The True Story of a White Supremacist Insurrection in the U.S.

Tim Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, tells Teen Vogue that Waddell was a “demagogue” who was “available to speak at all occasions.” Just before the election, Waddell told a large crowd that he was willing to “choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses” to bring an end to “Negro domination.” He also instructed white residents to threaten and kill Black voters at polling stations to prevent them from voting. “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks,” he said. “We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

Because of this violent voter suppression and intimidation, Democrats overwhelmingly won the state election in Wilmington on November 8, 1898. In fact, in some precincts in the city, due to rampant ballot stuffing, there were more votes for Democratic candidates than there were registered voters. 

But this victory only increased the Democrats’ thirst for revenge. White supremacists were still upset about the last municipal election in Wilmington, which gave them the majority fusionist government. Since many local seats weren’t on the ballot, and wouldn’t be until the following year, Democrats decided to take more immediate action.

The very next day, Waddell helped lead a mob of hundreds of white residents to the courthouse to sign a so-called White Declaration of Independence to prevent anyone of “African origin” from holding office again. Then, on November 10, 1898, a militia of 2,000 armed white men violently overthrew the government. The militia was comprised of civilians and a white supremacist terrorist group known as the Red Shirts, a group that was, as noted by the Zinn Education Project, equipped with military rifles, revolvers, and a hand-driven machine gun known as a Gatling gun.

During the course of that day, the armed mob burned down the building that housed the Daily Record, forcefully removed Black and white fusionist officials from office, and massacred anywhere between 60 and 300 Black residents — decimating Black economic success and Black political power in the city for the next century. 

This deadly backlash to racial progress helped white residents uphold white supremacy in the city for years to come, running Black citizens out of their businesses and implementing Jim Crow laws to prevent them from voting or running for office. No Black resident was elected to public office in Wilmington again until nearly 100 years later, in 1972, and no Black person in North Carolina would serve in Congress until 1992, as noted by journalist David Zucchino.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, thousands of Black people permanently fled Wilmington. White newspapers referred to the violent insurrection as a success, praising the triumphant seizure of the city. According to Tyson, the massacre was also commonly referred to as a “race riot” — a term that is now used to cast Black victims of racial violence as the sole aggressors in their own oppression. But, Tyson adds, the modern definition of the term doesn’t match the one used at the time of the massacre: “One hundred fifty years ago, ‘race riot’ meant when white people in mobs would storm the Black community and burn down buildings and shoot people in the street.” 

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