By TIMOTHY B. TYSON


On Nov. 10, 1898, heavily armed columns of white men marched into the black neighborhoods of Wilmington. In the name of white supremacy, this well-ordered mob burned the offices of the local black newspaper, murdered perhaps dozens of black residents -- the precise number isn't known -- and banished many successful black citizens and their so-called "white nigger" allies. A new social order was born in the blood and the flames, rooted in what The News and Observer's publisher, Josephus Daniels, heralded as "permanent good government by the party of the White Man."

The Wilmington race riot of 1898 stands as one of the most important chapters in North Carolina's history. It is also an event of national historical significance. Occurring only two years after the Supreme Court had sanctioned "separate but equal" segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, the riot marked the embrace of virulent Jim Crow racism, not merely in Wilmington, but across the United States.

Despite its importance, the riot has remained a hidden chapter in our state's history. It was only this year that North Carolina completed its official investigation of the violence. In addition to providing a thorough history of the event, the report of the Wilmington Race Riot Commission recommended payments to descendants of victims. And it advised media outlets, including The News & Observer, to tell the people the truth about 1898.

Those truths include that what occurred in Wilmington on that chilly autumn morning was not a spontaneous outbreak of mob violence. It was, instead, the climax of a carefully orchestrated statewide campaign led by some of the leading figures in North Carolina's history to end interracial cooperation and build a one-party state that would assure the power of North Carolina's business elite.

The black-white coalition

At the end of the 19th century, Wilmington was a symbol of black hope. Thanks to its busy port, the black majority city was North Carolina's largest and most important municipality. Blacks owned 10 of the city's 11 eating houses and 20 of its 22 barbershops. The black male literacy rate was higher than that of whites.Black achievement, however, was always fragile. Wealthy whites were willing to accept some black advancement, so long as they held the reins of power. Through the Democratic Party, whites controlled the state and local governments from 1876 to 1894. However, the party's coalition of wealthy, working class and rural whites began to unravel in the late 1880s as America plunged into depression.

North Carolina became a hotbed of agrarian revolt as hard-pressed farmers soured on the Democrats because of policies that cottoned to banks and railroads. Many white dissidents eventually founded the People's Party, also known as the Populists. Soon they imagined what had been unimaginable: an alliance with blacks, who shared their economic grievances.

As the economic depression deepened, these white Populists joined forces with black Republicans, forming an interracial "Fusion" coalition that championed local self-government, free public education and electoral reforms that would give black men the same voting rights as whites. In the 1894 and 1896 elections, the Fusion movement won every statewide office, swept the legislature and elected its most prominent white leader, Daniel Russell, to the governorship.

In Wilmington, the Fusion triumph lifted black and white Republicans and white Populists to power. Horrified white Democrats vowed to regain control of the government.

Race baiting fuels vote

As the 1898 political season loomed, the Populists and Republicans hoped to make more gains through Fusion. To rebound, Democrats knew they had to develop campaign issues that transcended party lines. Democratic chairman Furnifold Simmons mapped out the strategy with leaders whose names would be immortalized in statues, building names and street signs: Charles B. Aycock, Henry G. Connor, Robert B. Glenn, Claude Kitchin, Locke Craig, Cameron Morrison, George Rountree, Francis D. Winston and Josephus Daniels.

They soon decided that racist appeals were the hammer they needed to shatter the fragile alliance between poor whites and blacks. They made the "redemption" of North Carolina from "Negro domination" the theme of the 1898 campaign. Though promising to restore something traditional, they would, in fact, create a new social order rooted in white supremacy and commercial domination.

At the center of their strategy lay the gifts and assets of Daniels, editor and publisher of The News and Observer. He would spearhead a propaganda effort that would incite white citizens into a furor that led to electoral fraud and mass murder. It used sexualized images of black men and their supposedly uncontrollable lust for white women. Newspaper stories and stump speeches warned of "black beasts" who threatened the flower of Southern womanhood.

The Democrats did not rely solely upon newspapers, however, but deployed a statewide campaign of stump speakers, torchlight parades and physical intimidation. Aycock earned his chance to become North Carolina's "education governor" through his fiery speeches for white supremacy.

Issue of race and sex

As in the rest of the state, Wilmington Democrats founded their campaign upon propaganda, violence and fraud. Their efforts to persuade white men to commit wholesale violence was made easier in August 1898 when Alexander Manly, the black owner of The Daily Record, answered a speech supporting lynchings. Not all interracial sex is rape, he noted; many white women willingly sleep with black men.For Democrats, Manly's editorial was a godsend, allowing them to support their lies about predatory blacks. And no one was better at spreading that message of hate and violence than Wilmington's Alfred Waddell.

The former Confederate soldier was a passionate speaker, who riled crowds with his famous line: "We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses."

As Waddell spoke, the Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, thundered across the state on horseback, disrupting African-American church services and Republican meetings. In Wilmington, the Red Shirts patrolled every street in the days before the election, intimidating and attacking black citizens.

Through these efforts, the Democrats won resounding victories across the state on Nov. 8, 1898.

Stealing the election would not be enough for the conservatives. For one thing, Wilmington's local Fusionist government remained in office. Many local officials -- the mayor and the board of aldermen, for example -- had not been up for re-election in 1898. And Wilmington remained the center of African-American economic and political power, as well as a symbol of black pride. White Democrats were in no mood to wait.

The day after the election, Waddell unfurled a "White Declaration of Independence" that called for the disfranchisement of black voters. The following morning, Nov. 10, Waddell and a heavily armed crowd of about 2,000 marched to Love and Charity Hall, where the Record had been published. The mob battered down the door of the two-story frame structure, dumped kerosene on the wooden floors, and set the building ablaze.

Soon the streets filled with angry blacks and whites. Red Shirts on horseback poured into the black community and other white vigilantes romped through the black sections of town to "kill every damn nigger in sight," as one of them put it.

At the end of the day, no one knew how many people had died -- estimates ranged from nine to 300. The only certainty in the matter of casualties is that democracy was gravely wounded on the streets of Wilmington.

While the violence raged, white leaders launched a coup d'etat, forcing the mayor, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint. By 4 p.m. that day, Waddell was Wilmington's mayor.

Still, they were not done. The white mob gathered at the city jail to watch soldiers with fixed bayonets march Fusionist leaders to the train station, banishing at least 21 successful blacks and their white allies from the city.

Effects of 1898 linger

When the new legislature met in 1899, its first order of business was to disfranchise blacks. In the years that followed, the leaders of the white supremacy campaign were largely responsible for the birth of the Jim Crow social order and the rise of a one-party political system.

More than a century later, it is clear that the white supremacy campaign of 1898 injected a vicious racial ideology into American political culture that we have yet to transcend fully. Our separate and unequal lives attest to the fact, though much has changed for the better and a few things have changed for the worse.

But if 1898 has saddled us with its legacy, it also suggests how we might overcome it. Its central lesson is this: Human beings make history. So the mistakes that North Carolinians made in 1898 can be overcome, if we choose.

Timothy B. Tyson is senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. This is a condensed version of an article he wrote for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer.


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