Written by Maeve McGuire
Cover image from Alamy.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup d’etat on January 6, 2021, on the floors of the United States Congress, we are reminded of the fragility of democracy and the legacy of political violence in America. This recent event models events spanning back hundreds of years, including the only successful coup d’etat in the US: the Wilmington Pogrom. Similar to those who stormed the Capitol, the terrorists who took part in the Wilmington Pogrom were fueled by a white supremacist ideology, and sought to attempt to regain socio-political control from the duly-elected political party. This ideology has always been salient in the United States; to a great extent, it has been cemented into the foundation of the nation. Drawing similarities between the two events highlights how little the United States has evolved, as racist ideologies such as the “Lost Cause” still “determine how the past was celebrated at the community level” (McLaurin 41), romanticizing white supremacy and excusing heinous crimes against Americans. These ideologies are taught across the United States and neglect ugly incidents in America’s past in order to protect its image. The insurrection on January 6th is not an isolated event, but merely another example of white supremacist violence that has been perpetuated since the birth of the nation. Events like the Wilmington Pogrom are often intentionally neglected in order to create a specific narrative that serves the purpose of protecting American ideology. This neglect prevents America from confronting its violent past, and allows for the continuation of white supremacist political violence.
Racial violence has existed in the United States since its inception. But American racial violence is often minimized or unspoken, allowing it to remain an integral part of society. The Wilmington Pogrom is one such example, as this tremendously brutal assault on the Black community in Wilmington is little known. A pogrom is defined as an “assault, condoned by officials, to destroy a community defined by ethnicity, race, or some other social identity” (Nightingale xi). This occurred in Wilmington, wherein Black men, women, and children were meticulously hunted down and systematically murdered, as whites successfully overthrew a recently installed local government in favour of their leaders. The Pogrom highlights how deeply rooted white supremacy is within the United States, and that the American government laid idle in the face of racial violence on its own soil.
The Wilmington Pogrom stemmed from the buildup of intense racial hatred following the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction period in the United States. The Reconstruction era saw unprecedented Black civic participation, as the American military was tasked with protecting Black Americans from white supremacists who threatened or used violence in order to curb Black rights. Black socio-economic growth during this period was unprecedented, although still limited. Wilmington, however, was “one of the few pockets of Reconstruction where progress by Blacks had raised some of their people to prominent positions in cultural and political life” (Nash 153). This progress was short lived, and ended quickly after the Reconstruction period, as white Democrats quickly forced themselves back into power and systematically marginalized African Americans. The Democratic Party felt threatened by Black economic and political power, and ran on a platform to curb Black civic participation.
The Democrats successfully held power in North Carolina until 1894, when the Fusionist movement swept the state’s houses. The Fusionist movement combined both the Republican and Populist Party under one platform, and created a majority over the Democrats. The Populists were popular among North Carolinians because of their rhetoric, which supported the economic interests of both Black and white farmers. North Carolinian farmers were facing extreme levels of poverty, as the South still lay largely ruined after the war, and multiple national economic panics made crop prices drop to extremely low levels. Traditionally, the Democrats ignored farmers in favor of the Southern gentry, but this proved to be a fatal political mistake as the support of Black and white farmers pushed the Fusionist Party into power. Consequently, the Fusionists, whose political success relied heavily on the Black vote, passed laws in the state legislature that “made voter registration less restrictive, inspiring a significant increase in Black political participation” (Kirshenbaum 7). The 1896 election saw these rights further expanded in North Carolina, rewriting existing statutes in the law to protect African Americans’ suffrage in particular. That year, the Fusionist party won decisive counties and cities throughout the state, including Wilmington.
However, the rise of the Fusionist party was also accompanied with the growth of the “Red Shirts”. Many poor whites, who resented racial progress and the competition that was facilitated by Reconstruction, became affiliated with the “Red Shirts”, a white supremacist terrorist group who openly intimidated non-Democratic voters in order to support their agenda. The 1896 election sparked a Democrat counterattack in 1898, using Wilmington as a symbol of “Black domination” (McLaurin 36) in order to curry anxiety in white voters. The Democratic campaign employed a “sexually charged racial rhetoric” (McLaurin 36) that used the ‘Black male rapist’ trope in order to stoke the flames of racial hatred across Wilmington. Notable Democratic leaders harkened back to this trope in order to justify violence against Black communities. Most often, white terrorists executed and lynched African Americans in order to “terrorize the larger Black community [...] [and] reinforce racial boundaries” (Clegg 30). Black men were especially targeted, as white supremacists carried out mass murder in order to fortify the American racial caste.
This trope was used by Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent Southern white supremacist and suffragist, to justify lynching innocent men, women, and children. Felton asserted in a 1897 address that lynchings were righteous if it was in the name of protecting white womanhood. Black communities were horrified by her words, including Editor-in-Chief of Wilmington’s Daily Record, Alexander Manly. Manly was a prominent Black leader in Wilmington and owned the only Black newspaper in North Carolina. He used his platform to write an editorial refuting Felton’s claims and suggested that “some white women were actually attracted to Black men” (Kirshenbaum 10). Manly’s words, combined with the already heightened political tensions, were the spark that the Red Shirts and other white supremacists needed to inflict the most horrific racial violence onto the Wilmington community. The Democratic Party successfully combined “the fear of aggressive Black male sexuality and the ideal of white female purity to create a sexualized and gendered political rhetoric” (Kirshenbaum 6) that incited the white community to violence.
Although estimates of how many people were murdered are shaky, it is believed that hundreds were massacred, with “anywhere from 14 to 250 people” (Kirshenbaum 6) dying on the first night alone. Mostly African Americans were killed, along with prominent leaders of the Fusionist movement. People were burned out of their homes, shot in the streets, brutally assaulted, arrested, or forced into exile. The most widely targeted group of people were Black businessmen and women, as they were symbols of Black achievement in their communities and were the victims of white hate. Manly’s office was burned to the ground, many lay dead, and many more fled from their homes in fear. It was a “week of terror” (Nash 154), and the Naval Reserves meant to ensure peace were called a whole week after the mob violence was unleashed against the Black community of Wilmington.
The lack of response from both the state and federal level about the Wilmington Pogrom is telling of how deeply rooted white supremacy is within the American political system. Neither the governor of North Carolina nor President William McKinley did anything to prevent the violence from occurring. Both of their actions were “muted and insufficient” (Clegg 48) in the face of abhorrent violence. American leaders failed their most basic responsibility of ensuring the protection of their citizens and preventing a massacre on American soil. Both the governor and the president shied away from sending troops to stop the massacre, opting to only deploy the Navy after the violence ended. The American government failed to offer its people basic protection, and let terrorists get away with political intimidation and murder.
The Wilmington Pogrom had consequential effects on the Black community for decades to come. As the Democrats either murdered or ran the majority of the Fusionists out of town, they were able to win the 1898 election. Those ‘elected’ Democrats formalized Black disenfranchisement under a bill in 1900, with the number of registered Black voters plummeting from 120,000 in 1890 to 6,100 in 1902. The very same officials codified Jim Crow regulations, and its ripple effects can still be felt today by the Black community. They sealed off Black rights and civic participation, and created a “riot generation” (Rachleff 573) that lived with the consequences of the Wilmington Pogrom for all their lives.
Democracy failed the Black community of Wilmington in 1898. The US government, tasked with protecting its citizens, failed to do so. The legacy of this failure is still felt today. This should not be lost on us in 2021, given the nation’s current political backdrop. When we examine the history of the United States, we cannot leave events such as the Wilmington Pogrom out of the picture. The United States’ reckoning with its past is needed now more than ever, not only to shed light on the gravity of the current situation, but in order to begin to heal.
Claude A. Clegg III, Troubled Ground, University of Illinois Press 2010, Chapter 2, "Old Demons of the New South”. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
Kirshenbaum, Andrea Meryl. “‘The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina’: Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.” Southern Cultures, vol. 4, no. 3, 1998, pp. 6–30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26235595. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
McLaurin, Melton A. “Commemorating Wilmington's Racial Violence of 1898: From Individual to Collective Memory.” Southern Cultures, vol. 6, no. 4, 2000, pp. 35–57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26236941. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.
Nash, June. “The Cost of Violence.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1973, pp. 153–183. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2783893. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
Nightingale, Carl H.. Segregation : A Global History of Divided Cities, University of Chicago Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mcgill/detail.action?docID=913744. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021
Rachleff, Peter J. “Recollecting Racism.” Reviews in American History, vol. 28, no. 4, 2000, pp. 569–575. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30031204. Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.