On Thursday, November 10, 1898, more than 2,000 armed white men, backed by a white-supremacist state militia, effected the only successful coup d’etat in American history. They swarmed the city of Wilmington, murdered at least 60 African Americans, forced more than 2,100 black residents to flee, ordered the city’s multiracial government and other public officials to resign, more or less at gunpoint, then replaced them with white rulers. No one tried to stop them, and no one was ever held responsible.
This insurrection was preceded by a months-long campaign of political violence intended to scare black voters from the ballot box in Wilmington and elsewhere. It worked; two days earlier, the white-supremacist Democratic Party had reclaimed the legislature from the Fusionists after four years out of power, thanks to intimidation and outright fraud. The newly re-empowered whites soon passed a constitutional amendment that restricted black access to the polls and then enacted a series of Jim Crow laws that lived on for decades.
Chances are, you’ve heard something about the Wilmington coup, though it’s possible you haven’t. For such a momentous event in North Carolina history, it’s seldom gotten its historical due. For most of the 20th century, when it was taught in schools, it was taught as a “race riot”—blacks rioted and whites restored order. That’s how the white insurrectionists framed the day’s events, and that’s how white newspapermen recorded it at the time.
That story is a lie: Blacks didn’t riot; if anything, the opposite is true. Even the word “riot” deceptively conveys spontaneity. What happened was not spontaneous; it was planned months in advance.
In 1951, the white narrative was first challenged in a thesis by Helen Edwards, a black scholar at N.C. Central. Calling her a “negress,” Wilmington officials decried her work as “distorted and sensational.” Efforts to revisit the white narrative resurfaced around the coup’s centennial in 1998.
Two years later, the General Assembly created a commission to what happened at Wilmington.
In 2006, the commission published its 480-page report, showing that the coup was not a “race riot” but a “documented conspiracy” to overthrow a legitimate government. On November 8, 2008—110 years after the stolen election—Wilmington installed a memorial a block from where the coup’s first victims were killed.
It reads: “Wilmington’s 1898 racial violence was not accidental. It began a successful statewide Democratic campaign to regain control of state government, disenfranchise African-Americans, and create a system of local segregation which persisted into the second half of the 20th century.”
Such an extraordinary event, with such far-reaching consequences, deserves more than a government report. It deserves an extraordinarily compelling exploration.
With Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, that’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino has provided.
Zucchino, a product of Fort Bragg High School and UNC-Chapel Hill, has reported all over the globe over the last four decades—from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s to inner-city Philadelphia, from Lebanon to Iraq. Now a contributing writer for The New York Times, he spent three years digging into the story of Wilmington. The result is a work that not only details the brutality of the coup itself but also the context in which it took place.
Last week, I spoke with Zucchino about Wilmington’s Lie and why what happened 121 years ago—and how we talk about it—still matters.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
INDY: What drew your interest to Wilmington in 1898?
DAVID ZUCCHINO: It’s this hidden story that’s been covered up and mischaracterized for more than a century—a forgotten chapter of not just North Carolina history but our nation’s history. Even a lot of people in North Carolina don’t know about this. It wasn’t taught in the schools, and if it was taught, it was taught as a response to a black race riot, where whites restored order from a corrupt black government. I thought it was remarkable that something like this could happen in the United States. I went to high school and college in North Carolina, and I never heard of it—it was never taught in any history class I ever took. That made me even more determined to bring this to national attention.
Before I read Wilmington’s Lie, I was familiar with the basics of the story. But I didn’t know about its place in the larger narrative of North Carolina history. Tell us why this insurrection still matters.
What the white-supremacy campaign of 1898 tried to do was to rob blacks of the vote—and not only the vote but the right to hold appointed or political office. They were amazingly successful. This was a huge point in racial history for African Americans in North Carolina and throughout the South. After Reconstruction, blacks had the vote, and there were blacks in Congress, blacks voted openly. Then by 1898, through intimidation, through killing—some 60 blacks in Wilmington—they kept blacks in North Carolina from voting in any significant numbers from 1898 up until the mid-’60s. In 1896, there were 126,000 registered black voters in North Carolina. By 1902, just six years later, they were 6,000. They ended black participation in politics in North Carolina for 70-some years.
This spread throughout the South; it wasn’t just happening in North Carolina. This event really inspired white supremacy all across the South.
What was really significant was that right after the riot, after white supremacists had stolen the 1898 election through fraud, ballot stuffing, and the intimidation of black voters, they passed a law in 1900, the Suffrage Amendment, that basically legally took the vote away from African-American citizens by saying that any person whose grandfather or whose descendent had voted before 1867—which, conveniently, was the year that blacks got the vote in North Carolina—was not subject to literacy tests and could vote without the literacy test or the poll tax. And that, of course, disenfranchised just about every black person in North Carolina.
By the late 1890s, there was a Fusionist governor and General Assembly and a black member of Congress from North Carolina as well as a few black legislators. Blacks were gaining some political power.
This whole situation just antagonized white supremacists because, through the Redeemer movement right at the end of Reconstruction [in 1876] and up until 1894 in North Carolina, they ran the state government, and white supremacy was official state policy. But the Democratic Party lost control of the state legislature in 1894 because white populists had been so enraged by how it had been taken over by the banks and the railroads and big-money interests that they rebelled and combined with Republicans, both black and white, to form Fusion, and that put blacks in positions of power not only in the state legislature but specifically in Wilmington.
Wilmington was a rarity at that time. It was a black-majority city. There weren’t that many in the South. And it had a multiracial government, which was very unusual, and it had a real thriving black middle class, and black doctors and lawyers and black policemen and magistrates. This was a primal threat to white supremacy. The whites of North Carolina, specifically of Wilmington, were determined that they weren’t going to go back. They were going to retake the city.
What is unusual about Wilmington versus other so-called race riots is that it wasn’t spontaneous. It was premeditated over a period of months. And not only was it premeditated, but they announced what they intended to do. They were going to win by the ballot or the bullet. They said they were going to overthrow the so-called Negro rule. And they did it. Amazingly, they got away with it. No one was ever prosecuted, no one was ever convicted. Sixty people were just killed, 60 American citizens killed in broad daylight. And the federal government did nothing.
When I started researching this book, I had no idea just how meticulous they were, how they planned everything. One example is that they planted all these phony newspaper stories that said blacks were going to riot during and after the election, they were going to rise up, they were stockpiling weapons. They fed these stories to the white reporters coming down from the major newspapers. That became the narrative when, in fact, it was the whites who were stockpiling weapons and who carefully planned this for a specific day, two days after the election.
Another example of just how orchestrated this thing was: The editor of the Record, the daily black newspaper in Wilmington, had written an editorial in August 1898, well before the November election, where he scandalized whites by suggesting that cases where black men had been lynched for allegedly raping white women were, in many cases, actually consensual affairs. The so-called Red Shirts, which was basically the militia of the white-supremacy movement, wanted to lynch Alex Manly right away. And the leaders of the movement said, “No, this is not the time. We will have much more impact if we wait until after the election.”
At the same time, they had this whole campaign of stump speakers who would go out and really just enrage white audiences with all these tales of black men coming to steal their jobs, black men coming to steal their women, black-beast rapists, Negro rule and how it was incompetent and criminal. It just built to a crescendo, planned up until the day of the election. They sent Red Shirts out as nightriders into black areas to beat and whip black men and threaten them if they even registered to vote. It really tamped down the black vote and allowed them to win the election. Once they won the election, they were in a position of power to easily overthrow the [Wilmington] government, just as they had announced they would.
You talked about Alex Manly’s editorial. It’s not the only time in the book where this sort of racial-sexual dynamic hits a nerve among whites.
The reason blacks voting, blacks holding public office was such a threat—it was political power, but it went much deeper. It really pierced the sexual insecurities of white men in the South, who absolutely feared black men becoming equal on any footing, whether it was social, economic, or political. Because if a black man rose to power, to equal status to that of a white man, he would be competition for the affections of white women.
That’s why they created this campaign of the so-called black-beast rapists and warning white voters that blacks were coming not only for their women but for their jobs. That was a real force in motivating these men.
There was a Republican presidential administration in 1898, and there was a Fusionist governor who was elected with black votes, both of whom were in a position to help. The white supremacists telegraphed their intentions for months, but no one did anything. How should history look at those who failed to intervene?
That’s an important aspect of this book. I’ll start at the state level. Governor Daniel Russell was from Wilmington. He came from a slaveholding family. So he shared a lot of the racial prejudices of the white-supremacy movement. But he was a Republican, and by the standards of the day, he was fairly moderate, and he was a pretty calculating politician. He realized that blacks had the power through the vote to put him in office.
But then, when the white-supremacy campaign started, he was completely intimidated by the white-supremacy leaders and backed down at every opportunity to stand up for blacks. He realized that his life was in danger. He had been threatened with assassination. He had been threatened with impeachment. He was terrified, and he rolled over. He saw the whole thing coming and realized very clearly what was going to happen, yet he essentially authorized the killing of black men by giving the white-supremacist leaders the power to pull out the state militia in Wilmington—and this was a completely white-supremacist militia, even though it was supposed to be a state militia.
At the national level, President [William] McKinley was an abolitionist. Yet I could find no record that he uttered one word in public about the killings and the coup; he just remained silent even though he had been warned in the months leading up to it many times by America’s only black congressman, who was from North Carolina. He did nothing. He did not send troops, as blacks wanted, because Governor Russell was too afraid of antagonizing white supremacists by asking for federal troops.
[McKinley] was preoccupied with the aftermath of the Spanish-American War; I think that played into it. He had also campaigned on binding the nation’s wounds from the Civil War; he wanted to bring the country together. He saw the Spanish-American War as actually bringing together Americans from the North and the South who, for the first time since the Civil War, were fighting on the same side. So I think, for all those reasons, he decided that politically that it was not expedient to get involved.
Bringing the nation together meant letting the white supremacists have their way.
Basically, it’s what it amounted to, yeah. Also, like any president, he needed the folks in the South. He was gonna run for election [in 1900].
You covered apartheid South Africa. The white supremacists in Wilmington—this was a movement that brought its own form of apartheid in the U.S. for almost 70 years. What parallels did you see?
There were a couple of things that I saw in South Africa that happened in 1898 in North Carolina. One was the demonizing by race, the belittling, the racial scapegoating and stereotyping by white rulers, courts, white citizens of the country, and just day by day by day turning [whites] against the black population as a menace, as incompetent, as inferior and incapable of equality and citizenship. Both the apartheid movement and the white-supremacy movement really hit on all these elements. The sexual threat of the so-called black-beast rapists in 1898 was repeated under National Party rule when apartheid was coming into play in the early or middle parts of the 20th century, and it was the same playbook. Politically, [South Africa] used apartheid laws to deny blacks equal rights, and, of course, after the coup, [North Carolina] passed the Suffrage Amendment.
A federal judge recently struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, citing the state’s “sordid history” with voter suppression, so this racial history still seems relevant. I wonder what lessons you see from Wilmington that resonate with you.
I see white political conservatives still finding ways to disenfranchise black voters or limit their access to the polls. Whether it’s pure racism today, as it was in 1898, I can’t say. It could be just political opportunism. But regardless of the intent, the effect is to restrict the voting rights of African Americans, and the voter ID law [in 2013] was a perfect example. The federal courts ruled that it targeted blacks with, quote, “surgical precision.” After the [ruling], they came up with an amendment that did pass [in 2018], and that reminded me so much of the attempt in 1900, successfully, to pass the Suffrage Amendment, which had the same effect of almost cutting off access to the voting booth to black citizens. So this is happening again and again.
Throughout the book, you see shades of things that are still happening. It’s different, but the outlines are familiar—there’s the same fear of losing power.
I see the echoes of 1898 in the Twitter and internet universe with the rise of the white-nationalist right with the racial and ethnic scapegoating and demonizing online. I mean, just one example was when Donald Trump came down the escalator to announce his run for president, he talked about Mexican criminals and rapists coming across the border to take your jobs, and that’s almost word-for-word from the language of the white supremacists in 1898 when they were warning white voters the same thing about blacks. It’s just remarkable how this undercurrent of singling out a group as an enemy and as a target and a scapegoat continues.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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