It is one thing to know in a general way that slavery was cruel and that even after its formal ending following the end of the Civil War, black people continued to be oppressed, with the former slave states creating laws that systematically deprived their black citizens of the rights that they thought they now had. Historian Eric Foner has documented that process masterfully in his book Reconstruction. But it is still shocking to read about individual instances where there was such a flagrant disregard for basic constitutional processes in the effort of whites to shut blacks out of civil life altogether and drive them away.
In the April 27, 2020 issue of The New Yorker, Caleb Crain reviews the book Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino that documents what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 when white people in the city, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, set about making sure that the elections to city posts would be won only by whites. The planning for the coup went on quietly for a period of sixt o twelve moths prior to the November elections.
On November 10, 1898, just after Election Day, white supremacists overthrew the city government of Wilmington, North Carolina, forcing the resignation of the mayor, the aldermen, and the chief of police. A mob of white people burned down the office of an African-American newspaper and killed an unknown number of black townspeople. An eyewitness believed that more than a hundred died, and a state guardsman recalled, “I nearly stepped on negroes laying in the street dead.” In “Wilmington’s Lie” (Atlantic Monthly), a judicious and riveting new history of the coup, David Zucchino, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from apartheid-era South Africa, estimates the number of deaths at more than sixty. The conspirators went on to expel prominent blacks from the city—by means of threats in some cases, and under armed guard in others—and also white politicians unsympathetic to the cause. The plan was hatched in secret, but the conspirators were remarkably open about the coup once it began. A reporter from out of town marvelled, “What they did was done in broad daylight.”
No conspirator was ever prosecuted, and white supremacists went on to alter state law so as to disenfranchise black people for more than two generations. There were more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand registered black voters in North Carolina in 1896, but only six thousand or so were still on the books by 1902. African-Americans fled Wilmington in large numbers, decimating what had been a large, thriving community. Before the coup, the city was majority black—at one point, it had the highest proportion of African-American residents of any large city in the South—and had several racially integrated neighborhoods. A visitor from Raleigh remembered black homes as having pianos, lace curtains, and servants. By the time of the 1900 census, a majority of its citizens were white.
[I]n March, 1899, when Wilmington at last held its municipal election, only twenty-one blacks were registered to vote, and only five did so. The state legislature went on to pass North Carolina’s first Jim Crow law, segregating train cars by race. Laws requiring separate toilets, water fountains, cinemas, parks, and courtroom Bibles followed. Wilmington did not elect another black alderman for more than seventy years, and North Carolina did not choose another black congressperson for more than ninety.
The truth was recovered by two black historians: Edmonds published her history in 1951, and H. Leon Prather, Sr., produced the second serious history of the coup in 1984.
The review goes on describe in detail how the coup plotters planned and executed this assault on democracy with a brazenness that is stunning, issuing a manifesto called the Wilmington Declaration of Independence. Zucchino (like Foner in his book) demolishes a common myth put forward nowadays that the most racist elements including membership of the KKK was made up of poor, ignorant whites. They provide documentation that prominent white community leaders were involved.
The Wilmington Declaration of Independence, as it came to be known, proclaimed that whites had the right to “end the rule by Negroes,” because they paid ninety-five per cent of property taxes. It resolved to hand over black people’s jobs to whites; to shut down the “vile and slanderous” Daily Record [a newspaper owned by blacks]; and to banish Manly [the paper’s owner], the mayor, and the police chief. Some four hundred and fifty whites signed the declaration, and most of them weren’t the poor whites often blamed for racist outbreaks; a historian who researched the occupations of the signatories found that, of those she was able to trace, eighty-five per cent were middle or upper class.
Why is this story not better known? It is the usual story of re-writing history to mitigate the racism and even make it disappear. In that re-writing, it is the whites who are made out to be the victims,
If you’ve never heard of the Wilmington coup before, one reason may be that white writers quickly framed it as a necessary and legal upsurge of democratic spirit. “It was not a mob,” the Wilmington Morning Star declared. “It was simply the unanimous uprising of the white people.” Waddell made the coup sound like a flowering of common sense and bonhomie: “The good old Anglo-Saxon way of waiting until government becomes intolerable, and then openly and manfully overthrowing it is for the best.” Though the black writers Fulton and Chesnutt wrote novels that tried to preserve the memory of what happened in Wilmington, it was “The Leopard’s Spots,” a racist fictionalization by Thomas Dixon, Jr.—now remembered only for writing the book on which D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was based—that became a best-seller. In Dixon’s version of 1898 Wilmington, white children are “waylaid and beaten on their way to public schools”; the city’s Declaration of Independence is a response to an attempt by blacks to lynch a white man; and, after the whites burn down Manly’s paper, “a mob of a thousand armed Negroes concealed themselves in a hedgerow and fired on them from ambush.”
This narrative in which white Americans view themselves as the people suffering from injustice all the while complaining how the poor and the minorities flourish at their expense is painfully familiar, and that feeling of grievance is nurtured by Trump, Fox News, and the Republican party, leading to the deliberate efforts to disenfranchise black voters that continues to this day and seems to be accelerating once again after the civil rights gains of the 1960s.