North Carolina City Confronts Its Past in Report on White Vigilantes
WILMINGTON, N.C., Dec. 18 - Beneath canopies of moss-draped oaks, on sleepy streets graced by antebellum mansions, tour guides here spin stories of Cape Fear pirates and Civil War blockade-runners for eager tourists.
Only scant mention is made, however, of the bloody rioting more than a century ago during which black residents were killed and survivors banished by white supremacists, who seized control of the city government in what historians say is the only successful overthrow of a local government in United States history.
But last week, Wilmington revisited that painful history with the release of a draft of a 500-page report ordered by the state legislature that not only tells the story of the Nov. 10, 1898, upheaval, but also presents an analysis of its effects on black families that persist to this day.
Culled from newspaper clippings, government records, historical archives and interviews, some previously unexplored, the report explodes oft-repeated local claims that the insurrection was a frantic response to a corrupt and ineffective post-Reconstruction government.
"The ultimate goal was the resurgence of white rule of the city and state for a handful of men through whatever means necessary," the historian LeRae Umfleet wrote in the report's introduction.
The report concludes that the rioting and coup fully ended black participation in local government until the civil rights era, and was a catalyst for the development of Jim Crow laws in North Carolina.
"Because Wilmington rioters were able to murder blacks in daylight and overthrow Republican government without penalty or federal intervention, everyone in the state, regardless of race, knew that the white supremacy campaign was victorious on all fronts," the report said.
In the period immediately after the Civil War, the Democratic Party-ruled government in Wilmington, which was then North Carolina's largest city, was displaced by a coalition that was largely Republican and included many blacks. The loss of power stirred dissatisfaction among a faction of white civic leaders and business owners.
The tensions came to a head on Election Day, Nov. 9, 1898, when the Democrats regained power, according to historians largely by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating black voters to keep them from the polls. Not waiting for an orderly transition of government, a group of white vigilantes demanded that power be handed over immediately. When they were rebuffed, in the words of the report, "Hell jolted loose."
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