1898 Wilmington Race Riot

Wilmington's Board of Aldermen & City Government,

Circa November 1898:

The Governor's Message:

"...Mr. George Rountree received a telegram from Governor Russell saying that he would use all his efforts to influence the Mayor and City Council to resign if that would restore peace."

The Situation in Wilmington:

"Tonight the city is in the hands of a new municipal government and law and order is being established. This afternoon, the Board of Aldermen resigned one by one. As each alderman vacated, the remainder elected a successor, named by the citizen's committee, until the entire Board was changed legally. They resigned in response to public sentiment. The Mayor and Chief of Police then resigned and the new Board elected successors, according to law.

(Raleigh News & Observer, November 11, 1898)

Former Alderman John G. Norwood:

"(I) resigned (my) position as City Alderman on November 11th and (my) successor was duly elected."

(Wilmington Messenger, January 31, 1900)

Republican Governor Still Controls Wilmington Elections:

"Under the provisions of the 1897 (Fusionist-changed city) charter, Republican Governor Daniel L Russell could easily snap the Democratic hold on Wilmington. He could once again appoint five Fusionist aldermen to the Board during the city's next aldermanic elections. Additionally, the power to appoint the members of the Board of Audit and Finance still remained in the Governor's hands, and he would be appointing the five members of this body in March 1899." (McDuffie, page 770)


 Free and Open Government?

Were Aldermen Elected or Appointed?

Wilmington's Aldermen in 1898 were not all freely-elected, and the Mayor was elected by the Board of Aldermen, not the people of Wilmington. While 5 aldermen were elected by the citizens, 5 additional Aldermen were appointed by the Republican governor, thus ensuring a Republican mayor, and a Board of Aldermen dominated by Republicans.

Republican Disharmony Before November, 1898:

On March 25, 1897, Wilmington had three Boards of Aldermen and three Mayors. One was appointed by the Governor, and the other two by the local Republican factions. The three boards met at City Hall on March 26 to elect a mayor. Governor Russell's group included three blacks, Andrew J. Walker, J.G. Norwood and Elijah Green. They chose Dr. Silas P. Wright as mayor. The other two groups were white, whith W.N. Hariss and H. McL. Green as their elected mayors. They considered the Governor's action unconstitutional.  The Russell group held their first meeting at City Hall on March 27, 1897 and H. McL. Green made a formal request that Dr. Wright surrender the office of Mayor to him at once. W.N. Harriss took legal action against the seated board of aldermen and mayor in May, 1897.

(Wilmington Dispatch, March 27, 1897, Wilmington Messenger, May 20, 1897)

On November 16, 1897 North Carolina (Republican) Justice Faircloth rendered a decision that the Governor Russell-appointed Board of Alderman with Silas P. Wright as Mayor, was the legal (but not freely-elected) government of Wilmington. This alone resurrected the specter of Northern Republican/Negro rule and corruption once again for conservative Wilmingtonians.

In reality, Governor Russell and his Republican-Populist Fusion legislature changed Wilmington's City Charter to ensure Fusion dominance in local politics, and worked to minimize Conservative office-holding.

Fusionists Consolidate Their Power After 1895:

The Fusionists-particularly the Republicans---also wanted to overturn Democratic "courthouse rings" in a number of eastern cities. Especially targeted were New Bern and Wilmington. Since Russell had promised the taxpayers of municipalities protection from misrule by the property-less and ignorant, he sought the extraordinary executive power to appoint city aldermen. The Republicans introduced bills altering city charters to allow each municipal ward to elect one alderman and the governor to appoint one. The Democrats protested with justification that the Republicans had reneged on their own campaign slogan of home rule. They claimed further that the Republicans planned to "foist Negro rule and domination" on the state.

…The New Bern and Wilmington municipal charters were revamped…the Wilmington charter empowered the governor to appoint just as many alderman as the electorate chose. The Raleigh Tribune, which now opposed Russell on every issue declared:

"News of the passage of the bill making the Governor literally czar of Wilmington was received with joy by the administration Republicans and those termed Russell Democrats" (March 3, 1897) (Maverick Republican in the Old North State, pp. 91-92)

After the municipal election in Wilmington on March 25, 1897, Russell appointed 5 aldermen---4 Republicans and one silver Democrat---to serve with the five elected aldermen who included two Negro Republicans and here Democrats. One of Russell's appointees was a Negro Republican John G. Norwood. When the three newly elected Democratic aldermen refused to meet with the Governors appointees, the Russell aldermen and the two popularly elected black aldermen chose a Republican (Northerner Silas P. Wright) as Mayor. (Maverick Republican in the Old North State, pp. 97-98)

From 1877 to 1897, there had generally been three elected black aldermen, and from 1891 to 1893 there had been four blacks on the board. After the 1896 county elections and Russell's appointments to the Boards of Audit and Finance, and Aldermen, it appeared Republican ascendancy in New Hanover county was assured. (McDuffie, page 490)

During the twelve years extending from 1878 to 1890, the voters of NHC elected Republicans to perform the duties of Sheriff, clerk of court, register of deeds, and county treasurer. White Republicans S.H. Manning and Stacy van Amringe held the positions of Sheriff and clerk respectively; and a black Republican Joseph E. Sampson served as Register of Deeds. The Republicans also controlled the office of county treasurer during this period, but the post was not occupied by one man. Elijah Hewlett, a white Republican served as county treasurer from 1878 to 1882, and from 1886 to 1892.

The county's voters elected Owen Burney, a black Republican to the office in 1882 and another black Republican, John O. Nixon, to the office in 1884. The election of Democrats to the offices of Sheriff, Clerk of Court, and Register of Deeds in the 1890 election broke the grip of the Republicans on these offices, and the election of a Democrat to serve as county treasurer in 1892 placed those four important offices under Democratic control. In the 1894 election, the Republicans regained control of the offices of Sheriff and county Treasurer, and in the county elections in 1896 the Republicans also regained control of the Register of Deeds office.

The Justices of the Peace elected the Board of County Commissioners, and the General Assembly elected the Justices. From 1878 to 1896, eight Democrats held the five posts as County Commissioners for New Hanover county, and during these 18 years 5 men dominated the Board. The Justices elected B.G. Worth and Horace A. Bagg to serve on the Board from 1878 to 1896. Additionally, the Justices elected James A. Montgomery to 7 terms, E.L. Pearce to 8 terms, and Roger Moore to 6 terms on the Board.  (McDuffie, page 491)

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Maverick Republican in the Old North State, A Political Biography of Daniel L. Russell.

Jeffrey J. Crow and Robert F. Durden, 1977, LSU Press

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.

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Email: editor@1898wilmington.hypermart.net