The wrecked



Democracy's Denial:
Revolutions in Wilmington
[1898 and After]

Now Available
Now available


n 1898, Wilmington NC's population consisted of about 8,000 whites and 11,000 blacks, and the elected government was a "Fusionist" coalition of white Populists and predominantly black Republicans. This proved too threatening to white supremacists. Encouraged by months of agitation against blacks, particularly the "immorality" of black men, they armed themselves and began to riot.  They burned the town's black newspaper after its editor challenged the justice of lynch law for black "rapists", they exiled the mayor and many officials, and drove thousands of black businessmen out of town.  The number of African Americans killed remains unknown.

It was a pivotal moment in the history of race in America.  The U.S. government looked away.  In fact, those who had led the coup in Wilmington went on to play an influential role in national politics for some time to come. Justice was never done. Seventy-three years later, in 1971, Wilmingtonians were shaken by several weeks of racial violence, but it took a century for them to take a serious look at what had happened, and to start to deal with the consequences.  The 1898 Centennial Foundation was created to help repair the town's sense of community through public forums; to raise questions about what happened and why, and how it affects us today — questions that all of us must address in our own lives.

The program includes the memoirs of four survivors of the coup of 1898 as read by their direct descendants. It is narrated by noted journalist and radio host Verna Avery Brown. 

The Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Southern Humanities Media Fund, the North Carolina Humanities Council, this and other Public Radio International stations nationwide, and the PRI program fund including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, made this program possible. 


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Democracy's Denial: Revolution in Wilmington [1898 and After] 




E.G. Parmalee, New Chief of Police in Wilmgington, North Carolina.
E.G. Parmalee, New Chief of Police in Wilmgington, North Carolina.

Alarmed by the growing political and economic power of African Americans, white businessmen plot to reassert their supremacy, and the white press spreads scare stories, especially about the threat posed by black men to white women's "purity".   "Black/Republican dominance [is] a menace to white women and to business." — statement of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, 1898.

The wrecked 'Record' building and a group of vigilantes.
The wrecked 'Record' building and a group of vigilantes.

With elections approaching, whites in Wilmington, their fears inflamed by demagogues, mobilize to overthrow the political system, declare unilateral "White Independence", and seize power.  Alexander Manley, editor of a black newspaper, denounces the hypocrisy of lynching black men for sexual relations with white women. Outraged whites plot to destroy his newspaper in retaliation. 

Headline from The New York Herald
Headline from The New York Herald

White "revolutionaries" put pressure on the democratically elected mayor and aldermen to resign and hand over power.  An armed mob of white residents assembles to drive people of color out of Wilmington and/or lynch them.  Many blacks are massacred; their property is "confiscated".  The U.S. government does nothing to intervene, possibly to dissuade residents in its newly acquired overseas territories from becoming "too involved in the democratic process."

Naval Reserves escorting Negro prisoners to the jail.
Naval Reserves escorting Negro prisoners to the jail.

Faced by this threat to their rights, African Americans debate self-defense and armed resistance.  The literature of both sides becomes another battleground for the truth.  Fusionists – a coalition between white farmers and Black Republicans - begin to win power from white democrats. To prevent the democratic exercise of power, whites introduce the notorious "grandfather clause" to prevent blacks from voting.

Demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama.
Demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama.

There is increasing racial conflict after WWII, and many blacks are not willing to accept segregation.  Wilmington youth boycott public schools in 1971, leading to riots and the prosecution of the Wilmington 10, which becomes a cause célèbre.  Many see a connection between the events of 1898 and 1971.

Model of the memorial being planned for Wilmington.
Model of the memorial being planned for Wilmington.

Present-day Wilmingtonians comment on the events of 1898 and their continuing impact on the community. Were the actions of white citizens in 1898 substantially different from business practices of today?  How can a community heal the wounds of the past?  Any reconciliation must be based on truth, and on recognition of our interrelatedness as communities.








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