The North Carolina government is officially recognizing what historians call the only successful coup d’etat in American history, when white supremacists overthrew the Reconstruction-era government in Wilmington in 1898.
The state’s Highway Historical Marker Committee has approved a new plaque to be installed in Wilmington in 2018 near a busy intersection, which will tell people about the racist attack that left dozens dead and heralded the start of the Jim Crow era here.
This isn’t the first time North Carolina has officially acknowledged the coup – which went completely unpunished. The state commissioned a report released in 2006 about the violence. But a public marker in a busy area is more likely to be seen by the public than that 464-page report.
In 1898 Wilmington was North Carolina’s biggest city, and many of its city government leaders and prominent businessmen were black. In the three decades since the end of the Civil War, black people had gained more freedom and financial stability – but they would lose many of those advancements starting at the turn of the 20th century and continuing for decades more.
A former Confederate officer and U.S. congressman named Alfred Waddell led the attack, with a band of armed rioters that eventually grew to about 2,000 men.
They burned down local black-owned businesses, killed dozens of black people and forced many more to leave town and abandon their homes. They then took over city government, forcing out the white mayor and the mixed-race town council, and installing Waddell as the new mayor without a legitimate election.
The new marker will read: “Wilmington coup. Armed Crowd met, Nov. 10, 1898, at armory here, marched 6 blocks S.E., and burned office of Daily Record, black-owned newspaper edited by Alex Manly. Violence left up to 60 blacks dead. Led to overthrow of city government and the installation of coup leader Alfred Moore Waddell as mayor. ‘Race riot’ was part of a state-wide political campaign based on calls for white supremacy and exploitation of racial tensions.”
Deb Butler, a Democrat who represents Wilmington in the North Carolina House of Representatives, tweeted Friday that the new marker is “overdue, but welcome nonetheless.”
She said the plan is to put it up in March, on Market Street in between Fourth Street and Fifth Street. That area is a short walk away from the Cape Fear River waterfront that makes up the busiest part of downtown. More symbolically, it’s at the town’s historical Light Infantry Building, which is where the rioting began 119 years ago.
David La Vere, a history professor at UNC-Wilmington who sits on the state committee that approved the new marker, said it came about after locals asked for the coup to be recognized.
“It marks an important piece of history,” he said.
Past attempts at reconciliation
Previously, the state has alluded to the coup in a historical plaque near the site of the newspaper whose office the mob burned down.
The paper was owned by Manly, who wrote an editorial about mixed-race relationships that historians believe contributed to the attacks a few days later. But the plaque stopped short of informing travelers of the full extent of the violence, either politically or in terms of the casualties.
It read: “Alex Manly. 1866-1944. Edited black-owned Daily Record four blocks east. Mob burned his office, Nov. 10, 1898, leading to ‘race riot’ & restrictions on black voting in N.C.”
The state, as well as private groups with ties to the violence, only began addressing the coup this century. In 2000 the legislature set up a commission to look into the attacks, which lawmakers later acknowledged had been “obscure” in state history before then.
The committee released a damning report in 2006, and that same year The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer apologized for the roles their 19th-century leaders had played in the violence. The NC Democratic Party apologized in 2007.
That same year, the General Assembly passed a resolution officially recognizing the coup. The resolution said that the legislature “expresses profound regret that violence, intimidation, and force were used to replace a duly elected local government, that people lost their livelihoods and were forced to leave their homes, and that the government was unsuccessful in protecting its citizens during that time.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran