This year marks the 120th anniversary of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 when a murderous mob ousted the city’s black leadership, cementing white domination of the state for decades.
The episode has been recalled in recent national media coverage and was the subject of “The Red Cape,” a short, independent film that debuted last month. David Cecelski, a Tar Heel native and historian, calls it “the most politically consequential event in North Carolina’s history since the Civil War.” In our current era of deep political polarization, he says, it’s more important than ever that we heed its lessons.
The violence of 1898 had begun brewing four years earlier. That’s when an alliance of white populists and black Republicans rose to power, opening a brief window of sizable black political influence. The opposing Democratic Party struck back in 1898 with a coordinated campaign of racial violence, political activism, economic pressure, and propaganda. Their goal, just three decades after the end of the Civil War: permanently separating whites and blacks so that they could never again combine to exert political power. Their platform: white supremacy.
The strategy worked. By November 1898, tensions were escalating in the last Republican stronghold in the state. Angered by an editorial in a black-owned Wilmington newspaper defending black men against allegations of raping white women, a white mob destroyed the newspaper’s offices and ran black leaders out of town.
Republican elected officials of both races were forcibly replaced by Democrats in what amounted to a coup. Rapid disenfranchisement of black voters quickly followed. Prior to 1898, a handful of black representatives from North Carolina had gone to Congress; it would be another 90 years till the next one was elected.
Cecelski, who co-edited Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy with Timothy Tyson, says we’re still very much living under the shadow of the Jim Crow system established in 1898. One-party political control based on white supremacy ensured that anything that might help blacks thrive – from education funding and social services to economic opportunity and organized labor – was throttled for three-quarters of a century. It’s no surprise then, Cecelski says, that today major gaps in educational achievement, home ownership, health care, and wealth persist between blacks and whites.
Race, meanwhile, continues to serve as an explosive political wedge – and voters don’t seem anymore savvy as to how their anxieties are being exploited now than they were 120 years ago. Fake news played a critical role in mobilizing the Democratic base in 1898. Throughout that year, Cecelski says, Democratic-controlled papers in the eastern part of the state, with News & Observer publisher Josephus Daniels leading the charge, published fabricated accounts of black violence against women in the western part of the state. Papers in the west would publish similar accounts of supposed travesties in the east. The accounts couldn’t be verified – but in a state where many white residents were unnerved by the recent political gains made by blacks, the truth quickly became irrelevant.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because social media channels spread sensational and sometimes entirely false accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, frequently leveraging race to deepen political divisions. As in 1898, voters too often failed to question their veracity.
Cecelski, a political independent critical of both major parties, worries about the consequences of Republicans currently engaging in what he calls “the most fundamental remaking of our public system since 1898.” Still, he looks to history for hope, citing the window between 1894 and 1898 as the zenith of democratic participation here. “We had that moment, and it makes it possible to imagine a different and better world being created today,” he says.