David Zucchino on Wilmington’s murderous ‘Lie’
In 1898, Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest municipality, where African-Americans enjoyed unprecedented economic and political success. Then a deadly Dixiecrat coup transformed the “Negro Charleston” into the post-Reconstruction poster city for white supremacy, leaving its black population dead, fleeing, or hiding in the swamps. The disenfranchised few who returned to their burned-out neighborhoods did so as virtual slaves, and it would be over 60 years before their descendants could again vote.
The Wilmington Massacre is the most blatant example of how the South managed, through brutality and the lie of the Lost Cause, to erase the gains of the 15th Amendment. That erasure continued through the Civil Rights Era, which southern whites resisted with murder and mythologizing monuments, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored black suffrage.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino has written Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, published this month by Atlantic Monthly Press. Zucchino will be at Winston-Salem’s Bookmarks at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 29 and Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books at 7 p.m. on Jan. 31.
In an email, I asked Zucchino about his book’s title.
“Wilmington’s Lie refers to the way white supremacists either covered up the coup and killings,” he explained, “or portrayed them as a justified response to a corrupt and inept multi-racial government in Wilmington, as well as an attempt to put down a supposed black riot.”
Zucchino, who has written for the L. A. Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Detroit Free Press, began his career with the News & Observer. Seventy-five years before he worked for that Raleigh newspaper, its publisher Josephus Daniels proclaimed it “the militant voice of White Supremacy.”
“Daniels led a sophisticated propaganda campaign that depicted black public officials as ignorant, incompetent, and corrupt while warning white voters that black men intended to assault their women and steal their jobs. As nearly a quarter of all white men in North Carolina were illiterate, he hired a political cartoonist to draw racist cartoons depicting black men as savages bent on raping white women. Daniels purported to be a journalist, but he as actually a partisan politician.”
Like most 19th century white supremacists (a term his paper proudly used), Daniels was a Democrat. But with the Civil Right Era, “white supremacist Democrats broke off and formed an influential ‘state’s rights’ wing of the Republican Party. At the same time, black voters abandoned the Republican party. The two 19th century parties bear no resemblance to today’s Democrats and Republicans.”
Another instigator of the massacre was Julian Shakespeare Carr. That name has been in local news due to Carr’s connection with “Silent Sam,” the Confederate monument that the departing Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott loaned GPD officers to Chapel Hill to protect before its removal.
Wilmington’s Lie quotes Carr’s declaration that “Men with white skins . . . will rule North Carolina hereafter.” Some claim Silent Sam was merely a tribute to UNC students who fought in the Civil War, but Zucchino stated that Carr’s dedication speech makes clear it was a tribute to white supremacy.
“Carr said the student soldiers had fought to ‘save the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.’ and to preserve ‘the purest strain of the Anglo-Saxon.’ In his speech, Carr also bragged about flogging a black woman when he returned to campus from the Civil War in 1865.”
Carr also helped bankroll Josephus Daniels’ purchase of the News & Observer. “He was a vocal supporter of the White Supremacy Campaign in 1898. After the coup and murders, Carr twice wrote to President McKinley, warning him not to interfere in the aftermath of the overthrow.”
I asked Zucchino how many African-Americans died in the coup instigated by Daniels, Carr and Charles Brantley Aycock, the orator, and strategist whose fame from the massacre helped him win the North Carolina governor’s office in 1900.
“At least 60 black men were killed, and dozens more were wounded, according to a state commission report in 2006. Many victims were buried by family members or by members of the white mob, and their remains were never recovered. The coup leaders drew up a list of 50 prominent black and white Fusionists to be banished, and at least two dozen were put on trains and warned never to return. None of them ever did. Also, at least 2,100 blacks fled the city in the days and weeks after the coup. Wilmington was 56% black in 1898. Today it is about 18% black.”
Zucchino explained that Fusionists were an alliance of white Populists and both black and white Republicans. “Fusionists won control of the state legislature in 1894 and of Wilmington’s city government in 1896. That so outraged white supremacists that they launched the White Supremacy Campaign in early 1898 to overthrow the Wilmington government and deny blacks the vote and public offices for decades to come.”
Zucchino believes that the Wilmington Massacre pioneered a formula for white supremacy.
“I see echoes of the White Supremacy Campaign in today’s rise of white nationalism and the alt-right. One example is the 2013 Voter ID bill, which the federal courts struck down as an attempt to reduce black turnout. Another example is racial gerrymandering. In 1898, white supremacists crammed black voters into two gerrymandered districts to dilute their voting strength. Similarly, white conservatives in the North Carolina legislature have gerrymander blacks into 30 contorted legislative and congressional districts.”
Other states followed North Carolina’s example. “When white supremacists in Georgia were planning to attack and terrorize black voters during the 1906 election, they first consulted the coup leaders in Wilmington for advice.”
The Wilmington Massacre also proved a model for the rest of the Tarheel state.
“The coup cemented white supremacy as official state policy for the next 50 to 60 years and helped to usher in the Jim Crow Era. In 1898, U.S. Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina was the only black man in Congress. After he was hounded from office after the 1898 coup, North Carolina did not elect another black citizen to Congress until 1992.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.