What were the causes of the Wilmington Massacre?
The election of 1898 and the Wilmington Massacre were important turning points in North Carolina history. These events had lasting effects on the state’s politics because they disenfranchised African American voters and allowed white supremacists to control state and local politics. In the years leading up to 1898, three political parties competed for power. The first was the Republican Party of formerly enslaved and free African Americans and whites who had supported the Union. The second was the Democratic Party of former Confederates and others who spoke out against “radical” Reconstruction. Finally, many poor farmers joined the Populist Party. Republicans and Populists did not agree on every political issue of the day. For example, Republicans wanted to continue using the gold standard to back the U.S. dollar, while Democrats and especially Populists wanted to use silver because it was less expensive. This did not stop Populists and Republicans from combining their votes to win elections in 1894 and defeating the Democrats. This collaboration was known as the “fusion movement”.
As the election of 1898 neared, the Democrats used a message of white supremacy as they sent speakers throughout the state to spread their message. In August, Alexander Manly, the African American publisher of Wilmington’s popular Black newspaper the Daily Record, spoke out against one of those speeches in an editorial. Democrats attacked Manly in print and recruited white men to scare Black men and white Populists from voting. These tactics were successful, and Democrats regained all state legislative seats on November 8.
Immediately after the election, Democrat and Confederate Colonel Alfred Waddell met a crowd of around 600 white people at the county courthouse with plans to remove all African Americans from their elected positions in the city and demanded that Manly stop publishing his newspaper and leave Wilmington. Manly left the city that night.
On November 10, the Wilmington Massacre began when Waddell led a mob of 2,000 armed white men who burned Manly’s Daily Record office to the ground. White supremacists quickly entered Black neighborhoods with guns and other weapons. It’s estimated that between 60 to 300 African Americans were killed that day. No white people were reported killed.
Waddell forced the African American and white fusionists to resign from their elected positions. He replaced them with his own men who then elected Waddell as mayor on the spot. Many Black leaders were jailed before being forced to leave Wilmington. Many more African Americans fled on their own. About 2,000 of the Black population left the city permanently. Wilmington had previously been a majority-black city but was now a majority-white city. This is the only known successful coup in American history.
By the 1890s, segregation had taken a firm and legal hold of the South, disenfranchising Black men. The Democratic party easily won North Carolina for years to come, reminding white people of the dangers of Black political power and the events of Wilmington. The Populist Party phased out of existence in 1909.
Disenfranchise: deprive someone of the right to vote and/or right to participate in the political process
White supremacy: idea that white people are superior to all other races
Gold standard: monetary system in which currency is based on a certain amount of gold
Editorial: opinion published in a newspaper or similar publication
Coup: overthrow and replacement of one government for another
Segregation: separation of people by race
Newspaper accounts of the Wilmington Massacre and its aftermath could be very different depending on the paper and writer. Immediately afterward and in the years following, the events in Wilmington were typically referred to as a race riot and white newspapers blamed African Americans for starting it. Media bias is something we are still talking about today. In more recent years, the media and history books have described the events of the Massacre more accurately.
Write your own 200-word newspaper article on the events of the Wilmington Massacre from the perspective of someone who witnessed it in 1898. You must include:
- a headline, lead paragraph, body paragraphs and byline (reporter name) and use an article column style
- background information that helps explain what led up to the event
- answers to who, what, when, where, why and how about the event
- a personal narrative or story of someone from Wilmington at that time