by Brittany Raymer
Digital Writer & Editor
How a coastal North Carolina city became the site of America’s only coup d’etat
The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 is the only successful coup d’etat in American history. The event, which happened 124 years ago today, was the first and only time in this country that a lawfully elected government was overthrown by a violent force motivated by racism.
The Wilmington Insurrection, which has also been called the Wilmington Massacre and historically called the Wilmington Race Riot, happened during an interesting time in North Carolina politics. The 1890s saw the rise of what’s called Fusion politics, when differing political parties would unite behind some policies and political agendas.
In the Tar Heel State, it was the populist and the Republican parties who would ally together. Though they disagreed on national issues, like the gold standard and tariffs, they did agree on a lot of state related issues like education, voting rights and restoring the charter of the Farmers’ Alliance.
For the Democrats, this alliance was an issue. In the state legislature, the Democrats retaliated against the loss of their pick for governor, Elias Carr, by repealing the charter for the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance, which it blamed for the rise of the Populist Party. It also utilized its power over local governments to hamper the rise of Blacks or Republicans.
Through a series of backdoor dealings and an alliance between the Populist and Republican parties, the so-called Fusion alliance swept the state, securing control of the legislature, electing members of Congress and other statewide offices. Critically, the Fusion alliance included African Americans, who were elected to approximately 1,000 positions throughout the state.
This success left Democrats completely out of power, and deeply frustrated.
As the John Locke Foundation’s Dr. Troy Kickler explains, “Although Black Tar Heels were still underrepresented, the presence of black officials troubled Democratic white supremacists.”
It was during this confluence of racial and political tensions that the election of 1898 occurred.
Former Confederate officer and U.S. Congressman Alfred Moore Waddell ignited the flames by making a speech before the election demanding the removal of Republicans and Populists from power in Wilmington. He told the audience at Thalian Hall that white citizens should “choke the Cape Fear with carcasses” if necessary.
His comments were made in response to an editorial from the Black-owned Daily Record, which stated that “poor white men are careless in the matter of protecting their women” and that “our experience among poor white people in the country teaches us that women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than the white men with colored women.”
On November 10, 1898, Waddell led a mob of 500 White men to the Daily Record, where they invaded and torched the building. Quickly, the fire led to other parts of the city, causing thousands to flee.
The mob then marched to city hall where they forced Wilmington’s Republican Mayor Silas P. Wright and the rest of the city council, made up of White and Black members, to resign. Waddell then made himself major.
The violence that consumed the city claimed at least sixty lives, according to a state led investigation in 2006. All of the victims were Black, and some have estimated the truth death toll could be in the hundreds. Thousands also fled the city and took refuge in a swampy area, which could have led to more deaths.
The coup d’etat changed the city’s demographics, with African Americans being mostly forced out. Racist Jim Crow polices rose to prominence after that.
The Wilmington Insurrection is a stain on American history, and it took too long for the facts about that day to come to light. Sadly, after power of the city had been secured, those involved in the mob violence were written about as heroes not villains.
But that hasn’t stopped historians and family members of those caught up in the violence to discover the truth.