By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
In the aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson, white Southerners further protected the new social system of segregation and the new debt-based labor arrangements by disenfranchising African Americans. They enforced the spate of new discriminatory laws and customs through fear and violence. These were bleak days for African Americans, what poet and playwright James Weldon Johnson described as “days when hope unborn had died”.
A Thriving Black Community
Despite the resurgence of white supremacy, African Americans in the bustling seaport city of Wilmington, North Carolina, held onto the gains they had made after emancipation and built a thriving Black community. They fellowshipped together in churches, bonded with one another in fraternal organizations, and cared for each other through benevolent societies.
They worked as professionals in government, banking, and newspaper publishing; as skilled artisans in industry; and on maritime crews at sea. And they participated in politics, voting into office Black and white Republicans. But much of what they gained was wiped out on November 10, 1898, by a mob hell-bent on reestablishing white supremacist rule.
Conspiracy against Alexander Manly
For months, Wilmington’s white elite, led by members of the Democratic Party, had been conspiring to get rid of the city’s Republican officeholders. They feigned outrage and incredulity about an editorial in the Daily Record, a local Black newspaper published by Alexander Manly.
Manly had called out white men for attempting to justify lynching by saying they were only trying to stop sexual assaults on white women by Black men, when white people knew that the main perpetrators of sexual violence were white men, and the primary victims were Black women.
Two days after Wilmington voters elected a predominantly Republican municipal government, an armed white mob, easily numbering over 1,000, marched on Manly’s office fully intending to lynch him.
Manly knew his life was in danger and fled the city well before the rioters arrived, but that didn’t stop the mob from destroying his printing equipment and setting his office on fire. They went on rampaging through the Black community, killing as many as 60 African Americans.
Dismantling the Government
They ordered the legitimately elected Republican members of the municipal government to vacate their offices and abandon the city under penalty of death. Fearing for their lives, some 20 Black elected officials and civic leaders joined Manly in exile.
In their absence, white supremacists took their seats, with the head of the mob, former congressman Alfred Waddell, seizing the mayor’s office.
The coup orchestrated by Democrats had succeeded. White supremacists installed a new government, and state authorities recognized it immediately.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Impact of the Insurrection
The impact of the armed overthrow of the Wilmington municipal government would be felt for generations. Some 2,100 African Americans were forced to leave the city to save their own lives. Many never returned, weakening the social networks and institutions at the heart of the Black community. Black participation in government ended and wouldn’t resume until federal voting rights protections were put in place in the 1960s.
Black economic activity steadily declined as Black businesses were forced to close and Black workers faced heightened employment discrimination. And Black schools, teachers, and students suffered from decreased funding from the lily-white government, resulting in a marked decline in the Black literacy rate.
The Wilmington Massacre was not an anomaly. White mobs burned Black communities, murdered African Americans, and dispossessed Black people of their property in Pierce City, Missouri, in 1901; Springfield, Illinois, in 1908; East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917; Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919; Tulsa, Oklahoma (Black Wall Street), in 1921; Rosewood, Florida, in 1923; and Detroit, Michigan, in 1943. Rather than an aberration, the Wilmington Massacre was illustrative of the moment.
Supremacy of the Antidemocratic Whites
The Wilmington Massacre was also representative of the anti-Black, antidemocratic political movement sweeping the South. Following the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, white Southerners ratcheted up their efforts to disenfranchise African Americans, coming together despite significant class differences.
Small, white farmers had grown distrustful of the fiscally conservative plantation elite, who looked suspiciously at them for entertaining the idea of forming political alliances with Black farmers. But in the end, white Southerners coalesced around the idea of stripping African Americans of the right to vote. They chose white supremacy over democracy.
Reactionary Protests of the African Americans
The Wilmington Massacre was what Homer Plessy was trying to prevent. He challenged Louisiana’s Separate Car Act not only because it was unfair and unjust, but also because he knew that segregation stamped African Americans with a badge of inferiority. And being marked as less than white, subhuman even, provided a justification for disenfranchising African Americans, and worse, using violence to regulate Black behavior and control Black labor.
Homer Plessy was not alone in trying to prevent atrocities like the one that happened in Wilmington. African Americans across the country organized to stop these outrages. Their activism took many forms, from streetcar boycotts to mass migration.
Their protests, though, did not stop the rising tide of white supremacy. Since Reconstruction, America had become less democratic and more violent. But their challenges did pay dividends. Their agitation set the stage for a Black cultural renaissance and laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement. Although it was hard to see, there was light amidst the darkness, hope amidst the despair, because African Americans like Homer Plessy kept fighting for freedom rights.
Common Questions about the Wilmington Massacre
Despite the resurgence of white supremacy, African Americans built a thriving Black community in Wilmington. They worked as professionals in government, banking, and newspaper publishing; as skilled artisans in industry; and on maritime crews at sea. And they participated in politics, voting into office Black and white Republicans.
The Wilmington Massacre took place on November 10, 1898, when an armed white mob, easily numbering over 1,000, went on rampaging through the Black community, killing as many as 60 African Americans.
The elite whites feigned outrage and incredulity about an editorial in the Daily Record, a local Black newspaper published by Alexander Manly.