The only coup d’etat In U.S. history took place in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. “Almost two-thirds of its population was black, with a small but significant middle class.” There were a number of black businesspeople and civil servants. “A good feeling between the races existed as long as white Democrats controlled the state politically.”
In the Jim Crow south, the race relations were practically idyllic. “But when a coalition of predominately white Populists and black Republicans defeated the Democrats in 1896 and won political control of the state, Democrats vowed revenge” two years later.
The outbreak stemmed “from an editorial published by the Wilmington Daily Record, an African American newspaper edited by Alexander Manly. In response to an appeal for the lynching of black rapists made by crusader Rebecca Felton in Georgia, Manly wrote that white women ‘are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women.’
“Moreover, Manly argued, many accusations of rape were simply cases where a black man was having an affair with a white woman. Because it involved the sensitive issue of interracial sexual relations, the editorial struck a raw nerve with many whites and led to bitter denunciations of Manly in the Democratic press.”
“On November 10th, Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate officer and a white supremacist, led a group of townsmen to force the ouster of Wilmington’s city officials… Waddell led 500 white men to the headquarters of the Daily Record on 7th Street. The mob broke out windows and set the building on fire. Manly and other high profile African Americans fled the city; however, at least 14 African Americans were slain that day.
“When their criminal behavior resulted in neither Federal sanctions nor condemnation from the state, Waddell and his men formalized their control of Wilmington. The posse forced the Republican members of the city council and the mayor to resign and Waddell assumed the mayoral seat.
November 10, 1898 is considered a turning point in post-Reconstruction North Carolina politics. The event initiated an era of more severe racial segregation and effective disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South, a shift already underway.
Read The Lost History of an American Coup D’État in The Atlantic magazine.
For ABC Wednesday