WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – With Charlotte and Raleigh both sprawling today, it’s hard to imagine Wilmington was once the largest city in North Carolina — and the most successful.
Following the Civil War, poor white laborers and African Americans formed a political bond to create a better future following the collapse of Dixie. Wilmington grew into a haven for African Americans, who not only helped rebuild the struggling Port City, but became prominent newspaper editors, business owners, and politicians.
More than half of the city was African American, and their rise to power brewed resentment among white elites still reeling in the Reconstruction South.
As the years went on, and African Americans became more entrenched in power and prestige white leaders feared what was happening in Wilmington would spread to other cities throughout North Carolina.
In their eyes, something had to be done. A growing wave of anti-African American propaganda, intimidation, and violence carried into election day on November 8, 1898.
Fearing harm to person and property, many African Americans shied away from the ballot box, and coupled with widespread election fraud, led to sweeping victories for the Democratic Party — a party unlike the one we know today.
However white supremacists still had not gained full control over Wilmington’s politics, and on November 10th, they would take to the streets to burn down black-owned businesses — remove black politicians from power, and murder countless others.
The massacre and coup d’etat of 1898 was forever cemented in history and what white leaders had hoped would change Wilmington for the better had the opposite effect.
Nearly overnight, the city’s strong African American population had either been stripped of power, run out of town or killed in cold blood.
The events of that day would take Wilmington from the top of North Carolina’s commerce to a city that would languish in irrelevancy for the next century.
The massacre also helped form a blueprint for white supremacists throughout the South to regain control. It sparked Jim Crow laws, aimed at keeping blacks from voting and even the first segregation laws meant to break the bond between African Americans and their poor white allies.
Some of those regulations and the intention behind them are used to this day to prevent minorities from voting, from various voter ID laws to restricting early voting.
But the real impact haunts the families of those who were forever changed on November 10, 1898. African Americans were forced to run for their lives and leave behind years of hard work if they were able to escape with their life.
Now 125 years later it’s our responsibility, our duty, to learn from this unspeakable tragedy, and speak the truth so that the events of 1898 are resigned to history and never happen again.
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