Turn-of-the-century America was very different from the present, to say the least. New factories, foundries and ships belched steam and smoke in and around America’s bustling ports, with elites and the growing middle class reaping the rewards of the nation’s rapid industrialization.
The port city of Wilmington, N.C. was no different; new shopfronts popped up on Market and Front Streets, and extravagant Victorian mansions were built on the surrounding roadways. Amid all of this prosperity, unfortunately, lurked a dark undercurrent of the fledgling institutions of the Jim Crow South as well as tensions between whites and their new freedman neighbors.
This tension and animosity exploded on Nov. 10, 1898. On that day, a mob of white supremacists overthrew the democratically elected government of Wilmington and replaced it with a junta. A local Black-owned newspaper was burned to the ground, and as many as 60 local African Americans were killed during the attack. The insurrection that occurred remains the only coup d’etat to occur on American soil.
The United States has a poor reputation for sweeping racially inspired violence under the rug. While things have certainly gotten better recently, coverage of such events used to be dismal at best. The 1921 Tulsa massacre, during which as many as 300 African Americans were killed and more than 35 city blocks were razed, was all but covered up by the white community there.
An 1873 riot in Colfax, La. culminated in the execution of likely more than 100 African Americans in that community. And yet, a monument still stands commemorating the event as the “end of carpetbagging misrule” in the town.
We feel as though the Wilmington Massacre should not be another Colfax, or another Tulsa: a dark memory kept in a closet somewhere, ignored because it is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge. We should instead bring it to the forefront of our consciousness, especially now when political divisiveness could create an environment ripe for politically or racially motivated violence. Especially now when one of the buildings at our school, Aycock Hall, is still named after an instigator of that maelstrom of violence.
We encourage you to learn more about the massacre and its root causes. LeRae S. Umfleet’s "A Day of Blood" is an authoritative source on the riots, as its author was also the principal researcher for the state’s 2006 “1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report.” The Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection also houses a plethora of other sources concerning the massacre.
Living in the South forces you to accept a number of uncomfortable and unfortunate truths. Past Southern leaders and citizens participated in and prolonged the existence of a system that disproportionately affected the African-American populace. It was that system that caused massive bloodshed in Colfax, Tulsa and Wilmington. We have undoubtedly come a long way since then, but that does not mean that large-scale politically or racially charged violence couldn’t once again descend upon our cities and towns — in fact, it has, in cities like Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.
It is up to us, those in the present day, to keep ourselves informed about the terrible events that occurred in Wilmington in November 1898, so that we can ensure that they never happen again.