“We Have Taken a City”: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and the Coup of 1898

Leon Prather, Sr., “We Have Taken a City”: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and the Coup of 1898 (1984, Southport, NC: Dram Tree Books, 2006), 214 pages, black and white photos.

“Politics, the old cliche goes, “makes strange bedfellows.” This can be seen in North Carolina politics of the late 1890s, when Republicans (mostly African-American and carpetbaggers in the party of Lincoln) joined with white yeomen farmers and workers to vote out the conservative politicians (who were Democrats) to elect “fusion” candidates. This threatened the status quo. Fearing threatened, the conservatives played the race card in order to split the fragile alliances and bring poor whites back into the fold of the Democratic Party and under the control of the conservative establishment. Within the rhetoric of the era, Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest city at the time, erupted in racial violence. When it was over, the African-American community was in shambles. At the same time, the conservatives who were working behind the scenes and used the events to bring about the only armed-coup in United States history, removing from office those who had been elected and replacing them with their own people.

In the late 19th Century, Wilmington, North Carolina had an African-American middle class. The community had their own newspaper, edited by Alex Manly, a mixed race man whose father had been the governor of the state right before the Civil War. Responding to a public speech by a Rebecca Felton, a Georgian who’d spoken out about the threat of rape that white women faced by black men and called for a campaign of lynching, Manly not only condemned such crimes by blacks, but extended it to white men abusing black women. He mentioned his own history, as he was mixed race descendant of a slave of a former governor. Excerpts of Manly’s editorial began to circulate and reappear in newspapers across the country. The fallout from it led to the events of November 10th. On this day, a group of white “redshirts” marched on Manly’s newspaper and burned the building down. Then, tension rose as a white man was shot, which provided an excuse for armed white men began to more into the black community where they faced minor resistance. A number of men were killed and most of the black leaders were rounded up and exiled from the city. Also exiled were a number of white leaders who’d participated in the fusion government that controlled the city’s politics.

When the events were over, those who had means within the African-American community left town and the white conservative establishment was firmly entrenched. Prather suggests the number of deaths, while significant, were probably been exaggerated. No official count was made, but there would not have been enough deaths to have turned the mighty Cape Fear River red with blood, as some have claimed. His work suggests that the conservatives used the lower class whites to do their bidding in the riot, providing them with the excuse to step in and remove the mayor, city council and police from power. The haunting part of this story is the number of names still present within the community. One of the ironic twist is that the grandson of John Bellamy, one of the conspirators, was the Superintendent of Schools who desegregation of the schools in the city in the 1960s. Hugh McRae, another, had his name on the park where I played ball as a child.

Prather sets the riot in historical context, comparing it with other race riots in American history. This riot came on the heels of “America’s Splendid Little War,” The Spanish American War. However, Prather doesn’t see that playing a role even though he points out parallels to other wars and race riots.

One area that I would have liked to have seen more study is in the role religion and faith played. Prather notes the doctrine of white supremacy was being proclaimed in the same pulpits that told Christ’s story (102). But outside of mentioning four local clergy (the pastors of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Black Baptist Churches and the Catholic priest), Prather doesn’t explore this thread further. However, two sources he draws upon were the Baptist and Presbyterian state newspapers, both of which supported the white revolt. The title, “We Have Taken a City” comes from the sermon by Peyton Hoge (Presbyterian) on the following Sunday, but nothing is said about the sermon and his source for the title came from a newspaper article. Interestingly, Manly was also a Presbyterian, attending Chestnut Street Presbyterian, an African-American congregation.

The events in Wilmington have been portrayed in a couple of novels. Charles Chestnut, a black author from early in the 20th Century, wrote The Marrow of Tradition based on the Wilmington story. A more modern retelling of the story is Philip Gerard’s Cape Fear Rising. I recommend Gerard’s story. He’d planned to write the book within the Creative Non-fiction genre, but because he wasn’t sure of some of the events, changed it into a historical novel. Another great source of information that came out around the 100th anniversary of the event is Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy. This book is a collection of essays edited by David Cecelski and Timothy Tyson.


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