Ran Coble served in the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division and then as legal counsel for what is now the NC Department of Health and Human Services from 1977-81. From 1981 to 2014, he served as the director of the nonprofit NC Center for Public Policy Research, a think tank evaluating the performance of state government programs and policy issues facing the state.
David Zucchino went to high school in Fayetteville, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, and was a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his
reporting in apartheid South Africa and now covers Afghanistan for The New
York Times. He lives in Durham. He says the 1898 events in Wilmington were
never mentioned in any of his classes while he was in high school or college.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I, called “Days of Hope,”
covers the events between 1865 and 1896 in North Carolina. Part II,
“Reckoning,” covers the planning for the statewide legislative elections in 1898
and the coup’s overthrow of local government in Wilmington. Part III, “Line of
Fire,” covers the Nov. 10, 1898 violence in Wilmington.
In Part I, the 13 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 abolished
slavery and freed about 360,000 enslaved in North Carolina. Union troops were
stationed in the South. In 1866, the 14 th Amendment guaranteed equal
protection under the law to all. A new state Constitution was enacted in N.C. in
1868 that guaranteed voting rights for black men, with no literacy or property
restrictions. And, in 1870, the 15 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
prohibited denying voting rights because of “race, color, or previous condition of
servitude.” Nearly 80,000 black men then registered to vote in N.C., rivaling the
119,000 white men registered. In New Hanover County, where Wilmington was
the biggest city in N.C. at the time, blacks outnumbered whites in the population.
The “Days of Hope” after the Civil War saw progress in the conditions of
African Americans. Economically, there was a solid black working class and a
growing middle class in Wilmington, with good jobs in shipbuilding, as well as a
black-owned newspaper, The Daily Record. African American Thomas Miller
was one of the wealthiest men in Wilmington, black or white, with large holdings
in real estate. A small class of 65 black professionals included doctors, lawyers,
pastors, and funeral directors. Federal appointments resulted in black office-
holders, such as the customs collector at the port, and the local government
included three black aldermen of the 10 total. There were also 10 black
policemen of the total of 26, black magistrates and postmasters, a black
superintendent of streets, and black health inspectors.
At the time, blacks were allied politically with Republicans, the party of
Abraham Lincoln. In 1896, Daniel Russell, a Republican from Wilmington, was
elected Governor of N.C. under a Fusionist coalition. That coalition included
2 white Republicans, blacks, and white populists that consisted of farmers and
laborers who usually voted Democratic but who were dissatisfied. They felt that
the Democrats had gotten too close to the powerful railroads, banks, and other
corporate interests and had left them behind. Russell would be the last
Republican governor until Jim Holshouser was elected in 1972.
But in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the
Constitution allowed “separate but equal” accommodations and schools. Thus,
Part II “Reckoning” begins in March 1898 as white leaders planned a “white
supremacy campaign” which included a plan to steal the legislative elections
statewide and take over the local government in Wilmington. The leaders in the
planning were Josephus Daniels, the publisher of The News & Observer (N&O) in
Raleigh, and Furnifold Simmons of New Bern, the chairman of the state
Democratic Party and later U.S. Senator. Daniels was later appointed Secretary
of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Ambassador to Mexico
by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
Daniels used his newspaper to stir up the white population with untrue
allegations that blacks were stockpiling weapons, were going to riot in the fall
elections, and were going to take whites’ jobs. They raised the specter of “black
beast rapists” raping white women and railed against “Negro rule” and “Negro
domination.” They said black government officials were incompetent and
needed to be removed in the interests of “good government.” Daniels also hired
a talented cartoonist to reach illiterate white voters.
Blacks were a majority of the electorate in 16 eastern counties,
including New Hanover County. Rep. George Henry White, the only black man in
Congress, represented those counties. Blacks comprised 56% of Wilmington’s
population. With those demographics against them, Daniels, Simmons, and future
governor Charles Aycock, as well as local Wilmington leaders like Hugh MacRae
and William Saunders, conspired to deny blacks the vote in the 1898 statewide
elections. They threatened blacks with the loss of their jobs and with violence.
Then, a woman in Atlanta named Rebecca Felton wrote a letter to the
Atlanta Constitution suggesting that white men lynch any black man caught with
a white woman. Alex Manly, the black editor of the Daily Record in Wilmington
(and interestingly the grandson of a white Governor from 1849-51, Charles
Manly), responded with an editorial. He pointed out that rapes of black women
by white men went unpunished and questioned Felton’s assumption that any
sex act between a black man and white woman could only be rape and could not
be consensual. Daniels later acknowledged that rapes of white women by black
men were “few in number.” Manly’s editorial enraged whites, who wanted to
lynch him and torch his newspaper. But, Daniels and Simmons held them off,
advising to wait until after the election.
On November 8, 1898, blacks were either too intimidated to vote or
were turned away from the polls. Of the state’s roughly 126,000 eligible black
voters, fewer than half voted, says Zucchino. To make sure of the outcome, the
Democrats stuffed ballot boxes. In several precincts, the Democratic candidate
won with more votes than were registered in the precinct.
In 1898, the Democrats won 94 seats to 23 for Republicans and 3 for
Populists in the 120-member state House. In the state Senate, 40 Democrats
won, with only 7 Republicans and 3 Populists in the 50-member Senate.
Municipal officials were not on the ballot that day. At the time, the
legislature appointed local officials. That was why the white conspirators
carried out the violence and coup two days later.
On November 10, 1898, about 2,000 white supremacist Red Shirts, a
private militia, attacked black areas of Wilmington. They killed at least 60
blacks in the streets and burned down Alex Manly’s newspaper building. Manly
had fled north. Other blacks fled to nearby swamps or black cemeteries, and
2,800 left town, never to return.
The white supremacists then forced black local officials and sympathetic
white Fusionist local officials to resign. These included the mayor, three city
aldermen, the police chief, deputy sheriff, and customs collector. Most were
banished from the city and told to get out of town in 24 hours and never return.
State and federal officials did nothing to punish the offenders. Gov.
Daniel Russell was threatened with assassination or impeachment and feared
for his life. Ironically, President William McKinley was the son of abolitionists.
He was asked by N.C. Congressman White to intervene and send in federal
troops. But, McKinley was up for re-election in 1900, and the 1898 Spanish-
American War had finally re-united the country in a display of patriotism. He
also had campaigned in 1896 on binding the nation’s wounds from the Civil War.
McKinley did nothing, and no one involved in the coup was ever prosecuted or
put in jail.
Having won the election, the white supremacists next amended the state
Constitution to disenfranchise blacks. Euphemistically named a “suffrage
amendment,” the amendment had three components: (1) all men had to pass a
literacy test before they could vote; (2) all had to pay a poll tax before they could
vote; and (3) because one-quarter of whites were poor and couldn’t read, a
grandfather clause said that if your grandfather or any descendant had voted
before 1867, you were exempt from the poll tax and literacy test. Blacks had not
been able to vote before 1868, so the amendment disenfranchised blacks but not
poor, illiterate whites.
Blacks did not regain the right to vote until 1965 when President
Lyndon Johnson got the Voting Rights Act through Congress. No black served on
the Wilmington City Council again until 1972. Wilmington went from 56% black
in 1898 to 40% in 1930 to 18% today. In 1896, there were 126,000 registered
black voters in N.C. By 1900, there were just 15,000, and by 1902, only 6,100.
Other Southern states copied the N.C. disenfranchisement tactics, but
the events in Wilmington remain America’s only armed overthrow of a legally-
elected government. That is why Zucchino insists that we call these events a
planned insurrection and a “coup d’etat,” not the “Wilmington race riots.”
In 2020, history came calling. The Black Lives Matter Movement led to
statues of the leading figures of 1898 being removed from public spaces.
Removed were statues of Josephus Daniels from in front of the N&O, Charles
Aycock from the U.S. Capitol, Wilmington white supremacist William Saunders’
name from a UNC-CH building, and local supremacist Hugh MacRae’s name from
a Wilmington park. Many Confederate monuments were removed at the state
Capitol and in cities across the state.
David Zucchino has filled a gap in N.C. history, destroyed the myths
surrounding the events of 1898, and written the best book about N.C. in 2020.
One reviewer called the “first great history book of the new decade.”