Once upon a time, there was a light-skinned, straight-haired, college-educated “colored” man named Alexander Manly. He was the editor of the Daily Record, a successful black-owned newspaper read widely throughout North Carolina. One day, he decided to tempt fate…
Herewith, I conclude my Black History Month salute to “race riots” with the story of Mr. Manly and the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.
The political backdrop of this drama was a simmering tension between Wilmington’s black elites (plus their white “Fusionist” allies) and the white-supremacist Democrats of the time.
Enter a white feminist orator from Georgia named Rebecca Felton. She happened to be “an outspoken advocate of lynching African American males accused of raping white women,” according to North Carolina’s 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission. (The commission’s final report was issued last May.)
“Felton rejected mulattos or the relationships that generated mixed-race children as base and degenerate and reprimanded whites who allowed black/white unions.”
In one of Mrs. Felton’s speeches, reprinted in a white Wilmington newspaper, she urged white men to better safeguard their rural women: “[I]f it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch; a thousand times a week if necessary.”
(Interesting digression: Rebecca Felton became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate. She was appointed in 1922 at the age of 87, and she served for 24 hours.)
So… Alex Manly responded to Mrs. Felton’s pro-lynching argument by publishing an unsigned editorial (presumably written by him). The editorial suggested that some white women consort willingly, if secretly, with colored men, just as white men often dallied with colored women. (The latter fact attested to by Manly’s own light skin and straight hair.)
“Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman, than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman,” Manly wrote. “You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don’t think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours.”
Manly wasn’t advocating interracial sex here. He was sticking up for black women while taunting white men with what we now recognize as Malcolm X’s infamous “chickens coming home to roost” metaphor.
Several months later, on November 10, 1898, a mob of armed whites – led by Democrat Alfred Moore Waddell, a former U.S. congressman – decided to take over the city and to chase duly elected black officeholders and white “Fusionists” out of power.
Manly’s Daily Record was the mob’s first stop. The rioters destroyed his printing press, then burned the building down, cheering as they did so.
All hell proceeded to break loose in Wilmington. Black men were gunned down in the streets, including a black police officer. Black women and children fled by the thousands into the woods and swamps on the outskirts of town.
Alexander Manly had already gotten out of Dodge. Lucky for him; he was described in a front-page headline of the next day’s Raleigh News and Observer as “the Defamer of White Womanhood.” Manly might as well have had a bull’s-eye on his back.
According to the 1898 Foundation, Inc., a self-described “community effort for remembrance and reconciliation,” there’s an “oral tradition” (I guess that means an “urban legend”) that Alex Manly and his brother, Frank, while fleeing the city, “were stopped at a checkpoint, assumed to be white, given a rifle, and told to ‘be on the lookout for that nigger editor Manly.’ ”
When it was all over, 25 black people were dead, by one estimate. And in Wilmington’s white churches the following Sunday, ministers praised Alfred Waddell’s overthrow of the city government. “[W]hites were doing God’s service,” one preacher said.
Waddell became the new mayor of Wilmington.
On the website for the PBS series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” you’ll find this quote from Harry Hayden, one of the rioters:
“The Men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office yesterday were not a mob of plug uglies. They were men of property, intelligence, culture… clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob, they are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.”
Right… not a “mob,” but revolutionists. Not a “riot,” a revolution. Reminds me of black folks nowadays who try to dignify the ’92 L.A. riots by calling them an “uprising.”
Except that North Carolina’s white power structure of a hundred years ago bought into the bullshit word game.
North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock, who led the fight to disenfranchise black voters, said in a 1904 speech: “When I was elected Governor it was after the revolution of 1898.”
Similarly, historian James Sprunt wrote that “the results of the Revolution of 1898 have indeed been a blessing to the community.”
History may be written by the victors, but it gets rewritten too. Maybe some neo-Confederate dickheads out there look upon 1898 as a shining moment for the white race. I’ll always remember it as the year of the Wilmington Massacre.