Last week, the State of North Carolina updated a highway marker commemorating the violent overthrow of the Wilmington government in 1898. Erected in 1994, the original marker described the event as a “race riot” and did not mention the death toll amongst the black populace. The new marker calls the event a “coup” and highlights the “untold number of African-American dead.”
As reported by The New York Times,”You don’t call it that [a race riot] anymore because the African Americans weren’t rioting,” said Ansley Herring Wegner, administrator of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, said Thursday. “They were being massacred.”
On November 10th, 1898 — during the period historians term the nadir of American race relations — white Democrats violently overthrew the fusion government of legitimately elected blacks and white Republicans in Wilmington.
Forcing prominent black leaders to flee the city, the Democrats burned and killed their way to power in what is viewed as a flashpoint for the Jim Crow era of segregation and the only successful coup d’état in American history. Black citizens petitioned President William McKinley to send federal troops to restore the duly elected officials, but he refused. After assuming illegitimate rule, the white Wilmington government enacted the same kinds of Jim Crow laws propagated throughout the south.¹
The renaming of the marker stemmed from a 2005 report by the North Carolina legislature on the causes of the bloody racial clash. In “The real of root of the race riots in Wilmington” (2006), DeWayne Wickham provides a detailed account of the commission’s findings, telling “the story of a racial d’état that toppled a democratically elected local government.”
Wickham praises the “willingness of the current leaders of this former Confederate state [North Carolina] to unearth the record of this shameful period — and their willingness, presumably, to make amends.” Going beyond the written text of the report, the new marker makes those amends visible.
I was curious to see how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle responded to the racial violence in Wilmington. Given that the Democrat and Chronicle was a northern, Republican newspaper not to my surprise — but adulatory nonetheless — the paper looked unfavorably at events in North Carolina. Relatedly, I discovered that 1898 was the year the Douglass Monument arrived in Rochester.
Readers of the Democrat and Chronicle opened their morning paper on November 11th, 1898 to read about a “Race War in Wilmington.” The article itself is just the known bare bones facts, but — indicative of the paper’s stance — the blacks — raided upon — seem to be represented sympathetically.
When the readers turned the page, they learned of a smaller but still bloody racial clash in Greenwood, South Carolina. As in Wilmington, the November 1898 election triggered a four day white reign of terror. Again, by highlighting the “Slaughter of the Negroes,” the Democrat and Chronicle appears to cast the blacks as victims.
On page 6, the D & C presented its first editorial, “Race Trouble,” on events in Wilmington. While the details of the violence were not complete, the editorial gives a broad sense of the D & C‘s stance on racial issues.
In some ways, the stance matches that of newly elected NYS Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Like the D & C, Roosevelt disapproved of the “coup.” And, like Roosevelt, the D & C present a relatively enlightened but semi-paternalistic gradualist approach to race.
One the one hand, the editorial remarks that whites have superior intelligence and education” and thus should uphold the “cause of civilization and order.” Paternalism.
At the same time, “the colored men of those states are yearly increasing in intelligence and knowledge . . . the latter [the whites] cannot much longer treat the negoes as they did in slavery.” Relative enlightenment.
Finally, the best course of action is to increase the number of schools and rigidly respect the rights of all classes, black as well as white. Gradualism.
The November 12th report confirms that black leaders have fled (“banished”) Wilmington. The report was relayed to the D & C by a Washington Evening Star correspondent stationed in Wilmington. The Evening Star was not sympathetic to the plight of southern blacks.
In this excerpt, we see the perspective of a southern newspaper. Through its lens, the “best elements of the city” have effected a desirable (with “great unanimity”) and complete change of the government. The desired goal is stated clearly:
On the 12th, the D & C may have had no other source of information other than the Evening Star. By contrast, the editorial page ran a short, highly critical piece of the whites, calling their conduct “a disgrace to the civilization of this country.”
Only two days after November 10th massacre, the D & C — diametrically opposed to the Evening Star — called for justice for blacks, arguing that the federal government may need to intervene — the intervention McKinley refused.
The next day, the 13th, the D & C reported on black Rochestarians’ response to the “horrible warfare” occurring in the Carolinas:
Again, the sympathies are with black citizens who feel a justified indignation and whose appeal is righteous.
On the 14th, on page two, the D & C carried a dispatch from Trenton, S.C on a speech given in North Carolina by South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman. Like the Evening Star, the South Carolina dispatch framed Tillman’s racist speech in an approving light.
At the same time, the D & C upstaged Tillman’s speech with a front page dispatch from New Jersey on Alex Manly’s flight from Wilmington as the fugitive’s story gained national attention.
The dispatch and headlines seem to defend Manly who is not merely “sent away” (as the Evening Star would have it), but “driven out.” Two days later, the D & C reprinted Manly’s entire editorial.
In three pieces, the November 17th edition most clearly conveyed the D & C‘s position.
In “Winchesters Mightier Than The Pen,” appalled that Wilmington newspapermen would take to the streets with guns when they should be reporting with their pens, the editorial condemns the Messenger‘s participation in the general terror.
Furthermore, the editorial sees in the unconstitutional overthrow the possible revival of the “old reign of terror formerly known as Klu Kluxism.” The editorial may have been prescient as 17 years later the second Klu Klux Klan was founded.
Another November 17th editorial lamented the plight of the black citizens banished from Wilmington, fleeing to Canada. The flight of the black refugees would remind Rochesterians of the trek taken by escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. According to the editorial, the escaping North Carolinians did not expect to be welcomed in the northern states so the only real freedom — like travelers on the Underground Railroad — was Canada: “the spectacle presented by these refugees from a country supposed to be civilized is not inspiring.”
Finally, the D & C presented four out-of-town editorials. The Philadelphia Record accused North Carolina of nullifying the constitution. The New York Herald said there was “no excuse for the wanton and wholesale murder of Negroes.” In contrast, the conservative Chicago Journal defended McKinley’s decision not to send federal troops and instead “accept the prejudices of the south.” Also included was an opinion from South Carolina’s Greenwich News saying the blacks were “butchered in cold blood:”
As far as I can determine, the Greenwich News was an African-American newspaper. I don’t know how often the D & C ran editorials from African-American newspapers. Nonetheless, the D & C chose to print one condemning the racial killings in Wilmington.
To be sure, Rochester in the late 1890s was hardly free from race prejudice. Simply consider that the banished Wilmingtonians only felt they could be really free in Canada. While the D & C projected sympathy for the black victims of the massacre and condemned the white rioters, it is not clear to what degree this public face matched the private feelings of Rochesterians.
Nonetheless, in editorials and headline and choice of articles, Rochester emerges as a racially progressive city. The same tone can be found when encountering the 1898 D & C coverage of the Douglass Monument.In 1895, led by John W. Thompson, black and white Rochestarians joined to form the The Douglass Monument Committee. (The plaque and stone placement inexplicably lists the date as 1885.) The Committees goal was to create what would become Rochester’s most iconic site, the Douglass Monument, recently moved from the Highland Bowl to the corner of South and Robinson.
As described by Johnson in An Authentic History of the Douglass Monument (1903), the much anticipated construction of the monument began in the spring of 1898 in Westerly, Rhode Island by the Smith Concrete Company.
On July 20th, the corner stone was laid at Central Avenue and St. Paul Boulevard, witnessed by hundreds. The opening sentence of the D & C‘s July 21st report — “Creed and color is nothing to the people of Rochester” — foregrounds the article, promoting the image of Rochester as — at least in the case of Douglass — above racial prejudice.
After the laying of the corner stone, the Monument took a halting road from Westerly to Rochester. After delays in Rhode Island, an unveiling ceremony was prepared for September 14th. Although a large crowd, including Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells, was in attendance, the Monument was still unfinished and still in Westerly. Nonetheless, despite the disappointment, the planned speeches and festivities were held.
Once again, in its September 15th report the D & C presents Rochester as a racially enlightened city that rebukes prejudice and honors freedom.
After more delays, the Monument finally arrived on October 6th and placed on its pedestal on October 11th. However, Douglass himself (or rather itself) was kept wrapped in canvas. The Monument Commission still owed the Smith Granite Company more payments and the Company would not authorize removing the canvas until the debt was liquidated.
The Commission had long struggled for funding and now faced the ignominy of a sheathed Douglass as visitors expected to see his majestic visage.
In a call to “Free the Arms of Frederick Douglass,” a November 2nd article bemoaned that the Monument was still veiled, announcing that the Chamber of Commerce was aiding in raising the needed funds.
On the day of the Wilmington coup, November 11th, as Rochestarians read about the violence in the Carolinas, Douglas was still covered. They also saw the notice, “Douglass Monument Contributions,” that appeared throughout 1898.
The images of Douglass still sheathed in canvas in Rochester juxtaposed with Alex Manly’s Daily Record office burning in Wilmington are a stark reminder of the plight of post-Reconstruction African-Americans — even if Rochester was less oppressive than most places.
It is not clear when the debt was finally cleared, but on June 9th, 1899 the Monument was finally unveiled as tens of thousand cheered Governor Theodore Roosevelt as he honored the apostle of freedom.¹POSTSCRIPT
My own research relates the Wilmington coup to the Spanish-American War (1898). The Spanish-American War, by inciting a patriotic martial frenzy throughout the nation, completed the South’s post-Reconstructionist rapprochement with the North as northern and southern men marched into war against a common enemy. To many Southern whites, the victory over Spain — rekindling the martial spirit of the old Confederacy — was proof of Anglo-Saxon superiority.
Black men volunteering for military service frightened or angered white supremacists who saw black soldiers as powerful reminders of Union troops during the Civil War. Black soldiers, often encamped in the south, were targets of white attack. Newspaper editorialists mocked their status as soldiers, libeled them as unfit to serve in the army, and intoned against their citizenship as they returned to civilian life. Nowhere was the connection between the triumph in Cuba and assertions of white supremacy clearer than in the Wilmington white race riot.
Almost too fittingly, the self-appointed white vigilance committees created to quell black assertion referred to themselves as “Rough Riders” [the nickname for Theodore Roosevelt’s regiment that fought in Cuba]. Moreover, the white Wilmington Light Infantry troops brought to restore order — and protect the new all white government — had just returned from the Spanish–American War.
The presence of armed black men and their demands for equal treatment horrified many white North Carolinians. In the Fall 1898 election, the Democrats used the black Third Regiment as evidence of “Negro domination” of the government, the election that led to the November 10th coup.An April 1898 when President McKinley called for volunteers, African-Americans in Wilmington and all over North Carolina volunteered for the Third Regiment, one of only three all-black regiments commanded by black officers.
During the coup, the regiment was stationed in Macon, Georgia where whites deeply resented the presence of black troops, blaming them for increases in violence and crime.
Conceivably, the Third Regiment could have been recalled to Wilmington to quell the civil unrest, but, of course, they were not as that supposed task was left to the Wilmington Light Infantry.
When the regiment was mustered out in February 1899, the soldiers were blocked from further service because the new Democratic legislature passed a law barring blacks from the State Guard.
As seen in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism to reprint “Imperium in Imperio: Sutton Griggs’s Imagined War of 1898”, from a literary perspective I look at how the African-American novelist Sutton Griggs’s highly popular novel Imperium in Imperio (1899). Taking place during the Spanish-American War, in Waco, Texas, African-Americans have built a vast, secret empire with the goal of creating a black nation. As the fighting in Cuba commences — where black troopers are fighting under the American flag — the Imperium plans to overthrow the white Texas government, form their own nation and, if necessary, declare war on the United States.
The novel works on two levels. On the one hand, Imperium represents the white nightmare of black domination. On the other hand, as Jim Crow policies disenfranchise and marginalize blacks, Griggs re-writes the Wilmington insurrection. This time the blacks will stage the coup, create their own government and constitution and banish white from Texas. Ultimately the fantasy of black sovereignty cannot be realized.