1898 Wilmington Race Riot

President McKinley Reacts To 1898 Wilmington:

There are some accounts of Wilmington's 1898 conflict that assert that President William McKinley should have intervened with federal troops. This belief does not consider that there were many troops in the city at the time of the conflict, just mustered out of federal service from the Cuban war.  Also, as will be seen with Congressman John D. Bellamy, Bishop Benjamin Arnett and Booker T. Washington, McKinley had a close view of the events in Wilmington, and he received sage advice on how to respond to the conflict. The selections below are more about the general feeling of the time which McKinley understood, and less about his statements.

William McKinley

Booker T. Washington was no friend of black demogogues like WEB DuBois who incited racial division and it is clear what he might have suggested to the president. McKinley, a northern Brigadier in the War Between the States, had the gift of perspective as well as he viewed the effects of thirty-three years of Reconstruction and its attendant corruption in Wilmington. McKinley had also visited Washington's Tuskegee Institute during the winter of 1898 and saw that Washington's philosophy of work and racial harmony avoided the violence that had just taken place in Wilmington.

The view of Northern white philanthropists is included below to see the political and financial influence they exerted toward blacks, and the educational expectations which accompanied the influence. The radical DuBois-influenced agitation created by Alexander Manly, his Wilmington Record, and a few fellow conspirators did not enjoy wide support in Wilmington's black community, and for this same reason responsible black leaders in North Carolina distanced themselves from Manly's ravings.

Through the selections below, the reader may attain an understanding of the "tenor of the times" to determine why McKinley took the stance he did with regard to November 1898 in Wilmington.

Raleigh News & Observer, November 11, 1898:

"A telegram from Washington says: At the White House this afternoon, President McKinley and Secretary (of War, Russell A.) Alger were in conference for nearly two hours discussing the situation in North Carolina, and the news of the rioting at Wilmington, where eight men, according to the information received here, were killed.

The President was much exercised over the startling reports, and if his position on the matter is anything like Secretary Alger's, there is no doubt but that the crime of sending federal troops to the State would be perpetrated if the governor made such a request.  Just after leaving the President, Secretary Alger said to me that only the press reports of the riot had been received by the President, and that no information from the State authorities had arrived.

Tonight I asked Secretary Alger if he had given consent for any United States troops to be ordered out by the Governor. In answer, Secretary Alger said: "Up to this hour no word had been received officially from the State. No consent for any troops to be ordered out has been given. None can be. If the Governor orders out any troops, they must be State troops..."

(Strength Through Struggle, William Reaves, NHC Library, 1998, age 253)

Raleigh News & Observer, November 14, 1898:

"Gov. Russell has telegraphed Col. Walker Taylor, who is in command, that he can keep the visiting State Guards as long as he deems necessary."

(Strength Through Struggle, William Reaves, NHC Library, 1998, age 254)

John D. Bellamy Recalls McKinley:

“I have said before that I attended President McKinley’s inauguration and I had learned to know him very well the short time I was there, having gone to him asking for presidential aid in a number of measures.” 

“…President McKinley told me that he very much admired the patriotism of a great many Southern Democrats; that he, himself had been a Brigadier-General in the Federal Army and all his associations in life had been with Republicans in Ohio, and members of Congress. That when he became a member of Congress he sought personal relations with the Southern members of Congress to get their views about the nation and its welfare so that he could understand the South’s attitude on Constitutional and public questions. He said he was glad to say that he had made friends of a great many splendid Southern men, Democrats, and had come to the conclusion that they were very patriotic, that they loved the Constitution and its history, and he believed the government would always be safe in their hands in the future. He said it was a pleasure for him to tell me this!

Of course I thanked heartily for the compliment he paid our people.

In repeated interviews with the President, I had learned to admire him for his greatness, his kindness of heart and his liberal views, generally. At home, after the adjournment of Congress, I was shocked to learn that he had been assassinated by that anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. Our whole nation went into mourning, and no American citizen regretted his death more than I.”

Memoirs of an Octagenarian, John D. Bellamy. Observer Printing House, 1942.

pp. 123-125


W.E.B. DuBois On McKinley's Advisors:

For Dubois, the effeminate, devious (Wilberforce University) President Mitchell became “the most perfect realization of what the devil might be in the closing years of the 19th (century).” Behind the devil though, there was Moloch himself---heavyset, one-legged Benjamin William Arnett, Sr., one-time member of the State legislature, church powerhouse, chairman of Wilberforce’s trustee board, and soon to be chief advisor in all Negro matters to fellow Ohioan and 25th president, William McKinley. The authority of President Mitchell was nothing as compared with the real power of Bishop Arnett…

WEB DuBois, 1868-1919, David L. Lewis, Henry Holt & Company, 1993, page 152.

W.E.B. DuBois On Crime & Morality In The 1890's:

Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward was a progressive reformer’s worst nightmare. About 40,000 African Americans lived in the city, 9,675 of them in the Seventh Ward, of whom 5,174 were females. Because so many lived there, because many of them were so poor, because many had recently arrived from the South, because they were responsible for so much crime, and because they stood out by color and culture so conspicuously in the eyes of their white neighbors, the area was the bane of respectable Philadelphia, its population the very embodiment of “the dangerous classes” troubling the sleep of the modernizing gentry.

Pennsylvania Hospital two blocks away on Pine Street was practically swamped by the grisly medical problems of black males in the grip of social pathologies. There was no evading the hard fact, as DuBois quickly saw, that “from his earliest advent the Negro…has figured largely in the criminal annals of Philadelphia,” With eight of every ten males working at unskilled jobs, the Germans and Italians driving them out of catering and barbering, the Irish and other comparably unskilled newcomers fiercely maintaining a color in the craft and industrial unions, it was not surprising that many Seventh Ward blacks sought release in drugs and crime or savagely turned on each other out of rage and a sense of hopelessness.

DuBois, pp. 186-187

“…but when it came to African American morality DuBois’s measure was a rigid Calvanist ruler. Crumwellian judgments abounded: “The moral tone of the Negroes has room for great betterment:” slum elements “receive recruits from the lazy, shiftless, and desolute from the country around”; When among any people a low inherited standard of sexual morals is coincident with an economic situation…promoting abnormal migrations…then the inevitable result is prostitution and illegitimacy.”

DuBois, page 196

“If they were not up to “complete civilization” thirty years after slavery, African Americans could still be expected to “make themselves fit  members of the community within a reasonable length of time.” And, “finally,” on a note that was worthy of Booker T. Washington, “the Negroes must cultivate a spirit of calm, patient persistence in their attitude toward their fellow citizens.

DuBois, Page 206

The View of Northern White Philanthropists Circa 1898:

Former vice president of the Southern Railroad Company, president of the Long Island Rail Road, workaholic Tuskegee trustee, Boston bred (William H.) Baldwin was seven years younger than (Booker T.) Washington, yet he played from the beginning the role of grand vizier of Tuskegee. Nervous, impatient, intolerant of contrary opinions, and decisively convinced of African American inferiority, Baldwin saw the solution to the South’s race problem in salvation through work and rights after obedience. There had been too much pious nonsense about equality spouted by misguided Yankee idealists, his own ancestors included, he told the 1898 meeting of the Social Science Association at Saratoga. “How false that theory was thirty long years of experience have proved…Social recognition of the Negro by the white is a simple impossibility, and entirely dismissed from the minds of the white, and by the intelligent Negroes.”

pp. 240-241

Baldwin and (Robert C.) Ogden (director of New York’s Wanamaker department store) were determined to let nothing impede the regional reconciliation and Southern modernization that their kind of educational policy and capital investment was intended to foster. George Foster Peabody lent his considerable influence to the promotion of the Ogden-Baldwin monopoly in African American education. Although Washington was not invited to deliberate with them when the new foundations were conceived, Baldwin dutifully informed the Tuskegeean of his appointment as a salaried field agent of the Southern Education Board. Poker-faced, devious, honored by Harvard, Yale and Amherst, graced with a special relationship to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, and supreme gatekeeper of rewards, 

DuBois, pp. 267-268


Booker T. Washington's Reflections:

“Most of our people who received some little education became teachers or preachers. While among these two classes there were many capable, earnest, Godly, men and women, skill a larger proportion took up teaching or preaching as an easy way to make a living. Many became teachers who could do little more than write their names.

The ministry was the profession that suffered most---and still suffers, though there has been great improvement---on account of not only ignorant but in many cases immoral men who claimed that they were “called to preach” within a few days after he began reading. At my home in West Virginia, the process of being called to the ministry was a very interesting one. Usually the “call” came when the individual was sitting in church. Without warning, the one called would fall upon the floor as if struck by a bullet, and would lie there for hours, speechless and motionless. Then the news would spread that this individual had received a “call.”

When we add the number of wholly ignorant men who preached or “exhorted” to that of those who possessed something of an education, it can be seen at a glance that the supply of ministers was large.  In fact, some time ago I knew a certain church that had a total membership of about two hundred, and eighteen of that number were ministers.

During the whole of the Reconstruction period our people throughout the South looked to the Federal Government for everything, very much as a child looks to its mother. Still, as I look back now over the entire period of our freedom, I cannot help feeling that it would have been wiser if some plan could have been put in operation which would have made the possession of a certain amount of education and property, or both, a test for the exercise of the franchise… ”

I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was An element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and securing property.

I saw colored men who were members of State legislatures, and county officers, who in some cases could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education.

Of course, the colored people, so largely without education, and wholly without experience in government made tremendous mistakes., just as any people similarly situated would have done. Many of the Southern whites have a feeling that, if the Negro is permitted to exercise his political rights now to any degree, the mistakes of the Reconstruction period will repeat themselves.

During the time I was a student in Washington the city was crowded with colored people, many of whom had recently come from the South. A large proportion of these people had been drawn to Washington because they felt that they could lead a life of ease there. Others had secured minor government positions, and still another large class was there in the hope of securing Federal positions.

I took great interest in studying the life of our people there closely at that time. I found that while among them there was a large element of substantial, worthy citizens, there was also a superficiality about the life of a large class that greatly alarmed me. I saw young colored men who were not earning more than four dollars a week, spend two dollars or more for a buggy on Sunday to ride up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in order that they might try to convince the world that they were worth thousands. I saw other young men who received seventy-five or one hundred dollars per month from the government, who were in debt at the end of every month. I saw men who but a few months previous were members of Congress, then without employment and in poverty. Among a large class there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted Federal officials to create one for them. 

(Up From Slavery, Autobiography of Booker T. Washington, A.L. Burt Company, 1900, Chapter V, The Reconstruction Period, pp 80- 90)

Washington Wants McKinley to Visit Tuskegee:

“In November, 1897, I made the first move in this direction (to have a president visit Tuskegee Institute), and that was in securing a visit from a member of President McKinley’s Cabinet, the Hon. James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture. He came to deliver an address at the formal opening of the Slater-Armstrong Agricultural Building, our first large building (at Tuskegee) to be used for the purpose of giving training to our students in agriculture and kindred branches.

In the fall of 1898 I heard that President McKinley was likely to visit Atlanta, Georgia for the purpose of taking part in the Peace Jubilee exercises to be held there to commemorate the successful close of the Spanish-American war.

I went to Washington, and I was not long in the city before I found my way to the White House.

When I saw the President he kindly thanked me for the work which we were doing at Tuskegee for the interests of the country. I then told him, briefly, the object of my visit. I impressed upon him the fact that a visit from the Chief Executive of the Nation would not only encourage our students and teachers, but would help the entire race. He seemed interested, but did not promise to go to Tuskegee, for the reason that his plans about going to Atlanta were not then fully made; but he asked me to call the matter to his attention a few weeks later.

Just previous to my going to Washington the second time, the country had been excited, and the coloured people greatly depressed, because of several race riots which had occurred at different points in the South. As soon as I saw the President, I perceived that his heart was greatly burdened by reason of these race disturbances. Although there were many people waiting to see him, he detained me for some time, discussing the condition and prospects for the race. He remarked several times that he was determined to show m his interest and faith in the race, not merely in words, but by acts. When I told him that I thought that at that time scarcely anything would go farther in giving hope and encouragement to the race than the fact that the President of the Nation would be willing to travel one hundred forty miles out of his way to spend a day at a Negro institution, he seemed deeply impressed.

While I was with the President, a white citizen of Atlanta, a Democrat and an ex-slaveholder, came into the room and the President asked his opinion as to the wisdom of going to Tuskegee. Without hesitation the Atlanta man replied that it was the proper thing for him to do. This opinion was reinforced by that friend of the race, Dr. J.L.M. Curry. The President promised that he would visit our school on the 16th of December.

(Up From Slavery, Autobiography of Booker T. Washington, A.L. Burt Company, 1900, pp 302-305)

Washington Address To The Wisconsin NEA:

“…The policy to be pursued with reference to the races was, by every honourable means, to bring them together and to encourage the cultivation of friendly relations, instead of doing that which would embitter. I further contend that in relation to his vote, the Negro should more and more consider the interests of the community in which he lived, rather than seek alone to please some one who lived a thousand miles away from him and his interests.

In this address I said that the whole future of the Negro rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence. I said that any individual who learned to do something better than anyone else---learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner---had solved his problem, regardless of the colour of his skin, and that in proportion as the Negro learned to produce what other people wanted and must have, in the same proportion would he be respected.”

(Up From Slavery, Autobiography of Booker T. Washington, A.L. Burt Company, 1900, Address to the National Educational Association, Madison, Wisconsin, pp. 201-202)

“(W)hile the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that back of the ballot he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, and that no race without these elements could permanently succeed.”

(Speaking to Congress regarding assistance for the Atlanta Exposition, page 208)

Booker T. Washington

Atlanta Exposition Address, September 18, 1895.

“One third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success. But I convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.

(It is well to bear in mind that whatever the sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations in life; the shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental geegaws of life and the useful.

No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life that we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Nearly sixteen millions of hands will aid you in pulling to load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward. We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.

No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.

It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.”


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