A mob of white supremacists armed with rifles and pistols marched on City Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Think of a coup d’etat and images of a far-flung banana republic likely come to mind. So it might come as a surprise that it happened here in the United States — just once, in 1898.
A mob of white supremacists armed with rifles and pistols marched on City Hall in Wilmington, N.C., on Nov. 10 and overthrew the elected local government, forcing both black and white officials to resign and running many out of town. The coup was the culmination of a race riot in which whites torched the offices of a black newspaper and killed a number of black residents. No one is sure how many African-Americans died that day, but some estimates say as many as 90 were killed.
“Some of the elderly African-Americans told my stepfather that the Cape Fear River was running red with blood,” Bertha Todd, a teacher, recalls in producer Alan Lipke’s documentary series, “Between Civil War and Civil Rights.”
Especially chilling was the fact that the insurgency had been carefully planned — a conspiracy by powerful white Democrats.
Southern Democrats lost their grip on power in North Carolina in 1894 and plotted to wrest control from the biracial Republican Party in 1898 elections. They campaigned on a platform of white supremacy and protecting their women from black men.
As the Nov. 8, 1898, vote approached, whites in Wilmington mobilized. They held supremacist rallies and parades and organized militias of “Red Shirts” to intimidate blacks from voting. The statewide election restored Democrats to power, and two days later, the white supremacists descended on Wilmington’s City Hall.
Their leader, Col. Alfred Moore Waddell, had publicly threatened in a pre-election speech to “choke the current of the Cape Fear River” with black bodies, according to a 2006 report chronicling the events by the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission. After the coup, Waddell was elected mayor of Wilmington.
North Carolina Democrats began passing a flurry of Jim Crow laws in 1899, and new voting restrictions further disenfranchised blacks through a poll tax and literacy test.
In “Between Civil War and Civil Rights,” George Rountree III reads from the memoir of his grandfather, a white civic leader in Wilmington who feared competition from blacks:
“The obvious test for intelligence was reading and writing. It would exclude all those immigrants that were coming into our country, at the rate of a million a year, until they had qualified themselves, and it would exclude a large number of ignorant and stupid Negroes until they had qualified themselves.”
But Southerners were careful to give the voting restrictions a veneer of legality, wrote William Everett Henderson, a Wilmington lawyer exiled by the coup. Henderson’s great-granddaughter, Lisa Adams, also appears in the documentary series and reads from his papers:
“So now we have bold and unscrupulous legislative enactments in open defiance of the national Constitution. And that last earthly tribunal, the U.S. Supreme Court, well knows the intent.”