1898 Wilmington Race Riot


The Republican Party and "The Ring" in Wilmington:

The Situation Preceding the Election

“The Negroes will attempt to vote, and in the resistance which will be offered to them at the polls a conflict will surely come…

The campaign in North Carolina, of which this Wilmington situation is but a part, recalls the stormy days when the State passed through the throes of reconstruction.  Business is practically at a standstill, and merchants, lawyers and bankers gather in public meetings and in their offices to discuss the extreme measures necessary to keep the Negroes from the polls.  The color line is sharply drawn.  It is the whites against the blacks---the former to rule at all hazards…

Many of the leading citizens have sent their families out of the State…Private houses are fortified against possible attack, and he local papers solemnly warn house-wives not to give up any rifles on orders purporting to be signed by their husbands, as this is said to be one of the schemes of the Negroes to secure arms.”

(Raleigh News & Observer, October 30, 1898.)

The Raleigh Daily Sentinel's View of Reconstruction:

"The history of legislation in North Carolina would form one of the strangest books that has ever been published. It would reveal an amount of fraud, venality and recklessness perfectly unparalleled, we venture to say, in the history of legislation in any age or country. If ever before there was a time demanding the most scrupulous and watchful economy, it is the present.

And yet, in the face of wide-spread ruin and dismay; in the face of repeated failures in crops and a disorganized system of labor; with depression and anxiety in every house-hold, the members of the present legislature have exhibited the utmost disregard of the actual condition of our people, and have wantonly and wickedly and with malice prepense concocted a system of taxation, that not only outrages public opinion, but fastens, it may be, for all time, burdens perfectly unbearable and destructive upon the landed proprietors of the State.

These representatives of the people---these public servants "so-called"---these incapable and indifferent legislators, met in Raleigh and deliberately set to work to despoil the State and add ten-fold distress to her people. They enter upon a plan of spoilation as effective in its results as was the "bumming" of Sherman's scoundrels. They lend themselves to the wild schemes, listen with itching ears to the rapacious demands of wild cat combinations, wink at corruption and profligacy, indulge in vice and immorality, and conspire to paralyze the best interests of the State, to drive away capital, to keep capital from coming into the State and to lay taxes that can not be borne…Railroad schemes without number, a continued waste of public funds, and taxes at once oppressive and thoroughly ruinous are the results of their six months stay in Raleigh. They have done nothing but evil and are an offense to every just and honest man. They deserve, and they shall receive the hearty execration of a long suffering, industrious and frugal people.

But we refer to those harpies, some from the Northland, but many native and to the manor born," who preyed upon our people, and with cormorant appetites essayed to suck the very life-blood from the emaciated form of our old Mother. Carpet-baggers who came unbidden and who have fairly battened upon the political garbage that has been thrown to them; obsequious time-servers and trimmers who have played the sycophants for filthy lucre---these are the creatures who have wickedly conspired against the people of North Carolina, and have sought to ruin them by the most oppressive taxation---these are the creatures who amid the troubling of the political waters have been spawned in our Legislative halls, and who ought to be denounced and shunned as you would a leper. They are political lepers and taint the whole political atmosphere."
(Raleigh Daily Sentinel, 16 April 1869)

The "Big Four" Rule In Wilmington:

In November 1898, the political power in Wilmington was vested in four men known as "The Big Four", Dr. Silas P. Wright, the Mayor; George Z. French, former Postmaster of Wilmington and acting Sheriff of New Hanover County; W.H. Chadbourn, the Postmaster, and Flaviel W. Foster. All were Republican politicians, new to the area after the war (except for Chadbourn) and all supported by the votes of Wilmington's black-majority population.

The power of the "Big Four" was supreme in the City as they controlled the majority of voters, the blacks who always voted Republican. This control of the black vote assured the Republican office holders a continuity in office and local influence.

A high degree of control was exercised over the local Republican party by a small circle of patrons, a group known on the lower Cape Fear as "The Ring". The party appears to have consisted of some two thousand blacks plus from 100-150 whites, white support varying more than that of the more steadfast blacks. The party in the City included fifteen or twenty prosperous businessmen who maintained residences in Wilmington, though some of them also had homes and business interests elsewhere.

The white members of "The Ring" consisted of perhaps a half dozen first and second generation New Englanders from families that had settled on the Cape Fear before the War Between The States ( Silas Martin, G.R. French, W.H. Chadbourn). After the war, these men were joined by another group, also mostly from New England who had been connected with the federal occupation forces (George Z. French, James Wilson, David Heaton and son James, Flaviel.W. Foster, J. Abbott, A. Rutherford, S.H. Manning).

These were joined by well to do black families such as the Sampsons & Howes.

The political control by "The Ring" was accomplished in two ways; patronage and money. The question of political jobs was of capital importance to local black politicians and the wealthy white Republicans of the area had the necessary connections in Raleigh and Washington to influence decisions as to which man would be appointed to a particular job. Also, Wilmington was one of the few centers in which the Republicans had an effective press with the Wilmington Post (owned by former northern general Joseph C. Abbott) claiming to be the largest paper in the State.

Reducing New Hanover County Influence:
In a move to curb this influence of Republicans in Wilmington, the newly installed Conservative State legislature in 1875 took the northern two-thirds of New Hanover County, including almost all of its agricultural population and formed it into a new County called Pender, named for Confederate General William Dorsey Pender, native of Edgecombe County and buried in Tarboro. Thus the representation of New Hanover County in the NC House was reduced from three to two seats.

Republicans, Racism and Daniel Russell:
The fact that the basis of the Republican party's strength in New Hanover county originated from the black voters prevented many conservative whites that agreed with the national party's principles from openly professing membership in the party. While these men frequently were Republican in national politics, they remained aloof from local politics. They had to live in Wilmington and had to face its white citizens daily. Although their daily existence did not depend on political office, their profit and prosperity did depend on the white community of southeastern North Carolina. Thus, the political party system that emerged in Wilmington during the 1870's and 1880's revolved around neither profound political philosophies nor economic classes, but rather around skin color.

Moreover, in New Hanover County and Wilmington, the fact that the Republican party derived most of its electoral strength from the black voter hindered the development of political pride within the ranks of the party. (Daniel L.) Russell contended that the Republicans in the city and county "are ashamed even of themselves." He observed that this shame forced them to "go off in some out of the way place, conduct their consultations in secret, and yet claim for it full authority as the legitimate action of the party."

Gov. D. L. Russell

In declining (a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court) the nomination Russell also turned his attention to the black Republicans and he revealed a distinctly paternalistic attitude toward them.

He wrote (J.C.L. Harris, Secretary of the North Carolina Republican Executive Committee) "The Negroes of the South are largely savages. We with northern aid and sanction kidnapped them, enslaved them, and by the most monstrous wrong degraded them so that they are no more of it to govern than are their brethren in African swamps or so many Mongolians dumped down from pagan Asia."

Russell anticipated that many Democrats would accuse him of believing that "all Negroes are savages and that none of them should vote." He believed that "the intelligent African leaders ought to stand up and recognize the actual condition of their race and so act as to show the white people of the State that Negro rule is not wanted by the Republican party."

Russell and two of the other (1892 regional Republican conference) conferees released an address to the press, which complained that "new men…have been driven back (from the Republican party) by the vision of Negro Supremacy," and they remonstrated that it was "hard to find one young white man of ability and promise, in all the black belt, who admits himself to be a Republican."

The address also claimed that "the most hopeless Democratic counties (in North Carolina) are the Negro counties." Moreover, they vigorously contended that "in North Carolina today there is no Republican party worth mentioning, except that which is comprised of white men in white communities." They attributed many of the party's problems to "the appointment of black men whose conduct makes them offensive to the white people of their communities" to federal patronage positions. The three white Republicans also railed against "the elevation of the most corrupt Negro element to the control of the party in black counties." These actions, so the three men claimed, had resulted in the Republican party in eastern North Carolina being "simply a Negro party, comprising not all the colored people but controlled by the most ignorant and vicious and corrupt elements of that race."

You Can Vote, But Not Hold Office:

A white Republican informed a northern white man (in 1889) who was visiting North Carolina that he favored the franchise for the blacks but that he was strongly against their demands for holding office. He told the visitor: "I am a Republican, but I was a white man before I was a Republican,"
(McDuffie, pp. 349-360)

Black Methodist Parson Leak to Josephus Daniel, November, 1898:

A day or two after the election, the Negro State Fair was held in Raleigh. The Negro manager had invited Governor Russell to open the fair, but he declined the invitation. On the morning of the opening of the fair, its president, Parson Leak, Methodist preacher who had been a Republican leader in 1894 and 1896, but who had broken with Jim Young and the other Negro leaders in 1898 came came by and asked my to make a speech opening the fair. I told the parson that in view of my activity in the white supremacy campaign, I felt that the Negros might not relish my addressing them.

"On the contrary" he said, "this old rascal who is up in the Governor's mansion, who has gotten everything he has from Negroes, has been ungrateful. They have no respect for him. They know that at heart you are their friend and they need somebody who was a leader of the white supremacy campaign to give them assurance of friendship and protection. You are the very man they want."

Josephus Daniels

And so I went out and opened the Negro Fair.

The Negroes had assembled in great numbers.

I tried to voice to them the genuine friendship which the leaders of white supremacy felt for them and pointed out that it was a campaign not directed at the law-abiding and industrious Negro, but at the Negro slave-drivers of which Russell was at the head, and assured them that the day of election for them was really a day of emancipation from corrupt party leaders.
(Editor In Politics, Josephus Daniels, pp. 311-312.)



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 Services

Editor In Politics,
Josephus Daniels, UNC Press, 1941

Email: editor@1898wilmington.hypermart.net