1898 Wilmington Race Riot

Republican Leaders in 1898: Dancy, French and Others:

To better understand the environment in which the violence in Wilmington erupted during November, 1898, it is important to see who the leaders of the Republican and Fusionist parties were, and what positions they held in the community. The following information on John C. Dancy, black Collector of Customs at Wilmington, is drawn from the noted sources below, and the reader wil learn much about the political machinations of Republicans with the following profile of George Z. French, and other carpetbag leaders.

To start with John C. Dancy, appointment to the U.S. customhouse service was usually secured and held as a political favor of the party holding the presidential office. The President, or his advisor, would appoint a collector for each port, and the collector in turn filled the numerous minor posts with the party faithful. At election time, the collector and his appointees were expected to help finance the party's campaign, and in Dancy's case, deliver the black vote to the Republican party. Dancy's job in this high-paying and lucrative position was to reward the party supporters while punishing its enemies---the Democratic Party.

John C. Dancy, Collector of Customs at Wilmington:

Collector of Customs, John C. Dancy

In September 1898, 41 year-old John C. Dancy was serving his second term as the Collector of Customs in Wilmington, first appointed by President Benjamin Harrison and later under McKinley. Dancy was a compromise candidate for Collector after factionalism within the Republican party eliminated two black aspirants; former deputy collector (under Republican Enos Pennypacker) John E. Taylor, and James H. Young. Although Young was from Raleigh, he had served as Inspector of Customs. (See "Patronage" below)

By virtue of the federal patronage inherent in the office of Collector of Customs, Dancy wielded immense influence in New Hanover County's Republican party, and employed as deputy collector, John E. Taylor who was also a black Republican. As editor of the AME Zion Church Quarterly, Star of Zion, Dancy was also active in black religious circles.

An early history of Dancy shows that he was born in Edgecombe County, and since most local offices were controlled Republicans, in 1880, was elected as Register of Deeds.
(Race & Politics, page 93)

Dancy was re-elected without opposition to the office of Register of Deeds in 1882.
(Race & Politics, page 113)

In 1884, the State GOP convention met in Raleigh and delegates chose John C. Dancy (as) secretary. (Race & Politics, page 117)

Dancy Describes Political Corruption in Edgecombe County:
What distinguished the 1890's from previous years was the degree of corruption, its widespread and powerful influence. Corruption grew from being a secondary characteristic of a basically healthy system to being the essence of a decaying political life. As early as 1886 John C. Dancy's (Salisbury) Star of Zion had said of the district:

"It takes ability, political shrewdness, sometimes a profuse scattering of filthy lucre, and even a resort to ways that are dark and tricks that are in vain, to obtain a nomination there, and even then one must take his chances to gain victory. His description was even more accurate eight years later. (Salisbury Star of Zion, 20 August 1886, page 208, Race & Politics)

After the lynching of black rapist Ben Hart in Edgecombe County in 1887, John C. Dancy published an editorial in the Star of Zion expressing deep regret for the lynching. He indicated that Edgecombe county had had a good reputation…."but new blood has gone into the county during the past few years" lamented Dancy, a native of the county, "and incited the populous to deeds of violence…hitherto unknown.
(Race & Politics, page 323)

Until 1896, black officeholding in the Second District had been minimal, but (with the Fusionists in power) now suddenly there were hundreds of Negro public officials, both elected and appointed, ranging from constable to congressman. At the climax of the heated 1898 campaign, Democratic State Chairman Furnifold Simmons issued a public letter to Senator Pritchard specifying the number of Negro officers in many counties, and at the State and Federal level. His letter lists 16 black magistrates in Bertie, 31 in Edgecombe, and 29 in Halifax. His letter emphasized the most strongly the power of Negroes in Craven and New Hanover counties and the cities of New Bern, Wilmington and Greenville. As far as it goes, Simmons' manifesto seems to be accurate. His claim of "15 to 25 Negro postmasters in eastern North Carolina" is not at all exaggerated…"
If anything, Simmons underestimated the real extent of black office holding.
(Race & Politics, page 247)

The Wilmington Messenger, 15 August 1898:
In Wilmington, 4 Negro aldermen, 4 Negro deputy sheriffs, Negro County Coroner (David Jacobs), Negro Register of Deeds, Negro Town Constable, 40 Negro City and County Magistrates, 13 Negro City police officers, a large number of Negro attorneys, and John C. Dancy, Negro Collector of Customs who employed Negro John E. Taylor as his deputy collector.

The black postmaster was particularly irritating to whites because they were so visible and unavoidable. Unlike a Negro legislator or congressman, a black postmaster was in daily contact with the whites of his community….When Democrats complained of "Negro domination", they often had in mind relatively minor officials necessary to the transaction of ordinary business.
(Race & Politics, page 245)

In the election of 1896, Dancy worked the black voters on behalf of Republican Oliver H. Dockery, candidate for governor. He was against Daniel Russell's candidacy due to the latter's limitations on black office-holding since 1888. Conservative black leaders like Dancy hoped to demonstrate to "better class" whites that the black community would not be seduced by the Fusionists whose political and economic policies divided the white electorate, and left the Negro's status perilously vulnerable to racial demagoguery.
(Maverick Republican, page 66)

Wilmington's black Collector of Customs (a federal political appointment) John Dancy condemned Manly in the Northern press after the event for breaching manly standards. White men had reacted so strongly to Manly's editorial, Dancy argued, because they "will not permit their womanhood to be slandered". Furthermore, Dancy said black leaders respected white men's protection of women and that chivalry worked to blacks advantage because "the better element in the white race commends an attitude of defense of our womanhood". Dancy then concluded that "the manhood of a race that will not defend its womanhood is unworthy of the respect of that womanhood".
(Gilmore, page 116)

The Importance of Political Patronage:
The Postmaster and Collector of Customs played important leadership roles in their parties. Charisma did not endow the men holding these posts with their political influence. This influence radiated from the salaries attached to the offices and from the patronage that the Postmaster and Collector had for rewarding the party faithful. For example, in 1891, the Postmaster of Wilmington received a yearly salary of $2,700. and he had six patronage positions under his control. The salaries attached to these six positions ranged from $400. to $1200.
In 1883, the Collector of Customs had seventeen positions under his control with which to reward loyalty to the party.

Although by 1891 the number of patronage positions in the custom-house had declined to nine, the salaries received by the men occupying these positions started with the $1,800. annually for the deputy collector and dropped to $3. a day for the inspectors. The Collector received a base salary of $1000. annually, and fees and commissions supplemented this. Since the work in the custom house was not demanding, some of the men holding patronage appointments in the custom-house remained on the payroll while pursuing other employment. For example, Daniel L. Russell, Jr. conducted a law practice while he was clerk in the custom-house.

The use by the Postmaster and the Collector of patronage appointments to strengthen various factions within the Republican party resulted in the emergence of the so-called "Custom-House Ring." This ring adroitly managed the county convention, controlled nominations and distributed patronage. One Republican complained that this ring had "secured…complete sway over…colored Republicans as well as honest white Republicans who have no purses."
(McDuffie, page 342-343)

Dancy and Other Black Republicans Oppose Alexander Manly:
Five black Wilmington Republicans urged Manly to suspend the paper (Wilmington Journal) and thereby quiet the bitterness growing out of his indiscreet and inflammable utterances. (They were) W.E. Henderson (lawyer), Charles Norwood (Register of Deeds), Elijah Green (Alderman), John E. Taylor (Deputy Collector of Customs) and John Dancy (Collector of Customs). Dancy, although he fled from Wilmington to Salisbury with his family, advised the members of his race in the coastal city to be "quiet, orderly, submissive to authority and refrain from any utterance or conduct that will excite passions in others."

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Politics In Wilmington, 1865-1898
Jerome A. McDuffie, Doctoral dissertation, Kent State University, 1979.
UMI Dissertation Services

Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901, The Black Second.
Eric Anderson
1981, Louisiana State University Press

Maverick Republican In The Old North State.
Jeffrey Crow/Robert Durden
1977, Louisiana State University Press

Gender & Jim Crow
Glenda E. Gilmore, UNC Press, 1996


George Zadoc French, Consummate Carpetbagger:

One of the most influential of the newcomers to the lower Cape Fear was George Zadoc French. While the concept of a classic-carpetbagger type may be an abstraction that lacks flesh and blood historical reality, at the same time, French corresponds closely to the ideas that many people have held concerning northern Republicans who settled in the South after the war.

A sharp-witted New England Yankee in his mid-thirties, who after the war had engaged in the dubious occupation of an army sutler, he had arrived in Wilmington literally with the wagon trains of the union army. Indeed, the captured city had hardly stopped smoking before French had taken over an abandoned store building and was industriously selling tobacco, liquor, clothing and “Yankee notions” to the soldiers.

He proceeded to apply his talents at the spot where the final impulse of war had thrust him, in Wilmington. By the fall of 1865, he was retailing civilian goods and was marketing cotton and naval stores of back country people for a commission, with apparent success. Two years later, French, who never believed in hiding his light under a bushel, admitted that he had the largest stock, the widest assortment of goods, and the lowest prices of any merchant in North Carolina.

French was largely successful in his efforts to win the support of the Negroes. In their stumbling ascent from the prudent silence of bondage, they were drawn toward the man who could say the right words for them. George French was such a “slick talking man”, one of his Negro supporters once remarked, that if he should ever happen to be “away from home and get strapped, he could preach his way back without the slightest trouble.” Some Negroes in Wilmington once even formed a “George Z. French Baseball Club”. He served for a time as chairman of the New Hanover County Republican party, as a member of the Wilmington Board of Aldermen, as Mayor pro tem of Wilmington; and was elected to the legislature in 1868, 1870 and 1894.

(Ballots & Fence Rails, pg 114)

Railroad Frauds and Bribes:

French was involved in the railroad fraud schemes of former federal General Milton Littlefield and George Swepson in the 1868 legislature, being bribed for over $10,000 to approve railroad bonds that helped impoverish the State and provide wealth for northern speculators. (Hamilton, pg 431)

George Z. French, carpetbag politician in New Hanover County also served as president of the local Union League.

Once Littlefield and Swepson were caught in their Western North Carolina Railroad fraud schemes, French and other carpetbag politicians were instrumental in blocking justice. (Hamilton, pg 404)

French was in the company of Abbott, Littlefield and Estes at Grant’s inauguration in Washington (Big Injin). (Prince of Carpetbaggers, pg 196)


French & Company Targeted By White Leaders of Wilmington:

”I do not hesitate to say this publicly that if a race conflict occurs in North Carolina, the very first men that ought to be held to account are the white leaders of the Negroes who will be chiefly responsible for it.”

Col. Alfred Moore Waddell speech, 24 October 1898…(McDuffie, pg 636)

And from the White Declaration of Independence”:

"...Second: That we will not tolerate the action of unscrupulous white men in affiliating with the Negroes so that by means of their votes, they can dominate the intelligent and thrifty element in the community, thus causing business to stagnate and progress to be out of the question.

Third: That the Negro has demonstrated by antagonizing our interest in every way, and especially by his ballot, that he is incapable of realizing that his interests are and should be identical with those of the community."


George Z. French, Confidante of Governor Russell:

In September of 1898 a committee of prominent black Republicans requested of George French, then deputy Sheriff, to dismiss the four black deputies in the Sheriff’s department. The committee alleged that these black deputies were incompetent, and this was done to blunt the Democrat’s charges of black domination through the Republican party. This was followed by Mayor Silas P. Wright discharging 6 black policemen and appointing 6 whites to fill their positions. (McDuffie, pg 614)

On October 26th, 1898, four emissaries of Wilmington’s businessman’s campaign committee (Bryan, Sprunt, Chadbourn, Hoge) met in a lengthy conference with Governor Russell in Raleigh. Before Russell would agree to block a nomination of a Republican legislative and county ticket, he consulted with his political ally George Z. French who was also in Raleigh. After consulting with French, Russell informed the four men that he would use his influence to block any nominations by the New Hanover County Republican party…”  (McDuffie, pg 642)

Russell and French worked to get New Hanover County’s black Republicans to accept the terms of the agreement negotiated with Bryan, Sprunt, Chadbourn and Hoge. On Saturday, October 29th, French went to the party caucus and presented Russell’s letter to the assembled Republicans who agreed to follow Russell’s & French’s terms. (McDuffie, pg 645)

French's Actions During the November Conflict:

During the riot….While Sprunt and Moore were attempting to hold the mob in check (at Sprunt’s Champion Compress), George Z. French, the chief deputy Sheriff arrived. French deputized Rountree and Moore and several other white men and instructed them to break up the black gathering. (McDuffie, pg 710)

Although George L. Morton, commander of the Naval Reserves, had not received orders from the adjutant-general, he prepared his men to march to Fourth and Harnett Streets; but before doing so he sought an order from Mayor Silas P. Wright. When he could not find the Mayor, he secured an order from George Z. French, the chief deputy Sheriff. French requested that both Morton and Taylor “to use all force at your disposal to quell the existing violation of the peace in the city”. Thus legally protected, Morton marched his men into the vicinity of the disturbance. (McDuffie, pg 714)

Before leaving the Naval Reserve armory with the sixty men of the troop, Morton had taken an additional step to legitimatize his actions, and he had wired Governor Russell;

“I have ordered the Naval Reserves out to preserve the peace on the order of the Sheriff (George Z. French).” (McDuffie, pg 717)

French Forced To Leave Wilmington:

..the State Guard seized George Z. French, chief deputy Sheriff and Russell’s political confidant. With fixed bayonets they began escorting him to the train depot. When the group arrived at the station, some Red Shirts attempted to lynch French. Despite the presence of the State Guard, the Red Shirts placed a noose around French’s neck and threw it over a pole. They were drawing the noose tight when Frank Stedman rushed up and prevented it. French and Stedman were both Masons and Stedman informed French that it was his membership in the fraternity that had saved him….When the train finally departed, the men assembled in the depot warned French never to return to Wilmington if he valued his life. (McDuffie, pg 723)

Among these (to leave the city) was G. Z. (Gizzard) French, white carpet-bagger, who had been State Senator, the author of the law that put the Wilmington government under the rule of the Negroes and their allies. (Daniels, pg 308)


Flaviel W. Foster: Gentle Carpetbagger in Wilmington:

(Flaviel W. Foster was one of the aforementioned "Big Four" Republicans who dominated Wilmington politics in the mid-1890's)

Foster was a respected businessman and property owner in Wilmington, president of Fore and Foster, a planning mill, sash and blind company in Wilmington. Although Foster was a native of Pennsylvania and had served in the Union army during the civil war, the odious label of carpetbagger had not been applied to him as it had been to George Z. French.  Unlike French, Foster has generally maintained a low-profile in Wilmington, although he had been elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1877 and had sought the Republican senatorial nomination for the district. From his arrival in Wilmington in 1873 to 1885, Foster had given his attention to real estate interests; and in 1885, with James A. Fore as a partner, he had established the Fore and Foster Planing Mill, Sash and Blind Company, one of the most important industrial enterprises in Wilmington, and sold its products on both the domestic and foreign markets.

Foster and (Governor Daniel) Russell were close friends and Foster demonstrated the friendship by naming his only child, a son, after Russell---Daniel Russell Foster. Foster was considered to be “a man of enterprise and push…(who) always took the liveliest interest in everything for the industrial development of Wilmington,” and the city’s businessmen praised his nomination.

The county’s voters elected Foster, Dempsey and Nixon as county commissioners in the November (1896) general election. They took their oaths of office and organized the Board of County Commissioners with Foster named Chairman.

The Board moved began quickly dispensing patronage by ousting Democrats appointed by the previous Democratic board and appointing Republicans in their stead.

(McDuffie, pp.  484-485)

Foster blamed the increasing county expenditures on “professional hangers-on” who resorted “to all the cunning known to man, to get a place, make a place, create offices.”  He accused these “professional hangers-on” of using “ladies to meet county Commissioners with a view of urging appropriations of county money for various purposes.”  (Semi-Weekly Wilmington Messenger, 9 April 1897)

(McDuffie, page 492)


Joseph Carter Abbott, Carpetbag General:

(While Abbott had died before the 1898 conflict, his actions and dislike of native Southerners helped inflame  black Wilmingtonians againt their white neighbors, setting the stage for November, 1898).


Abbott was born 15 July 1825 in Concord, New Hampshire, graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts in 1846, studied law and was admitted to the Bar in 1852.  He was the owner and editor of the Manchester, NH “Daily American”, 1852-1857; adjutant general of New Hampshire 1855-1861, editor of the Boston Atlas in 1859; member of the commission to adjust the New Hampshire/Canada border, and served in the federal army 1861-1865, brevetted as brigadier general.  The end of the War Between the States found him in Wilmington, NC with occupation forces and for a time

commanded the City.

He served as a Republican delegate to the State Convention in 1868 and upon re-admission of the State was elected as a Republican in the US Senate serving from 14 July 1868 to 3 March 1871.  Through political patronage he was appointed Collector of the Port of Wilmington by President Grant in May, 1874, and later Inspector of Posts along the southeastern coast by President Hayes, and established the town of Abbottsburg in Bladen County, engaging in the manufacture of lumber.  He was also employed as a Special Agent in the US Treasury Department and in 1869 published the Wilmington Post.  Indicating his dislike for native Southerners, he stated at Wilkesboro in 1867…”twenty years from today, I would rather be a Negro that a white man in North Carolina”. While in the legislature in August, 1868, said “the people must learn that we are their masters” and in the Senate later spoke of Raleigh as the “capital of the province”.  

He died in Wilmington on 8 October 1881 being originally interred in the National Cemetery at Wilmington and reinterred in Valley Cemetery, Manchester, New Hampshire in 1887.


Reflections On The Carpetbagger Class:

Daniel Russell (NC Governor 1896-1900) commented in 1874 while a judge in a letter to Thomas Settle, prominent Piedmont Republican….was no doubt thinking of French when he said…

…..”the Republican Party is in trouble, not the least of our difficulties is the fact that our federal office holders, composed almost entirely of the carpetbag class, are utterly inefficient, politically worthless and intensely selfish. Their devotion to the Party consists of the love for their salaries and fees incident to the holding of office. Take these away and they return north or go over to the enemy (conservatives). Deserving (southern) men, good speakers and first rate politicians are our own people and they are thrust aside to keep the northern men in power.”

And President Taft in 1906 while still Secretary of War, said at the Republican Convention in Greensboro that:

“in my judgment, the Republican Party in North Carolina would be much stronger as a voting party if all the federal offices were filled by Democrats….as long, however, as the Republican Party in the Southern States shall represent little, save a fractional chase for federal offices in which businessmen and men of substance in the community have no desire to enter…we may expect the present political conditions of the South to continue.”

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Prince of Carpetbaggers, Jonathan Daniels, J.B. Lippincott, 1958

Politics In Wilmington and New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1865-1900, Jerome A. McDuffie.

Doctoral dissertation, Kent State University, 1979.

UMI Dissertation Services

Ballots & Fence Rails, William McKee Evans

University of Georgia Press, 1995

Reconstruction in North Carolina, Joseph G. DeR. Hamilton

Books For Libraries Press, 1914

Editor in Politics, Josephus Daniels

UNC Press, 1941


Email: editor@1898wilmington.hypermart.net