'Cape Fear Rising' Author Retells The Wilmington Coup Of 1898
The end of the 19th century was a pivotal time in North Carolina history. The port city of Wilmington, with its bustling harbor and cotton exports, was the richest in the state, and a mecca for African Americans with a majority black, upwardly mobile middle class. They were tradespeople, owned restaurants and small businesses, and ran the local newspaper.
Wilmington was becoming important politically as well. Following elections in 1896, black aldermen, constables, and magistrates began holding offices previously held by generations of whites who soon became determined to take back the reins of power at all costs. The result was the Wilmington Coup of 1898, carefully chronicled in Phillip Gerard’s book Cape Fear Rising. On Thursday, the UNC-Wilmington historian came to Scuppernong Books in Greensboro to talk about it.
The Wilmington Coup is also referred to as the Wilmington Insurrection, and a race riot, but Gerard calls these labels misleading. He says during this period in U.S. history there were many deadly uprisings by whites against blacks throughout the south, but they were spontaneous. Gerard tells WFDD's David Ford the Wilmington Coup of 1898 was anything but.
We know the planning began at least as early as August of 1898 and culminated on November 10th and 11th of 1898. And there were a lot of people involved. In fact, if you look at the White Declaration of Independence it was signed by, I think, four hundred and thirty five of the leading citizens of Wilmington, and you would recognize many of those names today. So, you had a cadre of kind of ex-Confederate officers abetted by leading businessmen. And to do their bidding, they pretty much imported and used a sort of poor — what were called Red Shirts — which were kind of the Klan without their uniform. These were rough and ready guys who would take to the streets with brick backs or guns and do the violent bidding of the guys who were planning everything.
Estimates of the dead ranged from 60-300, but Gerard says counts were never made. What is known is that the coup led to a complete transfer of political power. It also played a major role in establishing the white supremacy movement.
What they wanted was to get back the state offices. The difficult part for the white supremacists was that city offices were not up for election that year, and so they were just going to take those back once they had won the other election. So the night before [Alfred Moore] Waddell gives a speech at the big opera house to a thundering ovation. It's called a sizzling speech and he says, "Tomorrow if you see the Negro out voting, tell him to go home. If he will not go shoot him down in his tracks." And so the next day the polling is fixed. There are armed guards. They sweep all of the elections and then November 10th comes around and what they've done is given a deputation of black community leaders an ultimatum.
The ultimatums included expelling the African American editor of the local newspaper, removing black workers from certain jobs and having them replaced by whites. The list was delivered to a black citizens group who then met and decided to agree to all of the terms, but it was too late.
The white men — the ones who met down at the Wilmington light infantry — marched. And they marched down to The Daily Record, which was Alex Manly's newspaper. They burned it. They shot at least one person inside and then as they were returning from that fire and that mob scene which lasted a while they ran into some black workingmen and they started shooting again. And things really began getting out of hand. The worst violence was probably perpetrated by the paramilitary groups. There were reports of people being forced to run gauntlets and shot multiple times, of firing squads, and there's recently discovered evidence that at the Manhattan dance hall about 25 people were probably machine-gunned to death. So, it went on all through the night and they were bragging about shooting blackbirds. Blacks fled all over the place. They went across the river. They went across the street. They hid out in the cemeteries and Wilmington came to a standstill. And many of the dead were left on the street deliberately as a warning to others. And there were reports that wagonloads of bodies were later dumped into the Cape Fear River. All the dead were black. Nobody ever counted the bodies. And for over a hundred years there was not any investigation into any liability for the killings.
On the Cape Fear Rising backlash the author received:
I never expected when I published this book that within 10 years, let alone 25, any of this stuff would be relevant. I thought it would be in the dustbin of history. But unfortunately we're reliving the same kinds of things that went on in 1898: the repression of voting rights, white supremacists openly carrying weapons and threatening people and in some cases shooting people. So, all this turns out to be sickeningly relevant to today. When it came out there was a backlash in the white community as you might expect. I was disinvited for many speaking engagements that I had — some of them previous to the book. I had received all kinds of anonymous phone calls that were not very nice. At every reading I would find someone who would tell me that I either made it up or that this is just the way things were. How dare I call out people? But the worst is probably something I didn't find out about until this past year which was that when the board of trustees met at my university to vote on my tenure — which is usually a pro forma thing as you've already been through your department, your college, the provost and so forth, about 14 levels or so by the time we get to the board of trustees — they were going to deny my tenure based on this book because a number of the descendants of those families that led the coup were still active both on the board of trustees and in other ways in the community. And apparently, it was Owen Kenan — according to my former chancellor [James Leutze 1990-2003] — who stood up and basically challenged the rest of the board and said you can't do this.
On Thursday at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington Professor and author Phillip Gerard read from Cape Fear Rising, and from his new book, The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes To North Carolina. He's also an advisor for the North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center where they are currently compiling personal stories that people have collected from their civil war ancestors. The hope is to create an online archive to preserve the personal connections people have today with what happened in the past.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.