“We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1989”, is an count by H. Prather and Leon Sr. on one of the most unfortunate human collision in the history of the United States of American. This recounts the events of the infamous race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina where Whites carried out a politically and racially instigated attack against the majority African American citizens. The race riots which have also regarded as a race war, rebellion, revolt, and even a coup d’état, is also commonly referred to as the Wilmington Insurrection or massacre of 1898.
The Wilmington race riots happened on Thursday 10th November, 1989. Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, a local Democratic leader, led a white militia to overthrown an elected mayor, gunned down blacks in the streets forcing lots of them out the town and dispossessing them of their property.
There were a host of social, economic and political issues at play in Wilmington city and on the national front which resulted in the unfortunate crimes. The factors went a long way in crating tensions between the White and Black communities.
The city of Wilmington, found on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, was the largest and most significant city of the Old North State. It had a modest population of about 20,055, of which blacks were majority numbering 11324 compared to the minority 8,731 whites. As a result, the blacks wielded much political and economic power over their white counterparts, in a country that still had no regard for the former. As such there was much bad blood between the two races which is what culminated in the killings and violence waged against the colored people of the city.
It is reckoned that Wilmington was one of the best cities for blacks in the entire United States prior to the 1898 massacre. Unlike other places in the American South, blacks in Wilmington city had the privilege of living in the same neighborhood as the whites, walk in the same streets, and make purchases from the same shops with the whites. This at the time when blacks were heavily regarded inferior to their ‘superior’ white counterparts. Furthermore, blacks were in high political positions including the city’s board of aldermen, board of audit and finance, offices of justice of the peace, deputy clerk of court, superintendent of streets and coroner. A black outsider, John Campbell Daney, was appointed by the president as the collector of customs at the Port of Wilmington in 1897, earning a handsome salary more than most whites and even that of state’s governor. This invited Whites’ resentment and loathing of Daney and blacks in general.
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Furthermore, blacks were at the center of business and commerce in Wilmington. They owed lucrative business ventures such as eating houses, barber, boot and shoe shoemaking shops. They also dominated as dealers and shippers of fish and oysters, butchers and meat sellers, tailors, dyers and scourers, druggists, bakers and grocers. Blacks also made the bulk of craftsmen in Wilmington, where they were jewelers, mechanics, wheelwrights, etc. many poor whites felt envious of the successful blacks in business. Wilmington city was the only city at the time with a black newspaper, the Daily Record, which was owned and operated by the Manly brothers.
The political warfare between the Democrats and Republicans on the national scale had a greater bearing on the internal politics of Wilmmington city with the former in support of the whites. The Republicans and populists, where the blacks were bent over, were in charge of Wilmington city, a status they maintained during the statewide elections although Democrats gained control over the North Carolina State Legislature. In their resolve to win, the leading Democrats had sworn t take dismantle the black African supremacy by any means how – either peacefully or through a bloody revolt.
However, it was a controversial editorial by the editor of the Daily Record, Alexander Manly, which set the stage upon which the white to muster a mob against the blacks in Wilmington. The publication was deemed as sexually and racially charged because it touched on the taboo topic of inter-racial sex. It revealed the thorny reality of exploitation of black women by white men. As such it confronted the myth of pure-white womanhood as advocated in the white community. The Democrats, who were in support of the whites, used the editorial to inflame racial tensions in the run up to elections. However, there were no incidents on the Election Day.
November 10th was two days after the Election Day. Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate officer and a white supremacist, led a of about 500 heavily armed white men to the stately white marble armory. The procession across the city swelled to 2000 strong. African American begun fleeing for their lives as the column neared the Love and Charity Hall which housed Alexander Manly’s press. Meanwhile, Manly and other high profile African Americans had fled the city in advance having anticipated the violence. The mob battered down the door, broke into the building and set it alight. News of the racial violence was quickly spread through telegraphs within the state and without. Democratic leaders in other North Carolina sent military help for their white insurgents in Wilmington. The Red Shirts, the Rough Riders, Wilmington Light Infantry, and the Gatling Gun combined forces in their bloody onslaught of African Americans.
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The exact number of the causalities remains unknown with the number running from the coroner’s fourteen to reports of scores or hundreds of deaths, all of them being African Americans. However, three whites - Will Mayo, Will Terry and George Bland are said to have been slain by an active black politician, Daniel Wright, during the riot as he was being manhunt. Wright was later died in a city hospital after being a recipient of about forty rounds of bullets.
Waddell and his group forces white Republican Mayor Silas P. Wright along with all other members of the local government out of office. Waddell was then installed as new mayor in a coup d’état way because there was no federal punishment that was brought to him and his white mob for human killings and destruction of property. Democrats passed the Jim Crow Laws for North Carolina, the “Grandfather Clause” afforded voting rights to only those males with literacy skills, stripping many African Americans the right to vote.
The social, political and economic impact of the violence was far-reaching. There was mass exodus of both blacks and whites of Wilmington city. While whites found better shelter in schools and hospitals and even relatives from other cities, the blacks were on their own. They wandered on roads, sending cold and rainy nights and days in swamps and forests.