Understanding the context of the Wilmington Coup 125 years later

Published November 16, 2023

By Troy Kickler

(Editor's note: This piece was first published in Carolina Journal, November 19, 2023. Dr. Troy Kickler is Senior Fellow and Managing Director of the North Carolina History Curriculum Project at the John Locke Foundation. He holds an M.S. in Social Education from North Carolina A&T State University and a Ph.D. in History from the  University of Tennessee.)

Today, 125 years ago, Wilmington was ablaze and a sitting government was overthrown. One historian has described the events of Nov. 10, 1898, “as the most serious incident of racial violence in the history of North Carolina.” It has been called the Wilmington coup-d’etat. Some refer to it as the Wilmington Massacre. 

Some historical context will be helpful to understand the events of that day. America was changing, becoming a global power, during the 1890s. First, in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his frontier thesis at the American Historical Association. Americans had conquered the frontier, and the frontier experience had helped form a distinct American identity. In Turner’s mind, America was exceptional because of the rugged individualism cultivated from the frontier experience.

Second, as historian C. Vann Woodward argues in his 1957 classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the country was experiencing the nadir of race relations: the Jim Crow Era. The era lasted approximately from 1890 to 1960. In 1954, the US Supreme Court desegregated public schools with the milestone Brown v. Board of Education decision. Woodward wondered whether laws or court decisions could alter people’s attitudes, or if a culture need to change before certain laws are enacted.

Third, America was becoming more urban, although it would be 1920 before the urban population outnumbered the rural population. The demographic landscape was changing.

Fourth, the United States was becoming more professional. Various associations, such as American Historical Association, American Medical Association, and the American Bar Association, were growing. In some ways, America was resurrecting quasi-medieval guilds.

Fifth, America was emerging as a global power. For three months in 1898, the Spanish-American War occurred. This “splendid little war” had massive results. The US gained territory, including Guam, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. Spain also withdrew claims on Cuba. As a result, the United States gained an economic advantage in the Caribbean and in the Pacific. America was now a player in international relations.  

In 1890s North Carolina, Fusion Politics was happening. It had a short yet influential life, spanning from 1894 to 1900. Fusionism was the cooperation between Populists and Republicans. The Populist Party was on the rise — 17% of the NC electorate had joined the third party. The existence of the third party put Democratic numbers below 50% of the entire electorate in the state.

So, many Republicans had a thought: Why don’t we cooperate with the Populists? There were disagreements, to be sure, between the parties, yet both worked to unseat Democrats. The two parties agreed that either a Republican or a Populist (not both) would run against a Democrat. (Ironically, North Carolina Populists supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan for President, yet worked with Republicans at the state level.) They were successful.

Fusion politics sent a Populist Marion Butler and a Republican Jeter Pritchard to the US Senate. In 1896, Daniel Russell, a Republican, was elected as governor. Meanwhile, there were only 26 Democrats in the 120-member state House. Only seven were in the 50-member state Senate. Most statewide offices were in the hands of Populists and Republicans. These electoral successes prompted Democrats to start working to undo Fusionist gains. 

It is in this environment in which the events of Nov. 10, 1898, occurred. In his Wilmington Daily Record, editor Alex Manly published editorials that dealt with controversial topics of the day, including interracial sexual relations. Unsurprisingly, the paper’s contents upset many.

The Democratic Party started to overturn Fusionist rule in 1898. A para-military group, the Red Shirts, reminiscent of the Klan, started intimidating black voters and thereby limited Republican votes. Led by future US Senator Furnifold Simmons, the Democratic Party started using identity politics in what became known as the “White Supremacy Campaign.”  

Emboldened with electoral success, Wilmington Democrats, in particular, worked to punish Alex Manly. Briefly this is what happened: A mob burned the offices of Manly’s newspaper. More violence ensued, and people were slaughtered. The death toll ranges from 60 to 250 people. When it was over with, the elected Republican Fusionist government of the city was overthrown, and a white Democratic mayor and council took its place.  

In short, the events of Nov. 10, 1898, are described as the only successful coup d’etat in United States history.