(Thursdays) with Torrey Brown: Is History Repeating Itself?

An illustration titled "A Scene at the Race Disturbance in Wilmington, N.C." was published in Collier's Weekly on November 26, 1898. It inaccurately depicts Black people as killers, rather than as victims of the violence.

Editor’s Note: The following editorial contains references to racist statements made by political figures in the late 1800s, and racist propaganda published and distributed by newspapers leading up to the events of the Wilmington insurrection of 1898.

As we watched the terrible situation at the Capitol unfold, I’m sure most of us were thinking, “how could this happen in America?” But are you aware of the fact that this has already been done successfully in the United States and ended in a coup d’etat?

In the North Carolina elections of 1894 and 1896 the Liberal Republican Party, controlled by many influential African Americans, and the Populist Party, made up of mostly struggling white farmers, joined together to create the fusion party sweeping the elections and removing all conservative Democrats from government offices enacting financial reforms that benefited working class whites and Blacks alike. This infuriated the elites in the Democratic Party. 

In stepped Furnifold Simmons, Charles Aycock, and Alfred Moore Wadell. These three men came up with a plan to regain power in the state. Wilmington, the largest city in the state at the time, was a huge focal point for their plan. They used the media to run racist political cartoons stoking fears of Negro rule and Black men raping white women in an effort to separate the Populists from the Republican Party. 

In one particular speech in 1897, Rebecca Felton said, “If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening beasts—then I say ‘lynch;’ a thousand times a week if necessary.” In response, Alexander Manly, owner of the Black ran newspaper The Daily Record, wrote that White women engaged with Black men, “voluntarily and enthusiastically.” The response caused an outrage among Democrats who called it a “horrid slander.” The article angered many White voters just in time for the election. 

To add to this, the Democratic Party group the Red Shirts, a paramilitary group, attacked Black voters and blocked them at the polls. During a rally just before the election, Wadell stoked the crowd saying, “negro office-holding ought at once, and forever be brought to an end. Even if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” 

This led to a democratic landslide victory, picking up every seat that was up for election. But this did not remove the Republican mayor of Wilmington and its aldermen who were not up for election during that cycle. Also, the economic power held by the Black people in the city was not affected. Leaving the Democrats’ goal of white supremacy unfulfilled. This led to what is now known as the Wilmington insurrection of 1898.

On November 9, the day after the 1898 election, Democrats held a gathering for white men in Wilmington where they revealed “The White Declaration of Independence.” This declaration stripped Black men of Wilmington their voting rights, gave white men the vast majority of Black men’s jobs, and called for the overthrow of the newly elected interracial government.

The document gave Manly 24 hours to leave town forever. The next morning over 400 men marched to the Daily Record offices but Manly slipped out of town. The building was set on fire. The mob then embarked on city hall where they forced the mayor and aldermen to sign letters of resignation and filled the seats with Democrats. The mayor’s seat was filled with Wadell, the same man who once threatened to fill the river with Black bodies. 

The mob continued to grow to a whopping 2,000-plus, wreaking havoc on the city killing at least 60 Black people, and forcing others to hide out in the marsh and cemeteries for days. Many fled the city never to return. These events were touted in newspapers and history books as glorious victories, and an example of Americans overcoming corruption, claiming Black residents were the instigators, and Wadell’s mob saved the town. Perpetrators of these heinous crimes have schools and parks in Wilmington named after them to this day. 

Because of that false narrative and others like it, history is in the process of repeating itself on a grandiose scale using the same exact playbook.

Torrey Brown is a loving husband, father, and son, and also an outspoken champion for the black cause and all social injustices.

Any views or opinions expressed in “Tuesdays with Torrey” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.