Wilmington Riot Of 1898 Research Paper

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American history is filled with violent racial conflict, oftentimes justified by the perpetrators as necessary to protect (or avenge) honor, life, or property. The Wilmington Riot of 1898 was not an act of spontaneous violence. Rather, the events of November 10, 1898, were the culmination of a long-range plan by Democratic Party leaders to win control of the city of Wilmington and North Carolina. The party leadership used the concept of white supremacy to regain power lost as a result of a Populist and Republican coalition known as Fusion. Fusionists gained control of the General Assembly in 1894, and, in 1896, elected Daniel Russell as the state’s first Republican governor since 1877. In 1897 Fusionists made sweeping changes to the city’s charter and state government in favor of African Americans and middle-class whites. Wilmington, the state’s largest city, sustained a complex, wealthy society for all races, with African Americans holding elected office and working in professional and mid-range occupations vital to the economy.

Furnifold Simmons led the State Democratic Party campaign of 1898. Josephus Daniels of the Raleigh News and Observer noted that Simmons used a three-prong attack to win the election: men who could write, speak, and “ride.” Men who could write created propaganda for newspapers. Men such as Alfred M. Waddell gave fiery speeches to inflame white voters. Men who could ride, known as Red Shirts, intimidated blacks and forced whites to vote for Democratic Party candidates. Democrats from across the state took special interest in securing victory in Wilmington. A group of white businessmen, called the “Secret Nine,” planned to retake control of the city and mapped out a citywide plan of action.

Further fueling the Democratic Party’s agitation was an article by Alex Manly, editor of the Wilmington Record, the city’s African American newspaper. Manly challenged white taboos regarding interracial sexual relationships, and his article became a tool used by Democrats to further anger whites. Democrats won the election, and the next day a group of whites passed a series of resolutions requiring Alex Manly to leave the city and close his paper, and called for the resignations of the mayor and chief of police. A committee of men led by Waddell was selected to implement the set of resolutions, called the White Declaration of Independence. The committee presented its demands to a Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC)—prominent local African Americans—and asked for compliance by the next morning, November 10, 1898.

Waddell met a crowd of men at the Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) Armory at 8:00 a.m. on the tenth. Delayed response from the CCC and growing tensions led to a march by Waddell and as many as 2,000 whites to the Record printing office where they broke in and burned the building. By 11:00 a.m., violence had broken out across town at an intersection where groups of blacks and whites argued. Shots rang out and several black men fell dead or wounded—both sides claimed the other fired the first shot with two “witnesses” providing conflicting testimony.

Governor Russell called out the WLI, a home guard militia unit, and they marched into Brooklyn to calm the riot where they participated in skirmishes and killed several black men.

During the riot, members of Waddell’s committee plus George Rountree, John D. Bellamy, and others worked to facilitate a coup d’etat to overthrow the municipal government. By 4:00 p.m., elected officials were forced to resign under pressure and were replaced by men selected by leading Democrats. Waddell was elected mayor by the newly seated board of aldermen. Additionally, leading African Americans and white Republicans were banished from the city over the next days. Besides the primary target of Alex Manly, men selected for banishment fit into one of three categories: African American leaders who were open opponents to white supremacy, successful African American businessmen, and whites who benefited politically from African American voting support. No official count of dead can be ascertained due to a paucity of records. At least 14 and perhaps as many as 60 men were murdered.

State and federal leaders failed to react to the violence in Wilmington. No federal troops were sent because President William McKinley received no request for assistance from Governor Russell. The U.S. Attorney General’s Office investigated, but the files were closed with no indictments in 1900. African Americans nationwide rallied to the cause of Wilmington’s blacks and tried to pressure President McKinley into action. However, many leading blacks were split on the best solution to the “Negro problem” and no nationwide campaign materialized.

Democrats solidified their control over city government through a new city charter in January 1899. Waddell and the board of aldermen were officially elected in March 1899 with no Republican resistance. The new legislature enacted the state’s first Jim Crow legislation regarding the separation of races in train passenger cars. A new suffrage amendment that disfranchised black voters was added to the state constitution by voters in 1900. The Democratic legislature overturned Fusion and placed control over county governments in Raleigh. New election laws limited Republican power in the 1900 election. Democrats controlled local and statewide affairs for the next seventy years after victory in 1898.

Inside Wilmington, out-migration following the violence negatively affected the ability of African Americans to recover. Black property owners were a minority of the overall black population before the riot, and property owners were more likely to remain in the city. An African American collective narrative developed to recall the riot and place limits on black/white relationships for future generations. White narratives claimed that the violence was necessary to restore order, and their narrative was perpetuated by most historians.

Wilmington marked a new epoch in the history of violent race relations in the U.S. Several other high profile riots followed Wilmington, most notably Atlanta (1906), Tulsa (1921), and Rosewood (1923). All four communities dealt with the aftermath of their riots differently. Whites in Tulsa and Atlanta addressed the causes and some effects of violence and destruction soon after their events; Wilmington whites provided compensation only for the loss of the building housing Manly’s press.


  1. Cecelski, David S., and Timothy B. Tyson, eds. 1998. Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot and Its Legacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  2. Crow, Jeffrey J., and Robert F. Durden. 1977. Maverick Republican in the Old North State: A Political Biography of Daniel L. Russell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  3. Edmunds, Helen. 1951. The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  4. Prather, H. Leon, Sr. 1998. We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press. (Orig. pub. 1984.)
  5. Umfleet, LeRae S. 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report. May 31, 2006. http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/1898-wrrc/.

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