RALEIGH, N.C. — Nov. 10 marks 125 years since the Wilmington Massacre, when white supremacists murdered many of the city’s Black leaders and forced others to leave town.
Spectrum News 1 spoke with a woman whose great-grandmother witnessed the massacre and a historian about the impact the insurrection still has on North Carolina.
What You Need To Know
- Nov. 10 marks 125 years since the Wilmington Massacre, when white supremacists murdered many of the city’s Black leaders and forced others to leave town
- Cynthia Brown’s great-grandmother Athalia Howe was 12 when the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 changed the face of the state
- Historians say the coup targeted African American neighborhoods, killing the people who lived there. They say it was a result of the state’s white Southern Democrats leading a mob of white men to overthrow the legally elected biracial government
Cynthia Brown looked at pictures of her great-grandmother, Athalia Howe, who was 12 when the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 changed the face of the state.
Brown was about 7 when her grandmother had a recollection of the incident decades later.
“She grabbed my wrist, and she says again, if it ever happens again, run. And it was my right wrist, and I didn’t know what to make of it,” Brown said.
It wasn’t until years later that Brown learned from her father that her great-grandmother was referring to the Wilmington Massacre. Historians say it’s the only successful coup d’état in American history.
“What they saw were the red shirts, the red shirts were the white insurrectionists, and they were on a wagon pulling, I call it a Gatling gun, rapid fire guns,” Brown said.
Not all of the details about what happened that day are clear, but much of the history is preserved at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, where Jan Davidson is a historian.
More than 50% of New Hanover County’s population during that time was prominently African American, and many were in political power.
“There was this political movement called Fusion that put Populists and Republicans together and helped change the balance of power in North Carolina as a whole, and in response to that, the Democratic Party said, 'We need to take power back — how are we going to do it? We’re going to do it by inflaming racial hatred,'” Davidson said.
Historians say a mob marched into African American neighborhoods, killing residents.
They say it was a result of the state’s white Southern Democrats leading a mob of white men to overthrow the legally-elected biracial government.
Elected officials, who were mostly African American, were forced to resign and were replaced by white supremacists.
Davidson says Alexander Manly’s prosperous Black newspaper, the Daily Record in New Hanover County, was at the center of the 1898 massacre.
This stemmed from Manly’s response to a controversial article in August 1898 that suggested African American women and white men had interracial relationships that were consensual.
“It was a pushback against another article that said African American men were horrible and were out to do bad things so he’s in a situation where he published a response that’s then picked up by white press of North Carolina and used to further inflame racial hatred,” Davidson said.
Historians say on Nov. 10, 1898, the Daily Record was attacked by a white mob and set on fire.
The day after the election, Democrats unveiled a document called the White Declaration of Independence.
Brown is a historian at St. Stephen AME Church in Wilmington, where there’s a preserved copy of the declaration from the next day’s newspaper.
“They talk here about having good employment and having services and so forth and that those things need to, quote, 'be taken from the negro families and given to the whites,'” Brown said.
The declaration also demanded Manly leave town.
Many believe the 1898 massacre had long-term consequences, even until this day.
Historians are making strides to help the community move forward by talking about the massacre, a conversation that many say was swept under the rug for so long.
“We no longer call this event a riot here, we call it a white supremacist massacre and coup, and that is something that has happened in the last decade,” Davidson said. “I had moved from a great career from the years I lived in Chicago to wanting to come back to Wilmington, and I felt with regards to 1898 again, if I saw evil rise like that again, I would confront it."
Davidson says the memorial that a group worked together to build is another way the city is working to help people heal from the trauma of 1898.