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We’ve Had a White Supremacist Coup Before. History Buried It

The parallels between the only successful coup in the United States and the failed insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 are uncanny.

On November 10, 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina a mob inflamed by out-of-power white nationalists attacked a thriving majority Black coastal port. The insurrectionists embraced racist propaganda, and they doubted the legitimacy of Black political power. Led by former elected-official, Democratic Alfred Waddell, they marched to The Daily Record, a Black newspaper, demolished property, and lit the building ablaze. “Hell broke loose,” an observer wrote in a letter. In the historically Black neighborhood of Brooklyn, where workers from the waterfront yards confronted an armed white mob, cries and blood filled the streets. 

Gaining steam, Waddell, armed with a Winchester rifle, shepherded the men to Wilmington City Hall. Inside the chamber, they forced the resignations of the mayor, Board of Aldermen, and police chief as gunfire ripped through the city. At least 60 were killed in the spates of violence, and thousands of Black residents fled while others were arrested.

The Wilmington insurrection was, unlike the Capitol siege last week, immediately successful. A white mob overthrew the government. But, crucially, it was also a turning point for the wider history of Reconstruction. “It was a demonstration of how people could get murdered in the streets and no one held accountable for it,” says LeRae Sikes Umfleet, author of the 2009 book, A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race RiotShe has written how this lack of punishment for the coup led to “Jim Crow legislation and subjugation of African Americans resulted statewide.” In the aftermath, the story was told as a “race riot,” caused by Black people in Wilmington—not a coup led by white politicians. This is still the test of the Capitol siege. Even if not successful on January 6, will it set a lesson?

I spoke with Umfleet, head researcher of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report, about the causes and response to that coup, its lasting influence, and how the white establishment buried the history.

What do we know about what unfolded in Wilmington?

There are two things that are huge that are happening at the same time on November 10. We have African-Americans being murdered in the streets. At the same time, we have a coup happening where the legally elected government is being overthrown. We know all about the coup, because the perpetrators were proud of what they did, and they left a huge narrative for what they did there. The murder in the streets, we don’t know as much about that, because the perpetrators—the winners, so to speak—said, it’s a sad thing that people died, but we had to do what we had to do to take control of this town and bring it under white man’s control.

We don’t know all the names of the people who died. We don’t know the names of the shooters. And we may never know those two things. Understanding the truth of 1898 is why we’re still studying.