The villains of the 1898 Wilmington race riot are well known. A column of well armed white supremacists marched on the city and, spreading a path of destruction their wake, overthrew an American government for the first and only time in history. In our memory of this dark moment, most North Carolinians have forgotten the lonely hero of that tale. Governor Daniel Russell, a Republican, risked his life in defense of Black political rights.
Russell was an unlikely hero for racial justice. His family owned a large, slave-manned plantation in the Cape Fear region, where racial hierarchies were sharpest and most unforgiving. In his youth, Russell even served in the Confederate army. But people are complicated. This corpulent planter came to believe in the dignity of all people, and by the time he joined the Republican party, he was a progressive.
As governor, Russell led the so-called Fusion movement between white Populists and a biracial Republican Party. The Fusionists stood for a broad ranging progressive agenda of railroad reform, public education, and enhancements to North Carolina’s deeply inadequate democratic institutions. Governor Russell enacted this agenda with the panache of a master politician, railing against “money princes” as he sought to even the playing field for all his constituents.
For all their achievements, the Fusionists faced deep hostility from powerful forces in the state. Railroad companies, the leading corporate power of that era, hated the Fusion movement for undermining their economic dominance. They provided the key financial backing to a Democratic Party that was on a quest for vengeance. White supremacists, equally driven by corporate greed and what the Southern social critic W.J. Cash called that “deep and unfathomable abyss of race feeling,” the Democratic Party challenged, and ultimately, overthrew, the Fusionists by violent force.
As the violence reached its apex, Governor Russell was almost lynched.
But he survived, narrowly, ironically due to the intervention of leading Democrat Cameron Morrison. Morrison, who’d become a surprisingly progressive governor twenty years later, warned Russell of the oncoming threat and the governor was yanked into a moving train perhaps minutes before the governor might have faced the ugliest demise in the history of North Carolina politics. Russell risked social opprobrium for his politics, and, by the end of his career, he had also risked his life.
The story of Russell would have broken the heart of his Republican predecessor, William Holden. Holden rose in a world far different than the one he wished to leave behind. An antebellum slave state. Born in a bucolic Orange County hollow, he had no formal schooling, yet he went on to a brilliant career in publishing and the law. He had relatively progressive views for his day. Although by no means an abolitionist, he opposed slavery’s expansion and advocated economic reforms that would have weaned North Carolina off of the peculiar institution. When the War came, he wasted little time in turning against Jefferson Davis’s government. President Andrew Johnson rewarded Holden’s loyalism by naming him provisional governor of North Carolina. He would be elected governor again in 1868.
Holden entered the governorship with noble goals. In the spirit of Reconstruction, he sought to rebuild the state’s devastated economy and infrastructure. He insisted on equal justice for all citizens, and advocated for the re-establishment of public education, which North Carolina had long failed to promote. This progressive program proceeded at a time when the light of Reconstruction was being horrifically put out.
In 1871, the Ku Klux Klan was on the march. Throughout the hills and forests of North Carolina, robed terrorists rode through the night to attack and brutalize African-Americans. The goal was as simple as it was wicked: Return freed slaves to a state of subjugation. Naturally, these terrorists and their many supporters regarded the Reconstruction-minded Holden as a bitter enemy. When he hired a former army colonel to fight the KKK, the legislature’s conservative majority impeached him and removed him from office. Thus a traumatic episode ended in a travesty.
It’s been a long time since the North Carolina Republican Party evoked the spirit of Holden and Russell. Governor Jim Holshouser carried on the tradition in his one-term governorship, but he was literally ejected from the party in 1976. From then on, North Carolina Republicans embraced the racist politics of conservatives like Furnifold Simmons, a contemporary of Russell’s who engineered the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. That several counties have removed Abraham Lincoln’s name from their fundraising dinner tells you what you need to know.
I have no confidence that this generation of NC Republicans will reclaim Holden and Russell. Reactionaries like Phil Berger, with their rural base and deep reliance on divisive appeals, are as out of step with the best traditions of their party as it is possible to be. But surely a new, younger, urban generation can look to the past for inspiration. We needed Holden and Russell in their day, and we failed them. I implore young Republicans to help us do right by their legacy.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.