Democrats didn’t want to wait that long. The day after the election they got together with the leaders of Wilmington’s white community and created what’s now called the White Declaration of Independence.
“It essentially said that we, the white citizens of Wilmington, will no longer be ruled by men of African origin,” says Umfleet.
The next day racial tensions in the city boiled over. A group of men burned the printing press of Alex Manly, a local African-American newspaper owner. Then, shots began to ring out in African American parts of town. People were murdered in the street.
“Back in 1898, the state of North Carolina didn't require a death certificate. So we don't have much in the way of documentation to say even who was living in Wilmington. Even worse, we don't know who died. I've come up with, comfortably, a number of around 60 people who were killed,” says Umfleet.
Those killed were all African-American.
While the violence was happening in the streets, the city's leaders were forced to resign as the group of about 200 armed men looked on. They were replaced by members of the Democratic party. Many black residents fled. The governor at the time, Republican Daniel Russell, was pressured by Democrats not to get involved.
The violence sent a chilling message across North Carolina. Black men could be killed by whites without repercussion.
“There were similar racial tensions in Greenville, New Bern, even in Charlotte,” says Umfleet. “Those places saw what happened in Wilmington and many people, frankly, didn't want to do that on both sides of the color bar.”
When the legislature came to office, Jim Crow legislation was passed in North Carolina.
In the years that followed, the white supremacists who led the charge in the riot wrote a false version of history. They explained the violent overthrow had been necessary to save Wilmington from a corrupt government and rising crime rate.
“It became a paragraph in the overall history of the state of North Carolina. But that overall paragraph began to shrink down to a sentence or two. Then, to a sentence. And, then, it gets lost in the history,” says Umfleet.