Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Wilmington Riots and Coup D'Etat

Coup d'etat leader, A.M. Waddell

The "Fighting Editor" and
bank-owner John Mitchell, Jr. 

These days there's a lot going on in North Carolina politics. The Republican-dominated legislature has enacted a far-right agenda, "tearing down years of progress in public education, tax policy, racial equality in the courtroom and access to the ballot," wrote the New York Times in July 2013.

This is not the first time in North Carolina history that a regressive agenda has wiped out years of progressive reform.

In 1898, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, with a population that was majority African-American. Black businessmen dominated the restaurant and barbershop trade, owned tailor shops and drug stores, and served as firemen, policemen, and civil servants. "A good feeling between the races existed as long as white Democrats controlled the state politically," according to

That started to changed in the early 1890s, when the Republican party formed a coalition with progressive Democrats and started to win on election day. Fusionists, as they were called, were committed to re-writing the state's election laws and increasing black participation in state and local politics. Fusionists elected Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell in 1896. (North Carolina wouldn't see another Republican governor until 1973.)

Overcoming widespread voter intimidation, in 1898 voters elected a biracial fusionist government to office in Wilmington. Though the mayor and two-thirds of the aldermen were white, calls of "negro domination" permeated the media. A violent mob, led by the former gubernatorial candidate Alfred Moore Wadell (who lost to Mr. Russell), swarmed the streets.

On November 10, Waddell and his mob indiscriminately killed dozens of unarmed black citizens, and forced the white Republican Mayor Silas P. Wright and other members of the city government (both black and white) to resign. They installed a new city council that elected Waddell to take over as mayor by 4 p.m. that day. Appeals to President William McKinley to intervene were ignored, letting stand the only successful coup d'etat in United States history.

Further north in Virginia, newspaperman and bank-owner John Mitchell Jr. -- aka "The Fighting Editor" -- was appalled by the the events in Wilmington. Born a slave in 1863, Mitchell was editor of the Richmond Planet for over 40 years, served on the Richmond City Council, and in 1902 founded the Merchant Savings Bank.

In an editorial in his paper after the Wilmington riots, Mitchell reminds us that not all perspectives deserve to be heard, but those standing for justice and peace must not be silent.

The outrageous happenings at Wilmington, NC almost surpasses comprehension. Never in the history of this country have we seen or heard anything like it before. A mob takes possession of the city, and without due cause murders twenty-five inoffensive and unarmed colored people, drives hundreds to the woods to starve and die, forces the city officials to leave the city and then duly installs themselves in their place without the shadow of an excuse of the sanction of the law.

A.M. Wadell has by treasonable practices declared himself mayor and this too in the face of the laws of the state of North Carolina. Who made him mayor? From whom did he secure his authority? Was it from the hands of the white lawyers, the doctors, the merchants and preachers, who while inciting the mobs to deeds of murderous violence, under our laws particep criminals--became murderers themselves?

This is the logical result of compromising with wrong. It is an object lesson to the thoughtful. All of the good white people are not dead, but in the neighborhood of Wilmington they are painfully silent.

It's comforting to know that in refusing to remain silent, today's Moral Mondays protesters have heeded the lessons of history. Like them on Facebook! :).

Further Reading:

Melton McLauren, UNC Wilmington professor, "Commemorating Wilmington's Racial Violence of 1898: From Individual to Collective Memory 

Ann Field Alexander's excellent biography of John Mitchell Jr. is available at Amazon! Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the Fighting Editor

Read's recounting of the Wilmington Riots as part of their Jim Crow series.
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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.