by Brittany Raymer
Digital Writer & Editor
How the Wilmington Insurrection has been mostly forgotten
The little-known Wilmington Insurrection was the only time in American history where an elected government in the United States was forcibly overthrown.
Few seemed to know or care about what happened in North Carolina in November 1898, but that all changed when a group of men and women stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. As political pundits debated whether a mob tried to overthrow the government and halt the confirmation process of Joe Biden as president-elect, there was renewed interest in the nation’s only successful coup d’état: The Wilmington Insurrection.
By any means, Wilmington in the late 1890s was seemingly an example of racial harmony and represented what the country could look like in the future.
Sitting on North Carolina’s southern coast, Wilmington was at one time the state’s largest city and had a burgeoning and successful black middle class in a post-Civil War and pre-Jim Crow-era South. Led by the Fusion party, the city government was biracial and represented members of both the Republican and Populist parties.
That all changed on November 10, 1898, when a group of white supremacists, frustrated by the black community’s increasing prosperity in the city and the state, took control of the government at gunpoint.
The insurrectionists also destroyed the city’s only black-owned local newspaper, The Daily Record, and led to the deaths of at least 14 to 60 black men. An additional 2,100 people fled the city, with many camping out in swamps before abandoning the area entirely.
A century later, the official North Carolina Race Riot Commission found that the government failed at all levels “to adequately respond to the violence or to reverse the political overthrow.”
The Insurrection left a legacy of decline in its wake. Black families who remained in Wilmington experienced a decrease in economic prosperity, increased neighborhood segregation and a decline in literacy rates.
Though it was undoubtedly a historic event, the violence in Wilmington in 1898 has mostly been forgotten.
A Vox documentary series covering the Insurrection even reported claims from residents that the local library stonewalled their efforts to investigate or research the incident.
North Carolina did not greenlight a formal inquest until Florida and Oklahoma started investigating their own historically uncomfortable events, the Rosewood Massacre and the Tulsa Race Riot, respectively, in the late 1990s.
But understanding history is critically important, regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable it might be for one group or another.
As part of an effort to increase the public’s knowledge of this important historical event, the John Locke Foundation is currently shooting a short film that takes place during the Wilmington Insurrection. Entitled “In the Pines,” it aims to raise awareness about these events and illustrate the tragedy of the 1898 insurrection through a captivating, fast-paced love story.