After Black voters helped elevate Black politicians to power, white supremacists protested "Negro Rule." They called Black men rapists, targeted the media, and, in 1898, seized control of the government and initiated the only successful American coup. Carrying out an insurrection in North Carolina, white supremacists overthrew the elected government in Wilmington and murdered Black citizens with machine guns.
During the dawn of the Jim Crow era, the Democratic party openly promoted white supremacy. In the 1898 election, North Carolina Democrats ran on a "White Supremacy Campaign." And when they lost, the party organized a coup to seize power. After murdering their way into office, the Democrats passed poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise Black voters further.
For over a century, North Carolina textbooks lauded the vigilantes who overthrew the city government as heroes. Like the horrific 1921 Tulsa massacre, which saw bombs dropped on a Black neighborhood, the Wilmington white supremacists blamed their attack on "Black aggression." What constituted "Black aggression" in Wilmington? After a white woman called for "1,000 lynchings a week" to stop Black men from sleeping with white women, one Black newspaper editor said there was nothing wrong with interracial relationships.
The shocking history of America's only successful coup demonstrates how far white supremacists were willing to go to maintain their power.
After the Civil War, Reconstruction saw the country try to rebuild the South and give former slaves a place in society. But in states such as North Carolina, even the hint of racial equality spurred a harsh backlash. With Black voter turnout topping 80 percent in 1896, North Carolina's Democratic party began their "White Supremacist Campaign." The goal: to intimidate Black voters and convince whites they were under assault. Weeks before the 1898 election, Raleigh's News & Observer published an editorial cartoon called "The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina," warning about the dangers of "Negro Rule."
Reverend J. Allen Kirk, a Black eyewitness to the coup, argued the white supremacists used the threat of "Negro domination" to terrify other whites:
It was clamored among the political campaigners that in the eastern portion of North Carolina, the white people were under Negro rule. They took advantage of this scarecrow and held it up before the white friends of the Negro in all their political speeches.
In 1890, Wilmington's population comprised over 11,000 Black people and less than 9,000 whites. Black businesses grew faster there than in any other city in the state, and, by 1897, over 1,000 Black citizens owned property in Wilmington. The city's Black community even created a loan association and a union to help former slaves.
The city's Black residents also voted. Against open intimidation from white Democrats, more Black Wilmington residents registered for the election held in November 1898 than whites.
Wilmington's brewing violence boiled over after a white woman called for lynchings. Rebecca Felton, the wife of Congressman William Felton, gave a speech on August 11, 1897, at the Georgia Agricultural Society. During the bigoted tirade, Felton suggested that Black rapists who attacked white women living on farms constituted the state's biggest threat. She even promoted murder, arguing, "If it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week."
Editor Alex Manly of the Daily Record - one of the few daily Black newspapers in the country - responded to Felton's attack in an editorial. Manly argued there was nothing wrong with interracial relationships, noting white men seemed to have no problem sleeping with Black women. He told Felton to “tell your men that it is no worse for a Black man to be with a white woman than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman.” Manly himself was the son of a slave and her white owner, who had been the governor of North Carolina.
White supremacists declared Manly's editorial “an attack on white Christian womanhood," and soon descended on his newspaper as part of their coup.
The southern Democratic party used race to win elections. In 1898, fearing a loss, the party chose to run a "White Supremacy Campaign." On November 8, 1898, the Wilmington Messenger declared, "Today white men of North Carolina must declare where they stand," adding it was a "question of race, not politics."
When the Democrats lost the election, they organized a mob to overthrow the government. Vigilantes used Colt machine guns to murder Black residents and fulfill their threat to “choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” As a monument to the coup explains:
Wilmington’s 1898 racial violence was not accidental. It began a successful statewide Democratic campaign to regain control of the state government, disenfranchise African-Americans, and create a legal system of segregation which persisted into the second half of the 20th century.