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By Bullet or Ballot: One of the Only Successful Coups in American History

David Zucchino on the white supremacist plot to take over Wilmington, North Carolina.

... Wilmington, in the state House of Representatives. Another black man, George Henry White, was elected to the United States House of Representative—the only black man in Congress. White served North Carolina’s heavily black 2nd District in the eastern part of the state, known as the Black Second.

... Wilmington, in the state House of Representatives. Another black man, George Henry White, was elected to the United States House of Representative—the only black man in Congress. White served North Carolina’s heavily black 2nd District in the eastern part of the state, known as the Black Second.

In Wilmington, three of the city’s 10 aldermen were black, as were 10 of 26 city policemen. There were black health inspectors, a black superintendent of streets and far too many—for white sensitivities—black postmasters and magistrates. White men could be arrested by black policemen and, in some cases, were even obliged to appear before a black magistrate in court.

In 1898, a field representative for the American Baptist Publication Society called Wilmington “the freest town for a negro in the country.” Blacks merchants sold goods from stalls at the city’s public market—a rarity for a southern town at the time. Black men delivered mail to homes at times of day when white women were unattended. They sorted mail beside white female clerks.

A black barber served as county coroner. The county jailer was black, and the fact that he carried keys to the lockup infuriated whites. The county treasurer was a black man who distributed pay to county employees, forcing whites to accept money from black hands. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison had appointed a black man, John C. Dancy, as federal customs collector for the port of Wilmington. Dancy had replaced a white supremacist Democrat, and he drew an astonishing federal salary—$4,000 a year, or $1,000 more than the governor earned. A white newspaper editor ridiculed Dancy as “Sambo of the Custom House.”

In Wilmington, black businessmen pooled their money to form two small banks that loaned cash to blacks starting small businesses. Several black professionals ran small law firms and doctor’s offices, serving clients and patients of their own race. A black alderman from Raleigh, the capital, noted with some surprise that certain black men in Wilmington had built finely appointed homes with lace curtains, plush carpets, pianos and even, he claimed, servants. The city’s thriving population of black professionals contradicted the white portrayal of Wilmington’s blacks as poor, ignorant and illiterate. In fact, Wilmington’s blacks had higher literacy rates than any other blacks in North Carolina, a state in which nearly a quarter of whites were illiterate.

For white politicians and newspaper editors, this was an intolerable. They warned of “Negro Rule,” though black men held only a fraction of elected and appointed positions in the city and the state. They predicted that if blacks continued to vote and hold office, black men would feel empowered to rape white women and seize white jobs. Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate officer who led the white gunmen into Brooklyn on November 10th, complained, “N***** lawyers are sassing white men in courts; n***** root doctors are crowding white physicians out of business.”

There were foreboding newspaper headlines:

MORE NEGRO SCOUNDRELISM

MORE NEGRO INSOLENCE

NEGRO CONTROL IN WILMINGTON

IS A RACE CLASH UNAVOIDABLE?

With a November mid-term election looming, the state’s Democratic politicians launched a White Supremacy Campaign in the spring of 1898. It was designed to evict blacks from office and intimidate black voters from going to the polls. But first, it was necessary not only to terrify black families, but also to convince white men everywhere that merely voting in November was not enough. Whites had to be persuaded that free blacks posed an imminent threat to their privileged way of life. And they were told, every day, in newspapers and at campaign rallies next to cotton farms and tobacco fields, that the only way to eliminate that threat forever was for the good white men of Carolina to bring out their guns.

White newspapers printed false stories of black men lusting after white women, insulting white men and plotting “Negro domination.” They published drawings of Zip Coon, a predatory, thick-lipped character who embodied, for whites, the insolence and duplicity of all blacks. Wilmington was ...