When White Supremacists Overthrew a Government (1898): The Hidden History of an American Coup

White suprema­cist ide­ol­o­gy has found a home in both major polit­i­cal par­ties at dif­fer­ent times in the country’s his­to­ry. But it has not always been open­ly acknowl­edged, reced­ing into cod­ed lan­guage and whis­pers when out of polit­i­cal favor. In the decades after Recon­struc­tion and after World War I, how­ev­er, politi­cians shout­ed racist, xeno­pho­bic speech­es through bull­horns, incit­ing thou­sands of lynch­ings across the coun­try.

One incred­i­bly bloody mass killing, the so-called Tul­sa “Race Riot” of 1921—actually a mas­sacre and dec­i­ma­tion of a thriv­ing busi­ness dis­trict—has come back into pub­lic con­scious­ness after a fic­tion­al­ized depic­tion on HBO’s Watch­men series. Twelve years ear­li­er, anoth­er defin­i­tive event took place in Wilm­ing­ton, North Car­oli­na. If men­tioned at all, it’s been glossed over quick­ly in text­books and the town’s his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry, but the Wilm­ing­ton Mas­sacre is part of a his­to­ry of racial ter­ror­ism many cel­e­brat­ed open­ly, then sought to sup­press, deny, and ignore when it became embar­rass­ing.

Yale pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry Glen­da Gilmore calls the peri­od a “50-year black hole of infor­ma­tion.” Grow­ing up in North Car­oli­na her­self, she says, “I had nev­er heard the word ‘lynch­ing’ until I was 21.” In fact, as the Vox video above notes, librar­i­ans in Wilm­ing­ton refused even to release mate­ri­als relat­ed to the mas­sacre. This is odd con­sid­er­ing its sig­nif­i­cance to Amer­i­can his­to­ry as the only suc­cess­ful vio­lent over­throw of an elect­ed U.S. gov­ern­ment on U.S. soil.

It was a coup (despite the way that word has been delib­er­ate­ly mis­used) involv­ing no due process or con­sti­tu­tion­al checks and bal­ances. The vio­lence began on the morn­ing of Novem­ber 10, 1898, when the offices of The Dai­ly Record were set on fire. By the day’s end, “as many as 60 peo­ple had been mur­dered, and the local gov­ern­ment that was elect­ed two days pri­or had been over­thrown and replaced by white suprema­cists,” writes The Atlantic.

This was no spon­ta­neous riot. The events had been planned and pro­mot­ed by the most promi­nent lead­ers in the city and state, who gath­ered at the Thalian Hall opera house in Wilm­ing­ton the pre­vi­ous month to hear a speech in which Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gress­man Alfred Wad­dell declared “We will nev­er sur­ren­der to a ragged raf­fle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear Riv­er with car­cass­es.”

This kind of rhetoric was com­mon­place. White suprema­cist clubs around the State, goad­ed on by South Car­oli­na sen­a­tor Ben Till­man, resound­ed with talk of “shot­gun pol­i­tics” to oust elect­ed Black Repub­li­cans. After Waddell’s Thalian Hall speech, he trav­eled to Golds­boro for a “White Suprema­cy Con­ven­tion” attend­ed by 8,000 peo­ple. There, Major William Guthrie promised, “Resist our march of progress and civ­i­liza­tion and we will wipe you off the face of the earth.”

The con­ven­tion was hailed in The Fayet­teville Observ­er as “A White Man’s Day.” and Tillman’s exhor­ta­tion “in behalf of the restora­tion of white rule” by vio­lence was called “a great speech for democ­ra­cy.” The mas­sacre and over­throw of Wilm­ing­ton’s gov­ern­ment fol­lowed soon after. His­to­ri­ans were able to recon­struct the events after their sup­pres­sion in part because they were so wide­ly cel­e­brat­ed for decades after­ward. “In the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, they bragged about it,” says his­to­ri­an David S. Cecel­s­ki.

Along with a dis­turb­ing resur­gence, we’ve also recent­ly seen a pub­lic reck­on­ing with the racial ter­ror and tyran­ny of the late-19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, as the mem­o­ry of lynch­ing is enshrined in memo­ri­als and muse­ums, and sto­ries buried since the 50s are unearthed. This his­to­ry has been also been used by some mod­ern-day Repub­li­cans to grind polit­i­cal axes against mod­ern-day Democ­rats, as though the major 1960s Civ­il Rights realign­ment nev­er hap­pened.

Shal­low par­ti­san­ship aside, the fact remains: what the Wilm­ing­ton insur­rec­tion­ists and their allies and inciters cam­paigned, burned, and killed for was a return to the oppres­sive rule of an elite white minor­i­ty, against a mul­tira­cial demo­c­ra­t­ic coali­tion that had unit­ed for­mer slaves and poor white farm­ers in a fusion gov­ern­ment rep­re­sent­ing work­ing peo­ple in North Car­oli­na and the thriv­ing, major­i­ty Black pop­u­la­tion in Wilm­ing­ton, its largest city at the time.

Learn more about the his­to­ry of the Wilm­ing­ton Mas­sacre in the Vox video above and in the excel­lent col­lec­tion Democ­ra­cy Betrayed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Inter­ac­tive Map Visu­al­izes the Chill­ing His­to­ry of Lynch­ing in the U.S. (1835–1964)

Cor­nell Cre­ates a Data­base of Fugi­tive Slave Ads, Telling the Sto­ry of Those Who Resist­ed Slav­ery in 18th & 19th Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca

Mas­sive New Data­base Will Final­ly Allow Us to Iden­ti­fy Enslaved Peo­ples and Their Descen­dants in the Amer­i­c­as

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Phil Snead says:

    Josh, thanks for post­ing this. It’s such an impor­tant sto­ry, and it’s hard even for me, was an old man, to imag­ine the lev­els of overt hatred and vio­lence described in sto­ries like Wilm­ing­ton and Tul­sa. Grow­ing up mid-20th C, though (Bal­ti­more), I recall words and deeds that are now real­ly rec­og­niz­able as rem­nants of post-Recon­struc­tion men­tal­i­ty at its worst. I expect that the cur­ricu­lum and text­book gurus of that era found these half-cen­tu­ry-old sto­ries too imme­di­ate, fright­en­ing and con­tentious to include even in a high school syl­labus. What a trag­ic error of what I now sus­pect was delib­er­ate omis­sion.

    Thus his­to­ry repeats itself, and priv­i­lege reasserts itself.

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