1898 Wilmington Race Riot

Black Citizens in Wilmington, Circa 1898:

Black Rioting in Early 1898:

During the smallpox epidemic that struck Wilmington in January, 1898, black citizens rioted violently to the pest houses set up in the city to quarantine those suffering, and to minimize the spread of the disease. A mob of about two to three hundred blacks burned a house at Ninth and Nixon Streets on January 14, 1898 which had been designated local health officers as a "pest house" for smallpox victims. A second house on Nixon Street was burned by blacks on January 16, 1898. A mass meeting of 300 people, mostly blacks, assembled at City Hall  on January 27, 1898, to protest the mandatory smallpox vaccination in the city. 

(Strength Through Struggle, William Reaves, NHC Library, 1998.)

Governor Daniel Russell Reflects Upon The Black Citizenry:

"In the thirty-five years of freedom, the races have been steadily drifting apart---manners, customs, laws, sentiment, all moving toward segregation. And the colored element had year by year further and further fallen behind the white in acquisition and achievement. An impression prevails that these colored people have grown greatly in wealth, that they have acquired homesteads, have become tax-payers and given great promise along these lines. It is not true.

In North Carolina they had as fair a chance as in any other Southern State---perhaps better than any other. And here it is sad to hear their frequent boast that they own eight millions of property. This is about three percent, according to the tax list, the total of which shows an amount much less than the actual total values of the State, but this fact does not disturb the proportion between the races. They are thirty percent of the population. After thirty years of opportunity, they have three percent of the property. True, they may claim that this is all net gain as they started with no property. But they did not start with nothing. They started with enormous advantages over whites. They were accustomed to labor. The whites were not. They had been for generations the producers of the State and the whites the consumers. They were accustomed to hardship and privation and patient industry. They had the muscle. If in this thirty years they have only acquired this pittance, where will they be in another thirty years considering that the advantages of their start are largely, if not entirely lost?"
(Daniel L. Russell, 12 February 1900, in Chicago, Illinois. Daniel L. Russell Papers, Southern Historical Collection.)

Loading Compressed Cotton on Steamships

Black Employment in Wilmington:

Was there a thriving black middle-class in Wilmington in 1898?

The 1889 City Directory reveals that 57.3% of the City's blacks listed were employed in domestic and personal service, and slightly half of these simply were listed as laborers. Nearly 78% of the blacks found employment in 10 areas; laborer 50.6%, carpenter 6.6%, stevedore 6.2%, barber 11.5%, porter 1.8%, drayman 5.0%, brickmason 2.1%, cooper 3.5%, cook 0.7% and laundress 0.1%.

Only 2% of the blacks could be considered professionals and most of these were ministers. The ruling element in Wilmington's black society consisted chiefly of clergyman, teachers, government officials, physicians and newspaper editors.

By 1897, the City Directory showed an increase to 67% of the blacks listed in domestic and personal service work with about 35% being laborers. The 10 occupations that contained about 78% of the blacks in 1889 contained nearly 73% in 1897. Three occupations in 1897 contained slightly over 60% of Wilmington's blacks…laborer 35.3%, cook 13.7% and laundress 11.2%. The black professional population continued to hover around 2%. Thus at that point in time, the only marketable commodity that Wilmington's average black person had to offer was the sweat of his brow. The status of black businesses in Wilmington, as reflected by the Dun & Barlow credit rating in the Merchantile Agency Reference book was not a healthy one. In 1875, Dun & Barlow listed only two black businesses in Wilmington, and it failed to give one of them a credit rating as it did not meet the firm's minimum accrediting standards. The other business received a rating of 3.5, the lowest rating given by Dun & Barlow. While one of the black enterprises was estimated to be worth less than $1000, the other's estimated worth was nearly $2000.

Although the 1889 City Directory listed 58 black businesses, the Mercantile Agency Reference Book only included 10 of Wilmington's black enterprises in 1890. The highest credit rating assigned to any of the businesses was "fair" and not one was estimated to be worth over $2000. Thus it is apparent that the black business establishments in Wilmington were modest ones, operating on small amounts of capital with a poor credit rating, if any, and that they were principally single owner businesses. Black barbers, restaurant owners and tailors were compelled to "Jim Crow" their establishments to attract white customers who represented their main source of income. Those black establishments serving black people soon discovered that a marginal working class begets a marginal business class. As Wilmington's black population continued to vote solidly Republican and in opposition to the white population's interest, that white population boycotted black business and found alternatives to black labor. In 1890, the taxpayers of New Hanover County listed $5.8 million in real and personal property for taxes, blacks were responsible for $388K of this amount. Although blacks were 58% of New Hanover County population in 1890, they listed only 7% of the taxable property. The per capita wealth of the County black population was $27.86 in contrast to $542.92 for whites. The contrast was greater in Wilmington where the per capita wealth of blacks was $25.41 and for whites, $622.40.

By 1900 the gap widened and the tax value of personal and real property reached $7.5 million in New Hanover County. The per capita wealth of blacks had only improved to $37.32 as that for whites improved to $716.81. "By 1900 which was 25 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the blacks of New Hanover County and Wilmington had failed to accumulate enough real and personal property to free themselves from economic dependence"…which meant that they were still dependent upon an elite class of Republican carpetbaggers who manipulated their voting power. Thus, the poverty of blacks in Wilmington and New Hanover County hurt the Republican Party as it encouraged black Republicans to seek elective office for the salary attached to it and not for political principles. This poverty and economic dependence also resulted in blacks selling their votes to the highest bidder and the Republicans used bacon and sugar to bring out the black vote.



Did Black Wilmingtonians Suffer Property Theft Post- 1898?:

Though contemporary views of the racial conflict have maintained that many black landowners had their property stolen by white citizens, the project of researcher Sue Ann Cody in 2000 refutes such claims. To underscore the fallacy of the property-loss claims, the article below states, "further study of property and poll-tax rolls in 1897 showed most blacks didn't own property."

"Black Property Not Lost in Riots, Researcher Says"
By staff writer Corey Reiss
(Wilmington Sunday Star, June 4, 2000)

"New research on the aftermath of the 1898 uprising challenges a century-old belief held by many in Wilmington's black community: that whites illegally seized the property of blacks that fled or were exiled during the violence.
Sue an Cody conducted the research, which suggests that such theft did not occur, for a thesis that recently helped earn her a master's degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. With a bill pending in Raleigh that would fund a state study of the 1898 events, this challenge to a common belief has particular resonance now. State Senator Luther Jordan, who introduced the bill in May, has said the proposed state study could raise the question of whether blacks should receive economic help to offset disadvantages the riots caused.

White mobs terrorized blacks in Wilmington on November 10 and 11, 1898, killing some and running several out of town. The motive, historians have said, was to oust black leaders from political and economic power in North Carolina's largest city, where blacks were the majority and had built solid middle and upper classes.
The first of its kind on the 1898 incident, Mrs. Cody's study used tax records, deeds and city directories before and after the incident. Her conclusions suggest that the economic impact on blacks was profound, but it didn't include property theft.

"Simply put," she wrote, "no cases of property seizures were found." That property was seized became a "myth" that may have developed out of "hope for eventual justice." Melton McLaurin, a UNCW history professor who sat on the committee that reviewed Mrs. Cody's work, said the incident resulted in the "economic decapitation" of the black community in other ways. Mrs. Cody's research argues the riots had a devastating effect, but not of the sort that has been assumed, he said.

The research is not likely to sit well with some in Wilmington who believe that black residents' ancestors had property stolen. "I'm not buying this one until we do some in-depth, comprehensive research," said Kenneth Davis, who is black and a vocal supporter of the state study, when told about the research. "I think its going to have to come from the African American community…there is going to be some suspicion." How Mrs. Cody's research, conducted over about two years, might influence the debate about Senator Jordan's bill remains to be seen. Few outside the UNCW history department know about it. But it may strengthen calls for Senator Jordan's proposed study. Senator Jordan and others said that if Mrs. Cody's research is correct, there are still many other effects of the uprising that destroyed the black economy and could be addressed..."

Mrs. Cody, 46, is an associate librarian at the UNCW library and holds a master's degree in library science. She said she started out trying to document the property losses she had heard of and read about for years. "You hear the talk about property seizure, so when I went into the deeds office I thought I was going to find evidence of that," she said. "I was very surprised that I didn't."

(Excerpts from continued text of article)
Mrs. Cody said she would support state research that is done "well and objectively."

Several researchers, including Mrs. Cody, concluded the white leaders reneged on those promises. But the rhetoric---such as threats prior to the riots that the Cape Fear River would be choked with black bodies---became reality in the lore that ensued.

Blacks were killed during the incident, but the number varies from 10 to hundreds, depending on the source. Historians tend to agree that the actual number might never be known.

Word of widespread property theft has been a staple of the 1898 legacy. IN 1998, historian Leon F. Litwack wrote that nearly 1500 blacks, "most of them propertied, chose to leave the city; whites moved quickly to confiscate their property for unpaid taxes."

Mrs. Cody's research contradicts that claim, which others had voiced before Mr. Litwack. Although Mrs. Cody found several cases in which blacks sold their property at a loss, others held onto their properties and made money on them after the riots, according to her research. The people who were banished from Wilmington were able to sell their properties from a distance, some at a profit, and some at a loss. Others who left on their own did the same, she concluded. Mrs. Cody argues that in almost every case, the losses and gains appeared to have occurred in normal real estate transactions.

She studied more than 300 deeds for African American owners who transferred their property between 1892 and 1906. The sample was not exhaustive but was large enough to be statistically valid, according to the study. The research did not show unusually high numbers of real estate exchanges or auctions of abandoned properties, which might be expected if widespread confiscation had occurred.

One Man's Story:
Take the case of Thomas C. Miller, a real estate businessman and pawnbroker, as an example of the losses and gains property owners saw after the incident. He was considered one of the wealthiest blacks in the city.
Although he was banished from Wilmington, the tax value of his property rose from $3335. in 1897 to $5550 in 1900, including three property sales and five purchases. Between the riots and his death in 1903, he sold or held an interest in nine transferred properties for a net gain of at least $1315.

He foreclosed on at least one black-owned property after 1898.

Further study of property and poll-tax rolls in 1897 showed most blacks didn't own property. Mrs. Cody also tracked properties owned by black leaders whose names are in the historical record. Of the 20 on that list who owned property in 1897, all but three had about the same or higher property values listed on tax rolls in 1900. Scrutiny of the other three led Mrs. Cody to conclude that the decline in the tax values of two came from reasons other than the riots. One had property foreclosed on after being banished and defaulting on a mortgage.

Ultimately, Mrs. Cody said, there was no evidence of property confiscation, and the idea that city records were altered is improbable. To convincingly alter the deed books would require a lot of technical expertise and work, and given their success in breaking black power, white leaders wouldn't have taken such a risk, Mrs. Cody wrote.

"The economic impact is absolutely enormous," said Dr. McLaurin, the UNCW history professor. He called her research "rock solid." Mr. Davis said that the research challenges a belief that many African Americans won't easily drop unless "someone they have confidence in does it." Herbert Harris is black and a co-chair of the 1898 Foundation, which organized the centennial observance and continues to work toward repairing rifts caused by the uprising. He said he could accept the notion that property loss was a myth if that is the truth. But he said the state study should be done so everyone knows more about the effect of the riots. "If we sought the truth, then out of that we would know how to deal with it," he said. "One thing the community feels is that the truth has not been told."

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Politics In Wilmington and New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1865-1900. The Genesis of a Race Riot.  Jerome A. McDuffie

Doctoral dissertation, Kent State University, 1979.

UMI Dissertation Service

Wilmington Star News, June 6, 2000, "Black Property Not Lost In Riots"

Email: editor@1898wilmington.hypermart.net