Today, the city of Wilmington is home to 117,525 people according to a 2016 census of which 72.3% are White, 18% Black, and 5.99% Hispanic. A chief port city in North Carolina, it also houses the Cape Fear River and the historic Orton plantation. But a little over 100 years ago, Wilmington, NC had not just been a predominantly black city but had also been governed by blacks.
The largest city in the state, Wilmington had before the war sheltered about 10,000 people principally African Americans. Slaves and freedmen worked at the port, as domestic assistants and house keepers. The end of the war in 1868 bolstered the need for a space like Wilmington, every black person appreciated and understood the necessity for a system that was supervised and governed by fellow blacks.
Poor white cotton farmers who were disgruntled at the general economic structure across America that hadn’t favored them seceded from The Democratic Party to form The Peoples Party in 1892 and eventually a fusion coalition which allocated equal voting rights to black men.
By the subsequent years, Wilmington had become a hub flourishing with about 25, 000 people of which 55% were African Americans who had built business empires, held steady jobs and were increasingly self sufficient.
It is portrayed in the book Hanover as a home to diversity, the author, Jack Thorne writes about the city; Wilmington is the Mecca for North Carolina’s interior inhabitants who flock thither to breathe in its life-giving ocean breezes when Summer’s torrid air becomes unbearable, there dwells the thrifty Yankee, the prosperous Jew, the patient and docile Negro, the enterprising, cunning and scrupulous German; and among her first families are the Scotch-Irish, descendants of the survivors of Culloden.
Wilmington shattered stereotypes becoming one of the first provinces to manage a biracial Republican party that offered blacks the leeway to contest and be elected to regional offices. Even when the state of North Carolina switched to a generally Democratic rule, Wilmington remained inflexible due to it’s teeming population of highly placed African Americans.
Blacks were in positions of justice, three of the city’s aldermen (next in command to the Mayor) were black, one black man was on the constituent board of audit and finance. There were blacks in the peace deputy clerk of courts, as coroners and superintendents and policemen, they were also responsible for over a quarter of the city’s artisans.
There were black mechanics, carpenters, jewelers, watchmakers, painters, plasterers, plumbers, stevedores, blacksmiths, and masons.
Black men occupied top banking positions, became the city’s biggest architects and financiers to the detriment of the white population, delved into real estate successfully lending money to majority of the whites. A renowned white Democrat was superseded by a black man, John Dacy as the official collector of customs at the Port of Wilmington, in 1897 at an about $4,000 wage which is the equivalent of $113,000 in present day, blacks even owned a newspaper.
The tabloid, The Daily Record was run by the Manly brothers, Alexander and Frank Manly and was most likely the only black newspaper in America at the time. They published content advocating for the rights of colored citizens, from investigative pieces revealing the despicable conditions of the colored sections at state hospitals to think and opinion pieces demanding evaluations of the deplorable state of the sections of the city owned by black people.
In the elections of 1894-1896, members of the Fusionist party wholly dominated winning every state wide office and shattering Democratic political framework. Fueled by what they believed to be an unfair system favoring blacks and a complete domination of what they termed “Negro Rule,” nine renowned white men in 1897 began to form an alliance to overthrow the perceived black rule.
An article published in The Caucasian stated; “There is but one chance and but one hope for the railroads to capture the net legislature, and that is for the ‘nigger’ to be made the issue.”
The Democratic campaign manager Furnifold Simmons gearing for the 1898 elections employed the services of the disgruntled nine men drawing inspiration from the Caucasian excerpt. When their strategy was revealed, he stated the party platform as “North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’S STATE and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of Negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.”
His party leader reinforced his statement, “It will be the meanest, vilest, dirtiest campaign since 1876. The slogan of the Democratic party from the mountains to the sea will be but one word…’Nigger!’”
In August 1898, The Daily Record published an editorial written by Alexander Manly addressing the issue of rape among black women by white men. Manly wrote; The papers are filled often with reports of rapes of white women and the subsequent lynchings of the alleged rapists. The editors pour forth volumes of aspersions against all Negroes because of the few who may be guilty. If the papers and speakers of the other race would condemn the commission of the crime because it is crime and not try to make it appear that the Negroes were the only criminals, they would find their strongest allies in the intelligent Negroes themselves; and together the whites and blacks would root the evil out of both races.
Teach your men purity. Let virtue be something more than an excuse for them to intimidate and torture a helpless people. Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for the white man to be intimate with a colored woman.
On November 10 1898, following an election that went in the favor of Democrats since terrified blacks had refused to vote, about 500 white businessmen armed with rifles matched to the The Daily Record. Blacks, along with white Republicans, were denied entrance to city centers throughout the state. After vandalizing the premises of the black owned newspaper, the men shattered the windows, soaked the timber floors with kerosene and set the building on fire.
Supremacists pose outside the remains of The Daily Record
The mob was joined by 2000 white men who collectively raided black Wilmington neighborhoods with an intention to kill “every damn nigger in sight.” They razed black businesses, attacked its inhabitants, brutalized and killed hundreds of them in the process. They marched to the board of aldermen and forced the police chief to resign, elected a new mayor who banished the remainder of the black men who had not yet escaped.
At the end of the massacre, the supremacists put in place mob leader and former confederate soldier Alfred Moore Waddell to be the new mayor and about 300 African Americans were officially reported to have been killed even though the figures are believed to be higher.
It is the only coup d’état ever to take place on American soil.
Featured Image: A sign from Detroit, Michigan.