In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which legalized slavery in territory that had previously banned slavery during the Missouri Compromise. This led to an antislavery coalition creating a new political party named the Republican Party. The goal of the party was not to abolish slavery right away, but to stop its expansion. The creation of this party helped revive the political career of Abraham Lincoln, who eventually claimed the presidency. Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and saw it as immoral, but also didn’t believe that the constitution gave the government the power to abolish slavery. In his inaugural address, Lincoln said the he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.” So when the Civil War broke out, Lincoln’s main goal was to preserve the union, not free slaves. But it started to become clear that the South was winning the War. They had pushed the Mason-Dixie line all the way up to Pennsylvania and the Union needed a boost if they were going to win. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation that announced that all slaves in the seceded South were now considered free by the Union and allowed for Black Americans to serve in the Union Army. Almost 200,000 Black Americans enlisted with the Union Army and helped defeat the Confederacy. So not only did the Confederacy lose to the Union, but they lost to black soldiers who used to be their slaves and this fueled their hatred towards now free black Americans.
In the late 1800’s, Wilmington, North Carolina became the model of what the New South could be after the Civil War. At the time, it was the largest city of North Carolina, and the majority of the population was black. Regardless of your race or class, you had the opportunity to make a good living for yourself. Wages in Wilmington, for both black and white Americans, were higher than anywhere in the state. Black Americans owned several businesses in the town all the way from real estate to doctors, teachers, and everything in between. Almost all of the restaurants in Wilmington were owned by black Americans and there were black Americans on the police force and fire department. Wilmington was seen as a mecca for the newly emancipated black population in the South and many moved there from the rural areas because they could get good jobs and be part of a great community that was doing well for themselves. If you walked down the street in Wilmington in the 1890’s, you would see alternating black-owned shops and white-owned shops. Black and white Americans were working alongside each other and with each other, socially interacting, and getting involved romantically as well and interracial couples starting popping up in Wilmington.
During this time, the Republican party, which in North Carolina consisted largely of black Americans, and the Populist party, that largely consisted of white farmers, joined to create the Fusion party. This joining of parties allowed for black Americans to be elected to several roles in the city all the way up to the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. The 1889 North Carolina House of Representatives had 11 black representatives and North Carolina sent 4 black republicans to the U.S. Senate between 1875 and 1899. The Funionist coalition swept the elections of North Carolina in 1894 and 1896. Black Americans finally had proper representation in politics and had a voice in politics from the local level all the way up to the national level.
Now, this is still the South only 30 years after the Civil War and there are several ex-confederate soldiers that returned to Wilmington and got involved with Democratic politics. At the time, the Democratic party in the South was completely white, there were no black Democrats. There was no federal or state law that stated that these men who had owned slaves and fought against the union were banned from participating in politics and so they were allowed to be elected to seats of power. Many of the ex-confederates in political power encouraged talks of white supremacy and wanted to put an end to any influence or power that black Americans had in the South. Edward A. Johnson, the Negro alderman of Raleigh, North Carolina said of Wilmington “Negroes in Wilmington had pianos, expensive carpets, lace curtains at windows. White supremacy orators of that city constantly asked from the platform, “How many of you white man can afford to have pianos and servants?”
When the Fusionist Coalition swept the elections in 1894 and 1896, the Democratic Party was basically out of power in North Carolina and so the White Government Union was created in 1897 by the North Carolina Democratic party. The North Carolina Democratic party printed and handed out pamphlets that described the constitution and by-laws of the union that stated how members were to report, how they were to organize, and how they’re goal was to install a white supremacist government in North Carolina. They had a plan to terrorize populists and break up the Fusion party, so that they could get more Democrats elected to power in North Carolina. In the pamphlet that they handed out it stated “It is no fault of the negro that he is here, and he is not to be punished for being here; but this is a white man’s county and white men must control and govern it.”
Wilmington attorney, William Barry McKoy, was the first executive chairman. McKoy was also the prosecutor for New Hanover County and the chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Elections along with being a member of several other social and political organizations in New Hanover county. With McKoy in charge, the White Government Union set out on creating their own militia that they named “The Red Shirts” that would carry out the dirty work for the Union. They were very much like the Ku Klux Klan, except that they wore red shirts, they did not cover their faces, and they committed their acts in broad daylight. The Red Shirt militia started burning down businesses of prominent black Americans in the community. When election day would arrive, the red shirt militia would post up in front of polling places and threaten any black Americans that wanted to vote with violence, even death.
Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first female U.S. senator during a special election after Senator Thomas Watson died. She only served one day in the Senate, but she did have a national platform and used that to give speeches and write columns in newspapers. She gave a speech that she titled “Women on the Farm” where she described how white women who were working on farms with African Americans were not being protected by white men and black men were just raping them in the fields at will. Rebecca’s proposal was “If it takes lynching a black man a day to protect white womanhood, I say lynch” and that even if they lynched 1,000 black men a day, it wouldn’t be enough. Rebecca Latimer Felton’s speech was then printed as an article in the newspaper The Wilmington Messenger. A North Carolina newspaper named “The News and Observer” began printing cartoons that depicted black men preying on white women, basically drawing black men like they were the boogeyman.
Alexander Manly started a newspaper in Wilmington called “The Daily Record.” At first it was only weekly, but it became increasingly popular and then started publishing daily and was the only daily black paper in the country. Both white and black businesses would advertise in the paper and Alex Manly had good relationships with people of both races in the community. When Rebecca Latimer Felton’s article about women being raped by black men was printed, Alex Manly became extremely upset and decided to write his own article. In his newspaper, Alex Manly wrote an editorial where he said that white women were “voluntarily and enthusiastically” having romantic affairs with black men and wrote many black men are “sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them, as is very well-known to all.” Manly also wrote that white men had been sexual predators to black women both before and after the Civil War. He noted that many black men were actually mixed race because white men had raped their mothers, grandmothers, etc.
Manly’s article threw the white population of Wilmington into hysteria. Several newspapers reprinted the editorial with the headline “A Horrid Slander.” Many white men felt that Manly had verbally attacked and slandered their white women. Alexander Manly had to hire bodyguards that were with him constantly in order to protect him. The owner of the building where Manly printed his newspaper was afraid that the building would be burned down, so he asked Manly to leave and Manly had to start printing his paper to another building on the outskirts of town. Manly’s editorial was printed just before the elections of 1898 and the Democratic Party used Manly as an example of the evil “Negro Rule” that would destroy white people’s way of life if they continued to vote in black leaders. Not everybody in this time could read, so The News and Observer and other democratic newspapers would print large political cartoons that were disgustingly racist, but would allow non-readers to get the point they were trying to make.
November 8th was election day in 1898. Alfred M. Waddell, a leader of the White Government Union, spoke at a rally right before the election and said “Negro office-holding ought at once and forever to be brought to an end. We will not live under these intolerable conditions. No society can stand it. We intend to change it, even if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses.” Red shirt militia members were placed at every polling station and both blocked and attacked any black resident that tried to vote. The democrats won every single seat that they had a candidate up for. Black residents tried to take solace in the fact that the Wilmington mayor and board of alderman, who’s seats weren’t up for reelection, were republican, and that black residents still had a lot of economic power and influence in Wilmington.
The day after the election, a committee of 25 white men led by Alfred M. Waddell came together and signed a document called “The White Declaration of Independence.” The declaration contained a series of resolutions that demanded that Alex Manly had to stop printing his paper and leave the city of Wilmington within the next 24 hours, the board of alderman and the mayor to resign, and that “we will no longer be ruled and never again be ruled by men of African origin.” The committee sent their declaration to a group of prominent black leaders in the committee that they dubbed the Committee of Colored Citizens. The Committee of Colored Citizens, which the white democrats handpicked not the black community, responded to the declaration by saying we don’t have the authority to make these things happen, however, in the interest of peace, we will encourage that these things happen. Waddell was given the response of the Committee of Colored Citizens on the morning of November 10th.
Waddell met with a large group of white men at the Wilmington Light Infantry armory to discuss the Committee of Colored Citizen’s response, where Waddell decided to not share that the committee had responded. He let the group of white men, the was going larger and larger by the minute, believe that the black citizens had chosen not to respond at all. Many of the white men were armed and were very tense. Waddell had been a confederate officer and used that previous knowledge to line up the group of men into skirmish lines. He marched the men up the street to Manly’s printing press.
The men knocked on the door of the printing press and nobody answered. Luckily, Manly had been warned that he was wanted out of town and had already escaped from Wilmington. The group broke into the building, found some gas and some kerosene and set the building on fire. The African American fire department arrived to put the fire out, but the mob wouldn’t let them even get close to the building until it was already mostly burned down. The mob took a picture of them all standing in front of the burning building. The building and everything inside it was destroyed. With the Daily Record gone, the only large county newspaper left was the Star News, which was owned by a former confederate and a leader of the White Government Union.
In 1895, the North Carolina legislature passed a statute that enabled citizens to petition a superior court to appoint people to elected boards if there was a certain number of signatures on the petition. In 1898, the New Hanover County Commissioners was two Republicans, a Populist, and two Democrats. Since the Populist and Republicans held a majority of the Democrats, the Democrats couldn’t enable the county militia. So William Barry McKoy created a petition that asked a superior court judge to appoint two Democrats to the New Hanover County Commission and the mob passed around the petition to gather signatures. Almost 300 people signed the petition. The Superior Court Judge approved it and there was now four democrats, two republicans, and a populist on the county commission. With a Democratic majority, they were able to call up the Wilmington Light Infantry Militia. The mob was now the county militia and went to the armory and started passing out guns.
200 armed men marched into city hall and demanded the resignation of the board of alderman. The law was that if a member of the board of alderman resigned, the rest of the board could designate a replacement. So one by one, legally elected African American board of alderman members resigned and were replaced with men that Alfred M. Waddell had handpicked. They then demanded the resignation of the mayor, who the new board of alderman replaced with Alfred M. Waddell.
The mob, which was close to 2,000 armed white men now, then left city hall and started shooting at any black citizens that they saw in the street. The mob got a wagon with a Gatling gun and started mowing down black residents. Some of the bodies were loaded onto carts and thrown into the Cape River. Black residents fled their homes and businesses and hid in the wooded marsh and cemeteries. A group of armed white ministers went to a black church and waited outside to kill the black reverend. Luckily, the reverend was able to escape and hide in a cemetery with his wife. We don’t know how many people died that day. The state’s official report says the estimate is about 60 people were murdered, but it’s believed that the number is probably closer to over 100. Black residents stayed in hiding for weeks. Some of them would sneak out at night to get food and bring it back to the rest of the group hiding. Those with property that returned to their homes would be visited by the red shirt militia that were accompanied by a judge and were told that if they didn’t leave Wilmington, they would be arrested or lynched. Thousands got on trains and fled Wilmington as refugees, never to return.
The Democratic Party printed pamphlets celebrating their Glorious Victory. Newspapers wrote about the event, but depicted black Americans as the instigators and white people as just defending themselves. The African American population in Wilmington had been cut in half, and Wilmington now had a majority white population. The Democrats now had a hold on Wilmington politics and were overwhelming re-elected in later elections, which made this the only successful coup d’etat in the history of the United States. Neither the state of North Carolina or the federal government did anything to intervene or persecute at the very least the leaders of the coup d’etat or compensate the victims that had become refugees and had family members gunned down in the streets.
It would be 90 years until North Carolina would elect it’s next black Congress member, who was Eva Clayton. Many of Wilmington’s public buildings and areas, like elementary schools and parks, are named after the Wilmington riot perpetrators. Where the Daily Record stood is still an empty lot in Wilmington today. We know that the North Carolina Democratic Party voted to create the White Government Union in 1897, but there is no record that the North Carolina Democratic Party ever voted to abolish the union. Could the union still be alive and well, just holding meetings in secret?
Vox video “When White Supremacists Overthrew A Government”
History.com “Emancipation Proclamation”
Documentary “Wilmington on Fire”