1898 Wilmington Race Riot


              The 1898 Wilmington Conflict:


Republican Governor Daniel Russell

                                                 Context and Overview

Though it is very difficult to reduce the history of the 1898 conflict in Wilmington to a brief summary, the salient issues that brought it about can be highlighted and put into a general order. Much less a “race riot” than a political conflict involving racial dynamics in North Carolina, it is generally understood to be caused by the pen of a radical black newspaper editor who was cautioned by people of his own race to cease his racial agitation, lest it result in violence. While the potential for racial conflict was very near the surface after the installation of a Republican governor in 1896, violence did not occur until black residents fired upon white residents intent upon silencing the radical newspaper of Alexander Manly.

A broad understanding of the conflict must begin with the end of the War Between the States and its Reconstruction aftermath, and realizing that only 33 politically tumultuous years separated 1865 from 1898. And as that war was a struggle for political independence and autonomy on the part of North Carolina and its people, its end witnessed an alien political class from the North dominating the governance of the State, and interposing itself between two races that formerly coexisted peacefully, albeit in a primarily master-slave relationship. Fundamentally, the newly-enfranchised former slaves played an important part in enabling and sustaining the Northern Republican political supremacy in the South in general, and North Carolina in particular, that would eventually provide the political basis for the 1898 racial confrontation in Wilmington.

The end of the war witnessed a massive influx of ex-slaves entering Wilmington, fleeing burnt and plundered plantations and following the Northern army in search of food. The establishment of a Freedman’s Bureau office in Wilmington helped ensure that they remained, and this created a majority black population in the city. In 1867, 58% of the New Hanover county population and 63% of the electorate was black. By 1870, Wilmington’s population was 13,446 people---5526 white and 7920 black, and by 1880, the population climbed to 17,350 people---6888 white and 10, 462 black. The advent of Congressional Reconstruction disenfranchised most white citizens after the war, which left the selection of representatives in the hands of an illiterate black electorate led by unscrupulous Northern political opportunists known as carpetbaggers.

The Wilmington Race Riot of 1865:
A true “race-riot” in Wilmington began on August 1, 1865 when white policeman Samuel Wycoff arrested a black Union soldier for disorderly conduct. The following night armed mobs of black soldiers and residents roamed the city and ambushed police as they made their rounds, murdering Officer Thomas DeVane. On August 12, a letter was sent by Mayor Dawson to the governor warning of a planned “conspiracy among the colored race to murder the whites to get their lands and homes.” This fear among the white population and lack of federal control over black soldiers resulted in the resignation of the entire Wilmington police force, municipal government and mayor. All were quickly reinstated by the Northern commander in Wilmington, who then gave city officials the proper authority to deal with rioting black soldiers.

Republican Corruption Sustained:
The black vote was relentlessly pursued by the radical Republicans in order to ensure the ascendancy of their party in the South, and the notorious Union League served as the terrorist arm of the Republican party. The League inflamed blacks with tales of re-enslavement if Democrats were elected and encouraged them to burn the homes and farms of white farmers in order to intimidate them away from the polls. In addition, the rampant political corruption and extravagance which was bankrupting the State was sustained by black voters keeping carpetbag politicians like George Z. French in office in exchange for bought votes, and well-paying government employment.

The return of “home rule” in 1870 brought Democratic (Conservative) control to the North Carolina Legislature, but the eastern part of the State and cities like Wilmington remained Republican strongholds due to the large black populations who were controlled by the carpetbaggers. In an effort to reduce Republican representation in New Hanover county in 1875, the new county of Pender was created out of the northern two-thirds of the former. Knowing well the corrupt politics of the alien Republican politicians, the Democrat/Conservative politicians of North Carolina were forced to resort to previously unknown methods with which to keep them out of power, and blunt the bloc-vote of the new black voting population who would either sell their votes outright, or be easily manipulated by Northern Republicans.
The reasons why white North Carolinians so strongly resisted the Fusion government of Republicans and Populists in 1894-1898 become understandable in light of the carnival of corruption and criminality experienced under Republican rule from 1867-1870.

National Politics Affect Wilmington Politics:
In the decade prior to 1898, a seesaw rivalry between the two main political parties saw Republican Benjamin Harrison assume the presidency in 1889 after his party had been ousted by the first term of Grover Cleveland. The Republicans were desperate to regain control of government and the spoils system, and of Harrison’s victory it was said that it “was a combination of good organization and corruption. They bought the votes they needed to win in one of the key States, Harrison’s own Indiana.” In Democrat Grover Cleveland’s home State of New York, the Republicans “dealt and bribed their way into an affiliation with Tammany Hall, which was only too glad to devote its machinery to the defeat of the hated reformer…” To win the 1888 election, large sums were made available to State Republican machines in order to buy votes and influence. Republican’s bid high for Negro delegates at the convention of 1888. Reports of Negroes “imported (to the polls) by trainloads across Mason and Dixon’s line were heard at many points…(and) The very graveyards were robbed of the names on their tombstones.”
Admitting who he really worked for, Harrison commented after his election that “When I came to power I found that the party managers had taken it all to themselves. I could not name my own Cabinet. They had sold out every place to pay the election expenses.” In a common patronage appointment in repayment for black votes delivered, Harrison selected black Republican John C. Dancy as Wilmington Collector of Customs to become the highest paid person in North Carolina.

With Republicans regaining the White House, Democrats in the South, and North Carolina in particular, feared a return to oppressive radical social policies they endured in the past. To underscore this was Maine Senator Blaine’s proposed “Force Bill” that threatened federal intervention into alleged election fraud in Southern States, despite widespread election fraud and corruption in various Northern States.

Populists, McKinley and Daniel Russell:
The economic recession that caused a loss in confidence in the second Cleveland administration helped fuel the Farmers Alliance and the eventual Populist Party that combined with Republicans to elect William McKinley as president. Along with the Populist votes, McKinley was assisted by a war chest modestly estimated at $3.5 million, some say up to $16.5 million; money flowed in from Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan, Chicago meat-packing houses, and even New York Life and Equitable Insurance companies. William H. Hyde of the latter company testified later (in the Hughes investigation) that (his company) gave freely large portions of their clients’ premiums toward aiding the Republican campaign of 1896. The Democratic war chest amounted to a mere $425,000.

McKinley won the election with 271 to 176 electoral votes, but the popular vote totals revealed how close the contest was---7,102,246 to William Jennings Bryan’s 6, 492,559. Large employers came before their workers with gloomy warnings that if McKinley were defeated, business would dry up and they would be out of work. Large orders were given to iron manufacturers and shipbuilders “contingent” upon McKinley’s election.

“Men, vote as you please,” the head of Steinway Piano works is reported to have said, “but if Bryan is elected tomorrow the whistle will not blow Wednesday morning.”

Democratic party leader John P. Altgeld said afterward that the Democrats were “confronted by all the banks, all the Trusts, all the syndicates, all the corporations, all the great newspapers. (We) were confronted by everything money could buy, that boodle could debauch, or that fear of starvation could coerce.”

In North Carolina, the election of McKinley was mirrored by the election of political opportunist and erstwhile Republican Daniel Russell as governor on the strength of a Populist coalition with Republican voters. The charge of vote fraud was leveled at Republicans once again and the black voters of Wilmington and New Hanover County were repaid for their loyalty with party patronage----black Collector of Customs John C. Dancy regained his party-appointed position. The white population was expecting a return to the wholesale corruption and thievery that accompanied a carpetbag/scalawag political supremacy supported by black Republican voters who could swing an election.

Once the new Republican-Populist coalition dominated the State Legislature in 1894, the Wilmington City Charter was altered to effect a municipal government of 10 Aldermen---5 elected by voters and 5 appointed by the Governor to ensure absolute Republican control. In this way, democratic government was overthrown and although the citizens could vote for 5 aldermen, the Governor could negate their influence and dictate orders to the Wilmington mayor.

White Citizens Fear the Return of Republican Corruption:
The run-up to November 1898 was highlighted by the radical and racist newspaper of Alexander Manly that even black citizens were trying to silence, and an epidemic of black rapists preying upon white farmwomen while their husbands worked the fields. This problem was severe enough in the agricultural South to have Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia speak out against it in 1897 and implore black leaders to help stop it. Latimer encouraged the lynching of rapists if the courts would not deal with the crime effectively. Manly seized upon this issue and twisted it into an editorial in August 1898 that claimed the farm women encouraged the advances of the black rapists---this editorial was the last straw and sufficient to cause responsible citizens to act. To underscore Manly as the cause of the racial tension and violence in Wilmington, John C. Dancy blamed the radical editor for the conflict when later speaking to audiences in New York. He knew Manly, and the result of his editorial was predictable.

Wilmington Armed in November 1898:
Amid reports that two local black men had tried to order weapons from Winchester Arms and that 300 armed blacks were marching from adjacent Brunswick County, the city’s white citizens prepared for the worst. Immediately after becoming governor, Russell pardoned a black Wilmington policeman who had been caught burglarizing businesses and showed citizens how he would protect criminals if they belong to his party. It is no wonder that city businessmen banded together on the purchase of a Gatling gun with which to maintain order and threaten lawbreakers.

As the governor who replaced Russell in 1901, Charles Aycock, relates, the white Conservative population of Wilmington would no longer accept a situation “when ladies were insulted on the public streets; when burglary in our chief city became an every-night occurrence; when more guns and pistols were sold in the state than had been in the twenty preceding years…” It is then not surprising why the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce stated in a letter of October 1898 that the political situation (under Governor Russell and his control of Wilmington government) was a “menace to peace and order.”

Henry L. Melton, Editor

Email: editor@1898wilmington.hypermart.net