In 1898, Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest town and home to a thriving multiracial democracy in post-Civil War America. But in November of that year, with support from white elites across the state, a white supremacist mob stormed through the town, slaughtering Black residents, burning their homes and businesses to the ground, and driving the biracial coalition government from power. It was our nation’s only successful coup.

The lead-up to this tragic event, the massacre, and its aftermath is carefully chronicled by the two-time Peabody Award-nominated podcast Scene on Radio from the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.  The new season is Echoes of a Coup by host and producer John Biewen and audio producer and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Michael A. Betts, II.  

"Early in our interviews, we had an opportunity to talk to David Cecelski," says Betts. "Cecelski did his really great job of framing the space."

"If you had looked out on the water, that's almost all you would have seen. African American sailors on ships. African Americans from flat boats carrying cargo down vessels. African Americans guiding the largest ships that could come into North Carolina, into our ports and back. African American stevedores hauling goods on and off of vessels,"  Cecelski said in the podcast. "It was an African American maritime world, and because of that, a deceptively sophisticated world politically."

A historic photo of an armed mob in Wilmington in November of 1898

An armed mob pauses for the camera in front of the Daily Record, the town's Black newspaper, in Wilmington in November of 1898. After burning the office, the mob began killing African Americans. Photograph courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

Producer John Biewen says many of those seamen were free Black people from faraway places, who spoke multiple languages, and who brought with them information from around the world. But he adds the freedoms of the high seas were in conflict with the law of the land.

"They were, as [Cecelski] describes, Black people giving white men orders on boats," says Biewen. "And so you had in the antebellum South laws forbidding those free Black sailors to even speak to enslaved Black people in places like Wilmington. So that tells you a lot about the fear that slaveholders and other elites had about slave revolts, and about information getting to people."  

By 1898, Wilmington was a post-Civil War society in many ways living up to the ideals laid out in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments: no slavery, full citizenship, and the right for Black males to vote electing Blacks to prominent offices including aldermen and finance board. There were also Black Magistrates, School Committeemen, and Postmasters. 

"And it says a lot about the sophistication and the kind of cosmopolitan nature of Wilmington in the 19th century that I think most of us just, you know, have never had that picture drawn for us before," says Biewen.

But Betts says for many people, these were not welcome outcomes of democracy.

"What you see is you see elite whites go, ‘We are losing a power hold. We don't have access to the community cash grab like we did at one point,' because we've got this Fusionist politics happening at the time. We've got poor whites who are realizing that they have material needs that aren't being met by the Democrats at the time — remember Democrats are the Conservative Party at the time —and they become concerned about their health and their money and their personal well being," he says. "And that's what allows Fusionism to kind of start to take off."

On November 6, 1898, four days before the coup and massacre, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times from the Wilmington Star meant to rally support against the multiracial Fusionist — that is Republican and Populist — city government of Wilmington. The article “North Carolina’s Negroes” chronicles Black-held offices and the author concludes, “If they make such a showing in a few years, what may we not look for if their party triumphs and they get on top again?”

"You end up with this fusionism that is very, very successful in ‘94 and ‘96," says Betts. "And would have been in ’98, had the Democrats not come up with this white supremacy plan."

And that plan he says was borrowed from what states like Mississippi had already been doing to ensure disenfranchisement of Black people: ignore the recent constitutional amendments, assert white power, and in the case of Wilmington, take back all Populist and Republican-held political offices by any means necessary. The day before the election, at a Democratic rally in Thalian Hall, that sentiment was echoed strongly in a fiery speech by former Democratic congressman Alfred Moore Waddell who called on the whites in attendance to resort to violence if necessary to prevent Blacks from voting.

The election was held on November 8, and the Democrats, after a yearlong white supremacist propaganda campaign, voter suppression efforts, ballot stuffing, and other measures had won. But Biewen says that election was for state and federal offices only. 

"The local election was not happening until the spring of 1899," says Biewen. "And the white supremacists decided they weren't willing to wait that long and try to vote out the fusionist government locally in Wilmington — the mayor and council of aldermen. The following day supremacist leaders called for a meeting of white men to, as they put it, “conduct white supremacy.”

Biewen says some 600 men signed what was called a White Declaration of Independence

"And that said we will no longer be ruled by men of African origin ever again," says Biewen. "And that led to a march into the city where the building of the Daily Record, the Black-owned newspaper, was burned, was set on fire. And then some white men went into neighborhoods and started shooting into the homes of Black people. They started shooting Black people on the street. And so there was a massacre of somewhere between 20-some and up to perhaps several hundred Black people. We'll never know how many."

That was the violence and white supremacy part of November 10, 1898. Next came the coup.

"And then a mob of a couple hundred armed men descended on city hall and informed the leaders of the city government that they were out, that they were to resign," he says. "And new white supremacist people were put into the mayor's office and the city council at gunpoint. As with so many horrifying episodes in U.S. history, white America enforced a long silence about Wilmington 1898, or straight up lied about it. More than a century later, North Carolina did own up to what happened in Wilmington. But the state and the nation have done very little to make it right or less wrong." 

Betts says the paltry efforts that have been made to redress the horrors of 1898 stand in sharp contrast to the extent to which North Carolina has gone to rewrite the history of the coup and turn the page. It’s a pervasive, nefarious, centuries-old tradition that he says continues in the media to this day.

"So, we wrote that the vast majority of the white protesters at January 6 were mild and meek," says Betts. "And we wrote that the vast majority of Black protesters at the George Floyd uprisings were not. If we go back to 1898, we wrote that white individuals reluctantly had to put down rowdy and boisterous Black individuals in Wilmington. So, I think one of the things that's really important to both John and I is that we're just showing that we're not doing anything different. It's the same game."

The day after the massacre and coup, November 11, 1898, the Raleigh News and Observer headline was "A Day of Blood: Negros Precipitate Conflict by Firing on the Whites."

"So immediately, literally, from day one, the mainstream news media is lying," says Biewen." So, who is controlling the narrative is an incredibly important theme, and what we're trying to do here. And it remains the case today, where we have some of the most intense fights in this country, and the most kind of unvarnished fights, about what truths we will allow people to tell, what we will allow our children to learn about this country's history. And it's disturbing that we're still here."

The new season of the "Scene on Radio" podcast is "Echoes of a Coup." You can listen to a special edition of Echoes of a Coup this Wednesday at 7 p.m. here on 88.5 WFDD.

Audio of David Cecelski, Bertha Boykin Todd, and the actor's portrayal of Alfred Moore Waddell are from "Echoes of a Coup" (Episode 1) provided courtesy of the producers. Music used from this episode is by Kieran Haile, Blue Dot Sessions, Lucas Biewen, Kevin MacLeod, Jameson Nathan Jones, Alon Perets, and Florian.

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