To truly understand the wicked legacy of racism in the United States, look to well-researched history. Current media may buzz about critical race theory – and it can be provocative – but history has staying power. And really well-done history explains so much in ways that can engage and enrage, that can make you weep and want to learn and take action. A recent Pulitzer-prize winning history book, David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, does all this. It is an outstanding book, a carefully crafted study of a racist coup, a massacre planned and led by white supremacists, and the lies around it. It is important history, the study of an event that calls out for attention. It has been hiding in plain sight for far too long.
Zucchino is an accomplished journalist. He’s received many awards and it is clear from book’s very opening that he knows how to research and to write a story. While the events he covers took place more than 120 years ago, Wilmington’s Lie feels as current and as relevant as something one might read or see today. It’s a gripping and horrific tale. Zucchino’s talent makes it all the more so.
The facts, the historical events, are clear and thoroughly documented. In the 1890s, Wilmington, North Carolina, was the home to growing Black middle class. The city was majority Black and while segregated, had Blacks and whites living and working in together. Importantly, many important roles in the community were held by Blacks, including members of the police, a Black newspaper, aldermen and other professionals. At that time, too, it’s important to remember that the Democratic party was closely linked to the southern secessionists while the Republican party was still the party of Lincoln and associated with rights for Black Americans. Democrats in North Carolina, led by whites, were greatly concerned about the power and influence of Blacks and Republicans. Wilmington was ground zero for this threatening democratic (with a small “d”) future. White supremacists began planning to take back control of the city and the state.
The campaign was lengthy and multi-pronged, led by an alliance of Democratic party leaders and key members of the white press, aimed at taking power through the 1898 elections and other means. Newspapers were the primary media in the 1890s. A concerted newspaper campaigns could sway public opinion; the press was that powerful. White owned papers aligned with the Democratic party began a racist campaign alleging the rapes of white women by Blacks. There were many articles about imaginary Black-led conspiracies and violence against whites. The articles, editorials, cartoons all built to a well-choreographed campaign against elected government officials, Republicans. They were called corrupt and ineffective against these imagined threats. It was effectively executed disinformation and many believed it, especially poorer whites.
Accompanying the media, two state militias were organized by white Democratic party leaders. They were pledged to protect “order.” Local campaigns in and around Wilmington to arm whites to protect their white women and their property were also promoted. Blacks, notably, were repeatedly denied opportunities to purchase weapons to defend themselves. Whites organized into “Red Shirt” militias, armed mobs who roamed the country to protect an imagined way of life and to terrorize Blacks. They made it a point, too, to threaten Blacks who planned to vote. Their self-titled campaign was for “White Supremacy.”
In the summer of 1898, a Black newspaper publisher in Wilmington wrote a scathing editorial in response to a call by a white woman for more lynchings. This added fuel to the fire started by the white supremacists, who made the journalist a target for lynching. By the November election, Red Shirts and other whites actively prevented Blacks from voting through threats and violence. The Whites promised to take over once they won the election and so they did – with a vengeance. They burned the building housing the Black newspaper and began a systematic campaign of choreographed racist violence. They murdered at least 60 Black men. They set fire to homes and more businesses. They rounded up Black leaders in the community and a number of whites who worked with them and forced them to leave town under threat of death. White supremacists drove families from their homes. Blacks left by the thousands. Within a few weeks, a Black majority city became a white majority city. It was an organized coup. The state governor did not take action. President McKinley, focused on the Spanish-Filipino-American war and maintaining electoral power, did nothing. The North Carolina Republicans and Blacks were without organized support.
Zucchino recounts all of this in great detail. He also explains how the campaign to recast the story of the coup was so effective, from the wining and dining of reporters who came to Wilmington to the ways that Democratic political leaders emphasized the return of the city to “safe” white control. The North Carolina state legislature became Democratic and racist white leaders in other cities and states took notice. North Carolina passed voting restriction laws, making sure that the burden for Blacks to vote was significantly higher than whites. Many of those laws remained in place through the 1960s Civil Rights legislation. The lie, told then and retold over the centuries, was that the organized violence in Wilmington was anything other than an organized white supremacist anti-democratic coup to overthrow Blacks and those who worked with them.
For decades the story of the Wilmington coup was ignored or downplayed. I first learned of Wilmington in the 1980s during a panel talk by historians of the south. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington started serious scholarship, including a lengthy report and a more formal recognition of the coup in 1998, one hundred years on. Research continues and there are ample primary and secondary sources online. It is only with more work – especially books like Wilmington’s Lie – that wider knowledge is possible.
If we are going to build a better future, it is essential to know our past. Where we are today are direct consequences of our history. I encourage you to read the book.
Today less than 20% of Wilmington’s population is Black.