It was the only successful coup d'état in the history of the United States and a story of racial terror largely obscured from the annals of American history.

In 1898, a group of white rebels—angry and fearful at the newly elected biracial local government—joined forces with area militias to rain terror on Wilmington, North Carolina, then the South’s most progressive Black-majority city.

After stoking fear of a Black uprising that would upend their way of life, endanger their women and bring about an unfathomable new American reality in which Black men—not white—governed, white city leaders pledged to “choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses” rather than allow Wilmington’s Black citizens to succeed, and lead.

When the carnage ended, more than 100 Black government officials—city councilmen, the city clerk, the treasurer, the city attorney and others—had been forced from their elected roles. Somewhere between 60 and 250 Black citizens were murdered. 

After the coup, for which no one was ever prosecuted or punished, more than 100,000 registered Black voters fled the city. No Black citizen would again serve in public office for three-quarters of a century.

“It was a massacre,” says Christopher Everett, director of Wilmington on Fire, a documentary on the uprising. “A massacre kept secret for over 100 years.”

In Wilmington, the Black Community Was Thriving

In the years leading up to 1898, Wilmington stood as the most progressive city in the American South. A bustling, integrated port, the town, historians say, “was what the new South could have become after the Civil War.”

By 1896, nearly 126,000 Black men in Wilmington were registered voters. The city’s flourishing Black middle class boasted some 65 doctors, lawyers and educators, scores of barbers and restaurant owners, public health workers, members of the police force and the fire department. And just three decades after Emancipation, Black Republicans held multiple positions of power, serving as city councilmen, magistrates and other elected officials.

The integration resulted from Fusion politics, a political phenomenon in North Carolina that joined the Populist Party (comprised mostly of poor, white farmers) and the Republican Party (the political affiliation of choice for freed Black Americans) into one entity. They aligned against the Democrats, a party composed of wealthy white segregationists who white populists believed cared more for the interests of banks, railroads and affluent constituents than of the common man.

Together, the Populists and Republicans seized the political majority, sweeping the state in 1894, electing Republicans to local state and federal seats and ousting Democrats from political power.

A Plot to Reclaim White Voters—and Restore White Power

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
Photos of the aftermath of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina coup and massacre;(1) Co-instigator Alfred M. Waddell, who promised before the coup to 'choke the current of the Cape Fear River' with black bodies; after the coup, he had himself installed as mayor; (2) Manhattan Park, where a white mob shot a group of Black Wilmingtonians; (3) Fourth and Harnett Streets in Wilmington, where first Black men fell; (4) E.G. Parmalee, who took over as chief of police after the coup; (5) Vigilantes stand outside the wrecked remains of the black 'Daily Record' newspaper building.

Fearing the loss of white supremacy, Wilmington Democrats formulated a multi-pronged strategy to retake power and strip Black citizens of their political and economic agency.

Powerful state and local Democrats—including Josephus Daniels, the publisher of The News & Observer (the largest newspaper in North Carolina), future state governor Charles Aycock, and former Congressman (and Confederate soldier) Alfred Moore Waddell—schemed to lure white voters away from the Fusion Party, and against Black citizens in general. It was an aim made clear in the Democratic Party’s official 1898 handbook: “This is a white man’s country, and white men must control and govern it.”

Tensions Played Out in Partisan Newspapers

Daniels used his paper to publish outlandish, false accounts of the “Negro menace.” His paper inflamed fears that the state might be overrun by a Black political party (despite the Fusion Party being mostly white), and published stories and cartoons showing Black men preying on white women.

At the same time, another North Carolina paper printed a speech from writer (and future U.S. Senator) Rebecca Felton, who said she would support lynching a Black man every day if it meant protecting white women.

Her speech prompted Alex Manly, editor of The Daily Record—Wilmington’s leading Black newspaper—to write a scathing rebuke. In a column published weeks before the November 1898 election, Manly, himself the light-skinned grandson of a white governor, attacked the often-published trope of white women being violated by “big, burly Black brutes.” He pointed to the complicated reality of consensual romances white women sometimes had with biracial men—men whose white fathers were, in fact, far more likely to have committed rape against a powerless Black woman.

“Mrs. Felton must begin at the fountain head if she wishes to purify the stream,” Manly wrote. “Teach your men purity... Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for the white man to be intimate with a colored woman.”

Newspapers across the state reprinted Manly’s column, inflaming white citizens.

Weeks later, in October, Waddell furthered provoked tensions when, in a speech, he warned: “Let them understand once and for all that we will have no more of the intolerable conditions under which we live. We are resolved to change them if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses,” he proclaimed. “Negro domination shall henceforth be only a shameful memory to us and an everlasting warning to those who shall ever again seek to revive it.”

By the November elections, Democrats had completely turned white sentiment against their Black counterparts.

Then came the violence.

A Coup d’Etat, and a Campaign of Terror

Alamy Photo
This illustration of the 1898 Wilmington massacre typifies how publications of the time promoted misleading characterizations of the incident as a 'race riot' or a Black insurrection.

During the campaign, white police rode into Black homes, whipping Black men and threatening them with death for attempting to vote. On Election Day, armed white mobs gathered outside Wilmington polling places, threatening any Blacks who tried to cast a ballot. The result: Democrats won every elected position in which they ran.

Once equipped with political power, the Democrats turned to their second goal: eliminating the economic wealth of Wilmington’s Black citizens and instituting a state of white supremacy.

The day after the sham election, Wilmington Democrats published “The White Declaration of Independence,” which stated, “We will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.” The Declaration stripped Wilmington’s Black citizens of the right to vote, demanded that city jobs held by Black men be given to white constituents and that Alex Manly leave town or be lynched. He escaped North.

The following morning, hundreds of armed men marched on Manly’s printing press and the offices of The Daily Record, burning both to the ground. The mob then marched to City Hall, where they forced the rightfully elected Republican mayor and city aldermen to resign. Waddell was installed as the mayor’s replacement.

After the coup, the mob swelled to nearly 2,000 men who then terrorized the city. Backed by the newly instated racist police force and state militia, and armed with guns and a military-grade Colt machine gun capable of firing 420 .23-calibre bullets a minute, the mob killed at least 60 Black residents, though many historians say the number could be well into the hundreds.

Pleas for assistance from Black Wilmington citizens made to the state government and the White House went ignored.

The Coup Left Lasting Scars

In addition to the killings, the mob forced virtually all of Wilmington’s Black middle and upper class citizens to flee town. Once gone, the newly elected local government then began instituting Jim Crow segregationist policies as local law.

The coup decimated Black political and economic power in Wilmington for nearly 100 years. By 1902, the number of registered Black voters dwindled from more than 125,000 to about 6,100. After the coup, no Black citizen served in public office in Wilmington until 1972. It wasn’t until 1992 that a Black citizen was elected to Congress.

“The black middle and merchant class has never been reinstated to this day,” says David Zucchino, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book Wilmington’s Lie. “The coup left a permanent scar on the city. Wilmington became a place where no Black people would go unless, to borrow a phrase used in the newspaper, they ‘knew their place.’”

Immediately following the coup and for more than 100 years after, North Carolina’s newspapers, media and state-run institutions obscured or distorted its truth, describing the one-sided coup as a race war instigated, in part, by Black aggression. Many of the coup’s leaders, including Waddell, Daniels and Aycock were heralded as brave heroes.

No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for any of the Wilmington coup’s crimes.