1898 Wilmington Race Riot

Noted Historians and the 1898 Conflict:

There are two North Carolina historians whose work best records the events of 1898 Wilmington, Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton and Robert Diggs Wimberly Conner.  Mr. Hamilton was a resident of Wilmington with firsthand knowledge of the people and region.

Researcher Jerome McDuffie on Hamilton and Conner:

“the two professional historians interpretations contended that black misrule plagued Wilmington and that there was a concerted effort to force social equality between the races upon Wilmington’s white citizens. The City’s white population patiently endured a corrupt government staffed by ignorant blacks. Whites in Wilmington lived in constant fear for their lives and property, and they endured (these) conditions until November 10, 1898, when they resorted to violence in an effort to remedy the situation.

Hamilton devoted extensive space to the violence in his volume, “North Carolina Since 1860”. In this book published in 1919, he contended that Negro office-holding in 1898 could generally be described as being attended “by violence, injustice, dishonesty; always inefficiency, incompetence and partisanship, accompanied by a deadly blight upon all progress.” He vividly depicted conditions in Wilmington as being “indescribably bad. Murder, burglary, arson, with the threat of rape, stared the people in the face and since there was no protection in law, men as always sought it outside the law.” Hamilton claimed that white Wilmingtonians “exercised great self-restraint and bided their time, none the less determined however, to settle the account at a later time.” He stressed that a 1898 progressed, Wilmington’s black citizens “were becoming more lawless and were heavily armed.”

In 1929, Conner’s two-volume work, “North Carolina: Rebuilding An Ancient Common-wealth, 1854-1925” appeared. In this work Conner described the black public officials in Wilmington in 1898 as men “whose ideas of justice were derived chiefly from the law of the jungle.” He positively asserted that “neither life nor property nor woman’s honor was secure” in Wilmington prior to November 10, 1898. According to Conner this condition of fear stemmed from the fact that (the) City’s Negro population failed to observe the basic laws which regulated society.

In 1951, Helen G. Edmonds, a black historian, attempted to correct the Hamilton-Conner interpretation on the white-supremacy campaign and the violence in Wilmington. Edmonds believed that a “more careful investigation of the available information” would result in “some substantial revisions”.

As McDuffie states that Edmonds gained access to black sources and interviewing several blacks who were present during the unrest, he claims that in this hearsay and biased manner “Edmonds presented a more balanced view of what had happened”, irregardless of the existing facts.

McDuffie continues

"The publication of Edmond’s account of the violence by the University of North Carolina Press brought and immediate reaction from Wilmington’s white community. Louis T. Moore, Chairman of the New Hanover County Historical Commission vehemently protested the Edmonds account of the violence. In a three page typewritten letter to the Director of the UNC Press, Moore strongly asserted that “there was no excuse for such a production by either white or colored writer”. He informed the Director that Edmond’s book had “resurrected racial ill-will, misunder-standing, resentment and eventual bloodshed.” The Chairman of the New Hanover County Historical Commission complained that Edmond’s seventeen pages dealing with the violent events in Wilmington were “a calumniation against this community”, and he wanted to present “the truth as against untruth, as portrayed by the alleged historical record produced by the authoress.”

In criticizing Edmonds, Moore contended that “she did not consult the usual sources of factual and printed information”…..and “he claimed that Edmonds had failed to reveal that the burning of Wilmington “had been defiantly threatened by ignorant Negroes under the leadership of depraved and unprincipled whites from the north”. This blatant failure to present the known facts, according the Moore, made the publication of the book “ill-timed, ill-advised, indefensible, defamatory and calumniating”

As McDuffie uncovered, the white population in Wilmington wanted to restore good government and destroy the corruption created by 33 years of reconstruction politics. That same white population greatly feared the return of Republican corruption and misrule experienced before, and they took action to thwart that terror. While it is true that reconstruction was thought to have ended in 1877, the majority black population of post-war Wilmington which was patronized by the northern carpetbag politicians, acted to suppress the white citizens who paid 95% of the property taxes.  The 33 years of fighting corruption with corruption ended on November 10, 1898.


Politics in Wilmington and New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1865-1900
1979, Kent State University Doctoral Dissertation
Jerome Anthony McDuffie


Email: editor@1898wilmington.hypermart.net