Wilmington Race Riots of 1898: The Infusion of Racial Ideology into Politics

By Alex Sutton

In the 1890s, North Carolina saw historical shifts in politics and the emergence of new political parties. In response to the Democratic party that favored banks and railroads over agriculture, white agrarians founded the People’s Party, also known as the Populists. They soon formed an alliance with black Republicans that shared their economic grievances, something that was unimaginable to the white Democrats. The Populist-Republican interracial coalition, known as the “Fusion” coalition, became a major political player in North Carolina. While the economic depression deepened, the coalition advocated for popular control of local government, free public education, and electoral reforms that would give black men the same voting rights as whites. (Tyson)

In 1894, Fusion candidates won a majority in the legislature and won both U.S. Senate seats. The Fusion party was again victorious in 1896, when the alliance retained control of the legislature and elected a Republican governor, Daniel Russell. The victory of the Fusion coalition in 1894 signaled a political change for North Carolina, particularly Wilmington. The horrified white Democrats vowed to regain control of the government. (Kirshenbaum)

The Democratic Party began to conduct a statewide white supremacy campaign of racist appeals and political violence that aimed to demolish the interracial coalition. Instead of focusing on important political issues of the time, such as the economic depression, Democrats had to develop campaign issues that transcended party lines. Culminating in the Wilmington race riot of 1898, the Democrats’ white supremacy campaign led the revolution against interracial democracy. As historian Glenda Gilmore argues, “we can see that the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s and early 1900s injected a vicious racial ideology into the heart of American political culture in a way that we have yet to transcend fully” (Gilmore 10).

Additionally, the federal governments’ refusal to take action during and after the riot illuminates the larger racial and political issues in the nation at the time. During the riot, President McKinley failed to send federal troops to put an end to the massacre, leaving Wilmington’s African American population unprotected. When the riot eventually came to an end, McKinley also failed to provide federal government assistance those who needed it after the terror of the riot. Most importantly, however, the federal government failed to prosecute the perpetrators of the riot. Fearing that an acquittal would undermine the authority of the federal government in North Carolina, prosecutors decided to drop the matter. The federal government’s lack of action demonstrated that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of civil rights would not be enforced. Not until 1957 would a president take action to prove the power of the Reconstruction amendments in the South. The federal government’s failure to act in the face of the Wilmington race riot set a precedence that white supremacists power would be unchecked and that the federal government would not act to prevent racial violence. As historian Joel Willamson wrote, “once the riot had actually occurred in Wilmington,  there was no need for it to happen elsewhere” (Gilmore 5).  The memory of the riot and the terror that it anchored in African Americans allowed for the white supremacists to continue their domination long after the riot had ended. (Gilmore 86-87).

Through infusing politics with hateful racial ideology, white supremacists aimed to gain more support from the white males that had belonged to the Fusion party. Using tactics such as portraying African Americans as conspiring to spread “negro domination” through taking away the white man’s right to autonomy, Democrats illuminated the assumed threat posed to the state’s elites. Additionally, playing on racial fears that African Americans were a threat to womanhood, the white supremacist campaign was able to remake men into killers that were justified in protecting white women at any cost. The tactics used by the white supremacy campaign against the Fusion coalition in 1898 would make racial hatred a facet of politics, greatly damaging interracial coalitions in the future.


To wage their white supremacy campaign, Democrats recruited a group of aggressive, colorful, and dynamic young supporters. Among these new recruits was Josephus Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer. Daniels became the Democrats’ leading mouthpiece and a militant voice of white supremacy, using his newspaper to disseminate the hateful, racial ideology that fueled the white supremacy campaign and would become commonplace in American politics.(Prather 22).

Raleigh News and Observer

Raleigh News and Observer, November 11, 1898.

In the months leading up to the election and race riots, the Raleigh News and Observer published countless political cartoons demonstrating the threat that the Fusionist party presented to the white population in North Carolina.

 

bat

A Warning. Get Back! We Will Not Stand It,Raleigh News and Observer, August 30, 1898.

One of the most crucial tactics that Democrats employed during their campaign of white supremacy was appealing to the white man’s masculinity. As discussed by historian Glenda Gilmore, by using the language of “home protection,” Democrats were able to give the discontent a powerful psychosexual charge. By convincing the Populist white man that had valued his class interests over his race interests, opponents of the Fusion party bolstered the idea that the Populist man had allowed for the incubus to become a threat to white women. The belief that white men needed to assert their manhood and protect “family values” became the justification needed for the men to take violent action against African Americans. (Gilmore 76-77). The political cartoon, “A Warning. Get Back! We Will Not Stand It,” published in 1898 depicts the belief of white men that it was their duty to defeat “negro rule.” The arm of the “honest white man” is seen using his ballot to fend of the African American man, symbolizing as his hat states, the “negro rule.” While portraying the conflict in a political light, the cartoon displays the strong moral obligation white men had to keep the black man out of public affairs and governance.

 

devil

Don’t Be Tempted By The Devil,Raleigh News and Observer, October 26, 1898.

One of the main images used during the White Supremacy Campaign in 1898 was that of the incubus. As discussed by historian Glenda Gilmore, the incubus was created by white politicians in an effort to seize political power, being used as a scare tactic to pull white voters back into the Democratic Party (Gilmore 74). While the incubus was seen as a threat to white women, the representation of African Americans as demonic figures was widespread. As seen in the cartoon, “Don’t Be Tempted By The Devil,” the incubus-like winged devil represents the Fusionist party, particularly the black members of the party. This portrayal played into the racial idea that African Americans were evil, devil like figures out to harm the white population. The devil is seen exerting its influence and control over the unsuspecting white-voter at the ballot box. The vote that the white man is seen casting is “for negro rule,” showing that what the devil wants is for African Americans to gain political control. It also equates a vote for the Fusion party as a vote “for negro rule.” The image would have played into the fear of “Negro Domination” and would have made white mean fear for the safety of their autonomy.

 

dance

“I Make Them Dance Or I Crush Them,” Raleigh News and Observer, October 12, 1898.

In response to the Fusion coalition’s victories, Democrats formed the White Supremacy Campaign in 1898. Historian Glenda Gilmore argues “what happened in Wilmington was part of an orchestrated campaign to end interracial cooperation, restore white supremacy, and in the process assure the rule of the state’s planter and industrial leaders” (Gilmore 6). Importantly, Democrats targeted white Fusionists as much as African Americans. The cartoon, “I Make Them Dance or I Crush Them,” published in 1898, depicts the Democrats view of the control African Americans held in the Fusion party. In the cartoon, white men are seen dancing in the palm of a hand, labeled on the cuff of its shirt as a “negro.” The hand of the “negro” is illustrated not as the hand of a human-being, but as the hand of an incubus: a demonic, beast-like creature possessing long, claw-like finger nails and hairy hands. Additionally, the cartoon depicts Governor Russell in the hands of his African American electorate, demonstrating that even fusionism was a type of “negro domination” to the Democrats. The cartoon also alludes to the idea that the Fusionist Party would cause white men to become subordinate to black men, rather than being their political equals. Playing on the fear of losing their masculinity, this idea would have instilled fear in the white men, causing them to see Fusionists as an even larger threat.



Additional Sources:

Kirshenbaum, Andrea Meryl, “The Vampire That Hovers over North Carolina: Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.” Southern Cultures, no. 3, 1998.

Prather Sr., H. Leon, “We Have Taken a City,” in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, eds. Cecelski and Tyson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 15-43.

Tyson, Timonty B., “The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy.” Raleigh News and Observer, 17 November 2006.

 

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