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January 8, 2006, Editorial Observer, New York Times
When Democracy Died in Wilmington, N.C.
By BRENT STAPLES
The United States abolished the practice of owning and selling human beings when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. But the commercial component of slavery was in some ways the easiest to dispense with. The systems of black powerlessness and white supremacy that supported the enterprise proved to be far more pernicious. They persisted for another 100 years in the Deep South, enforced by lynching, disenfranchisement and state-sanctioned racial terror.
By the rise of the civil rights movement, many black Southerners had been so thoroughly conditioned to be subservient that they dared not look white people in the eye, much less seek the right to vote. This posture was understandable in the Deep South, where racial violence had been a kind of blood sport. But it seemed out of place in states like North Carolina, which was not as closely associated with hard-core brutality as were states like Mississippi and Alabama.
This rosy version of Carolina history turns out to have its bloody side. A draft of a voluminous report commissioned by the North Carolina legislature has recently outlined a grotesquely violent and stridently racist version of state history that rivals anything ever seen in the most troubled parts of the Deep South. The report, by the Wilmington Race Riot Commission, has thrown a klieg light onto a coup and riot that were staged in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 - and that still have an evident impact on the political landscape of the state.
The uprising was engineered by white supremacists who unseated a government that had been elected by an alliance that included black citizens and white progressives. Scores of black citizens were killed during the uprising - no one yet knows how many - and prominent blacks and whites were banished from the city under threat of death. White supremacists hijacked the state government, stripped black citizens of the right to vote and brought black political participation to a close.
The events outlined in the report provide a ready explanation for why black people in North Carolina remained politically docile for so long and why the civil rights movement was so slow to reach them. The speed with which the coup and the accompanying riot were papered over and swept from public awareness reminds us what a powerful force cultural amnesia can be in shaping how we see history.
The Wilmington coup was unique in its scope and planning. But in general terms, it provided the template for how white communities in many parts of the country would respond when faced with the sudden rise of a black professional class that owned property and competed openly with white businesses. In the early 20th century, fear of black independence and self-determination would lead to white vigilante actions in communities like Tulsa, Okla., followed by expulsions of influential black people.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, white supremacists in Wilmington found themselves faced with an economically vibrant community, where a strong black professional class was publicly asserting itself in very visible ways. In addition to owning impressive businesses, black citizens had joined forces with like-minded whites to bring a progressive government to power both in the city and at the state level.
White racists were particularly outraged at the large black political presence in Wilmington, where black people could be found at just about all levels of government. Among the more visible black figures at the time was John Campbell Dancy, collector of customs at the Port of Wilmington, who was appointed by the Republican president, William McKinley. That Dancy was very well paid - and that he replaced a white Democrat - was an endless source of irritation among whites in the city. Dancy was ridiculed by some in the white press, who referred to him as "Sambo of the Customs House."
The proponents of the insurrection found ready allies in the press - most notably The News and Observer - which inflamed the public through editorials and political cartoons that depicted white manhood being trod upon by mere Negroes, who were, it was said, better suited to be slaves. The plotters and their minions in the press were further angered by a famously incendiary editorial written by the black journalist Alexander Manly of The Daily Record of Wilmington. Manly, descended from a white former governor and a black slave, knew a great deal about sexual hypocrisy in North Carolina society. He brought that knowledge to bear in an editorial attacking a speaker who had urged the lynching of black men to prevent them from seeking sex with white women.
Manly escaped Wilmington before he could be caught and lynched. But his newspaper's office was burned, heralding a long period of voicelessness for the black community in both the city and the state. As the full scope of what the plotters had in mind became clear, black people by the hundreds left the city, taking their ideas and commercial energies elsewhere. The city has yet to recover from the exodus.
The riot commission is circulating a draft version of its report (which has also been posted on the Web at www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us), and hopes to find descendants of blacks and whites who fled Wilmington for places like Washington and New York. The draft report has already begun to pull back the covers on a brutal but little-known episode in Southern history. If the commission's progress so far is any measure of things to come, the final report will make an even more impressive contribution to public understanding of this period.