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Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898: Prelude to a Riot Transcript
Narrator: But one Southern city, nestled comfortably along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina, seemed to have escaped from the worst excesses of the Jim Crow years. Wilmington seemed to be a racially moderate city, a condition brought about by economic prosperity and a strong black and white middle class
David Fulton (Actor): The best feeling among the races prevailed in Wilmington. The Negro and his white brother walked their beats on the police force; white and black committeemen sat down together in the same council; white and black teachers taught in the same school.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): It was a booming place for African Americans.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): They simply felt as if they were making a contribution to society thirty three years after they were freed through Emancipation Proclamation.
Melton McLauren (Historian): It was a prospering African American community. And the largest city in the state. They had attained some success in the middle classes. There was a growing mercantile class.
Kenneth L. Davis (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): What happened was...
Kenneth L. Davis (Wilmington Resident): ... a number of blacks was able to transfer skills that they learned in slavery to private enterprise.
Kenneth L. Davis (Wilmington Resident): On the plantation they were blacksmiths, they were carpenters, they were teamsters, they had all these different skills, they were teamsters they learned in slavery they weren’t being compensated for but now they were able to take those skills and transfer them into business and that’s what happened.
Glenda Gilmore (V.O.) (Historian): That first generation out of slavery, sort of bought the dream. They thought that they would get education, they would rise, they would be successful and that kind of performance would prove their manhood and womanhood.
Narrator: One successful African American was Alex Manly, publisher of the Daily Record, the only black daily newspaper in North Carolina.
Robert Wooley (Historian): He says his relationship with whites is good and there’s every reason to believe that. White merchants advertise extensively in the Daily Record. But he clearly sees the future place of black people as being full equality. There’s no question about that. And he’s constantly encouraging them to become equals economically, politically, socially, culturally.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): There were many whites who were poverty stricken. But there were many blacks who had good paying jobs. And of course they had their carriages, and their nice dress and they would shop and they had felt as if they had come a long way.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): And they were beginning to feel themselves in a prideful sort of way. And I think to a degree in an arrogant sort of way. So there we had much tension created. How dare you think you’re so much better than I am?
Robert Wooley (Historian): Its partly economic competition but its also a grave concern that black people are beginning to feel the equal to white people.
Glenda Gilmore (V.O.) (Historian): White people became quite alarmed, because if they were going to subjugate black people they had to prove that no black person was capable of the things that these people were doing.
Melton Mclauren (Historian): Whites had attained a good deal of power in Wilmington 1898, they were the majority of the population and of the voting population.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): Many of the blacks of that time held elected positions and very prominent municipal positions. They were appointed by the Republicans.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): Most of the Republicans at that time were black.
John Haley (V.O.): Justices of the peace, alderman, magistrates, firemen, public health workers. Even though these might not appear to be very high prestige
positions they at least were examples to the community, and particularly to the youth, of what black people can be.
Bertha Todd (V.O.) (Wilmington Resident): Whites were fearful that African Americans would begin to control the city of Wilmington since they were in the majority.
Kenneth L. Davis (Wilmington Resident): You have to look at two very basic issues- you have to look at politics and you have to look at economics, and whoever controls those two were in power. And it was all about power, political power and economic power.
Narrator: In the statewide and local elections of 1898, the Democratic Party, the Party of white supremacy, were determined to end black political power in North Carolina.
Daniel Schenk, Democrat (Actor): It will be the meanest, vilest, dirtiest campaign since 1876. The slogan of the Democratic Party from the mountains to the sea will be but one word... "Nigger."
Robert Wooley (Historian): They argue that only the Democrats can save North Carolina from what they call Negro rule.
Glenda Gilmore (V.O.) (Historian): Furnifold Simmons, who would go on to be United States Senator, and Charles Aycock, who would go on to be governor of North Carolina, and Josephus Daniels who was editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, the three of them got together in a hotel and hatched a campaign that would talk about white women being endangered by black men holding office.
Narrator: The white press portrayed blacks as monsters in vitriolic cartoons, representing them as an incubus, a mythological figure that raped women while they slept.
Glenda Gilmore (V.O.) (Historian): White women appeared in parades, on floats in white dresses holding up signs saying, protect us.
Narrator: Deliberately fueling racial fires, a white newspaper, published an inflammatory speech given by a leading Georgia feminist Rebecca Felton.
Rebecca Felton: If it requires lynching to protect woman's dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week...if it is necessary.
Robert Wooley (V.O.) (Historian): Manly’s blood boils and he dashes off his own editorial that conservative black people in Wilmington consider a truth to be unwisely said.
Alex Manly (V.O.) (Actor): Our experience with poor white women in the country teaches us that the women of that race are not any more particular in the manner of clandestine meetings with colored men than white men with colored women. You leave your goods out of doors and then complain because they are taken away.
Robert Wooley (V.O.) (Historian): The crowning thing that gets the whites psychic nerve center was the very last sentence of the editorial where he says, " if white men continue to initiate sex with black women then sooner or later white women are going to do the same with black men. And that was not the political thing to say. That just drove white men absolutely crazy.
Narrator: A former confederate officer, Alfred Waddell, called for violence.
Alfred Waddell (Actor): We are resolved to change the conditions under which we live if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.
Glenda Gilmore (V.O.) (Historian): White men appeared in rallies all over the state wearing red shirts, which was a sort of pre-fascist kind of outfit which they had borrowed from South Carolina.
Robert Wooley (Historian): White employers are threatening to fire black employees who register to vote. There’s massive economic intimidation going on.
Narrator: Black women urge black men to vote or risk disgrace.
Organization of Colored Ladies (Actor): Every Negro who refuses to register this next Tuesday in order that He may vote, we shall make it our business to deal with him in a way that shall not be pleasant. He shall be branded as a white- livered coward who would sell his liberty.
This video highlights Wilmington, North Carolina, in the years leading up to the election of 1898. At the time, Wilmington could boast of idyllic ...
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©2002 Quest Productions, VideoLine Productions and Educational Broadcasting Corporation
In 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina, located in eastern Carolina where the Cape Fear River enters into the Atlantic Ocean, was a prosperous port town. Almost two-thirds of its population was black, with a small but significant middle class. Black businessmen dominated the restaurant and barbershop trade and owned tailor shops and drug stores. Black people held jobs as firemen, policemen and civil servants.
A good feeling between the races existed as long as white Democrats controlled the state politically. But when a coalition of predominately white Populists and black Republicans defeated the Democrats in 1896 and won political control of the state, angry Democrats vowed revenge in the election of 1898. For many Democrats, black political power, no matter how limited, was intolerable. Daniel Schenck, a party leader, warned, "It will be the meanest, vilest, dirtiest campaign since 1876. The slogan of the Democratic Party from the mountains to the sea will be but one word… nigger."
The Democrats launched their campaign by appealing to the deepest fear of whites -- that white women were in danger from black males. The white newspaper in Wilmington published an inflammatory speech given by Rebecca Felton, a Georgia feminist, a year earlier: "If it requires lynching to protect woman's dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week…if it is necessary." The article infuriated Alex Manly, a Wilmington African-American newspaper editor. He replied by writing an editorial sarcastically noting that many of these so-called lynchings for rapes were cover-ups for the discovery of consensual interracial sexual relations. The Manly article fueled raging fires.
White radicals vowed to win the election by any means possible. Although black voters turned out in large numbers, Democrats stuffed the ballot boxes and swept to victory throughout the state. But in Wilmington, the political victory did not soften white fury. Whites drove all black officeholders out of office. A mob set Manly's newspaper office on fire and a riot erupted. Whites began to gun down blacks on the streets. Harry Hayden, one of the rioters, asserted that many within the mob were respectable citizens. "The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office yesterday were not a mob of plug uglies. They were men of property, intelligence, culture…clergyman, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right." By the next day, the killing ended. Officially, 25 blacks died but hundreds more may have been killed, their bodies dumped into the Cape Fear River.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
- What made Wilmington, North Carolina a unique southern city during the Jim Crow years? Provide a few examples from the video that point to the progressive nature of Wilmington residents during this period.
- The video emphasizes a shift in relations between black and white residents leading up to the 1898 election. What influenced the change in this community? Explain your answer.
- Did the Democrats endorse racist propaganda to influence the election? Explain your answer with supporting details.
- How did Alex Manly (publisher of the Wilmington Daily Record) respond to white Democratic racism? Would you have responded as he did? Explain your answer.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: "Fighting Back"
Learn more about The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.
A co-production of Quest Productions, Videoline Productions, and Thirteen/WNET New York.
A co-production of Quest Productions, Videoline Productions, and Thirteen/WNET New York.