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On Thursday November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina, peace was shattered by the sound of gun shots in the African American section of town. Tensions in Wilmington were high leading up to this day due to an election held two days prior. North Carolina Democrats ran a campaign of white supremacy throughout the state. Wilmington received special attention due to the city’s size, the largest in the state, and the fact that the African American population out-numbered the whites by just over 2,500.[1]

The white businessmen of Wilmington held a meeting with the Republican Governor of North Carolina Daniel L. Russell who hailed from Wilmington.At this meeting, leading Democrat James Sprunt brokered an agreement with Governor Russell that resulted in a “deletion of the Republican slate.”[2] Republican incumbent Charles Norwood stated that that he would not run because “it was evident to him that a race war was being stirred up.”[3]

The African American population of Wilmington did not contest the removal of a Republican candidate. Governor Russell agreed, and the Democrats won unopposed.

Part of the white supremacy campaign that caused tension in Wilmington was an editorial written by Alexander Manly, owner of the daily Record. The article published August 18, 1898 was the match that set the town on fire. Manly’s article written in response to Mrs. Felton’s speech made in Tybee, Georgia on August 12, 1897 that was reprinted in the Morning Star on August 18, 26, 1898. The speech contended that lynching should be used as long as white women on farms were not properly protected from African American men.  She claimed that African Americans voted the way white men manipulated them and until their franchise is removed lynching would continue. Felton claimed the right to franchise emboldened the African Americans; therefore they thought themselves equal to white men. Manly’s article responded that a large percentage of the claims of rape of white women by black men were lies contrived to cover up a consensual affairs that once light was shed on the white woman simply cried rape. Manly claimed that white women were attracted to African American men the same as white men were to African American women and that whites should teach their men purity.[4]

Manly handed the Democratic Party the victory they desperately wanted on a silver platter. The Raleigh News and Observer ran portions of Manly’s editorial until the election. Manly’s editorial focused on poor rural women and the Democratic Party saw this as a way to win that population over.[5]   

Trouble started in earnest the day after the election. Hugh MacRae called for a mass meeting of white men via the Wilmington Messenger.  The mass meeting took place at ten in the morning in the Court House with Alfred Waddell reading the White Man’s Declaration of Independence. It proclaimed that Alexander Manly must be expelled and his printing presses halted. They called for the resignations of the Mayor and Chief of Police. A committee of twenty-five was designated to carry out these proclamations. The committee called together the African American leaders of Wilmington, read them the declaration, and gave them twelve hours to notify Manly and reply if they would use their influence to help remove him.  If no answer was received by 7:30 A.M. on November 10, 1898, the committee would expel Manly by force.[6]

Seven thirty dawned on November 10, 1898 with no answer from the African American leaders. Waddell and the committee of twenty-five waited until eight thirty and proceeded to march to Manly’s office with an estimated mob of about five hundred. Manly had already fled by the time Waddell arrived. After receiving no answer, the mob battered down the door; the morning ended with Manly’s office burnt to the ground. Word spread and African American men left their jobs at the cotton compress filling the streets.[7]

While it is true that an African American was the first to fire a shot that day, it must be kept in mind that very few African Americans were armed and every white man on the street carried a Winchester or pistol.[8] The ensuing fire fight left two white men wounded and two African American men dead. A running gun battle ensued that left, debatably, 14 African American men dead. Only a total of three white men were wounded throughout the riot. At mid-day Waddell requested that the Mayor assemble the Board of Aldermen. Waddell and the committee of twenty-five demanded the Mayor and Chief of Police resign, while the Mayor put up a weak protest he agreed to resign, due to fear of the gathering mob. The Board of Aldermen promptly resigned one by one and as one resigned a member from Waddell’s group was voted in. After every seat on the Board had been replaced, the Mayor resigned and Waddell was voted in and took the oath of Mayor of Wilmington. The Chief of Police resigned and their revolution was complete. The only thing left to do was to banish those whites they blamed for the black Republicans politics, as well as the leaders of the African American community.

[1] H. Leon Prather Sr., “We Have Taken a City”, Democracy Betrayed, eds. David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 16

[2] LaRae Sikes Umfleet, A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (Raleigh NC: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2009), 105

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 64

[5] Ibid. 65.

[6] Ibid. 77.

[7] Ibid., 87

[8] Ibid. 88.