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By the time the fire started, Alexander Manly had vanished.
The crowd, led by a former congressman, had given the editor in chief an ultimatum: Destroy your newspaper and leave town forever, or we will wreck it for you. It was the morning of November 10,in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the fire was the beginning of an assault that took place seven blocks east of the Cape Fear River, about 10 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
What happened that day was nearly lost to history. For decades, the perpetrators were cast as heroes in American history textbooks. The black victims were wrongly described as instigators. It took nearly a century for the truth of what had really happened to begin to creep back into public awareness. Today, the old site of The Daily Record is a nondescript church parking lot—an ordinary-looking square of matted grass on a tree-lined street in historic Wilmington.
The Wilmington Journala successor of sorts to the old Daily Recordstands in a white clapboard house across the street. Even many of those North Carolinians who are now aware of it are still reluctant to talk about it. Those who do sometimes stumble over words like insurrection and riot —loaded terms, and imprecise ones. Not only was it a coup, though; the massacre was arguably the nadir of post-slavery racial politics. Woodhouse may have been more interested in gaining political points than actually probing a painful memory in North Carolinian history.
A capsule biography of Alfred Moore Waddell —the former member of Congress who led the massacre—from the website of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington exemplifies what some students were long taught:. The Democrats and most white citizens of the State feared a return to the corrupt and financially devastating rule of Republicans as had been experienced during reconstruction in the late s. Waddell led white Wilmingtonians in their effort to shut down a racially inflammatory black newspaper, and then became mayor of Wilmington after the unpopular Republican regime had reed.
That passage was written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is a former chair both of the Cape Fear Museum board, and of the state chapter of the League of the South. According to the historian David S. It included the Wright brothers, Virginia Dare, and then it included three of the people who were the leaders of the white supremacy campaign. In the s, s, s, s, they bragged about [the coup]. After that, they backed off but it stayed in the history books and they talked about it as an unfortunate but necessary event.
In fact, part of how historians have pieced together the real story of the Wilmington Massacre is by looking back at newspaper archives—from towns all across North Carolina, not just Wilmington—where similar violence was coordinated that day. After open celebration of white-supremacist violence lost favor, a sort of bland sanitizing of history dominated recollections.
That lasted until around the time of the centennial of the massacre, inwhen scholars and the descendants of the Wilmington black community that had been nearly destroyed in began to push for recognition of what really happened. Men like Charles B. Aycock, an agitator of the Wilmington riots who three years later was elected governor on a platform of white supremacy, were revered in the state until recently—and, in some cases, still are.
And that was deliberate. But now that history is being uncovered and spread. The Wilmington Massacre is widely acknowledged as a coup and as a foundational moment in creating a white-supremacist state. North Carolina Republicans have helped uncover that history as well, although some of their acknowledgments of the legacy of white supremacy have come with partisan strings attached. Inback when he was a first-term state General Assembly representative, Senator Thom Tillis blocked a state resolution formally apologizing for the massacre.
Nationally, conservatives have often taken a similar tack; embracing long-suppressed bits of historical knowledge about the full scope of white supremacy, so long as they can use them to attack Democrats. Of course, this kind of weaponization of history is most effective if the Republican and Democratic parties are viewed as unbroken ideological identities dating back to the days of Abraham Lincoln.
Like the rest of the South, the state experienced mass party realignment after the s civil-rights movement, when southern whites began to abandon the Democratic Party. Former Senator Jesse Helms, another Carolinian folk hero whose legacy is the subject of an ongoing controversywas central to that realignment. Born and raised a Democrat in the Solid South, Helms switched parties intwo years before his first Senate run. InHelms remarked of his decision:. And I think I felt, as many other Democrats felt and feel, that really I had no real faith in the party. Changing parties, changing party registration, is like moving from a church.
And across those spectra, politicians of all stripes have contributed to enduring racial inequalities. But white social conservatism was undoubtedly the driving force of Democratic white-supremacist regimes in the South, and its reaction to the loss of the hegemony is part of what precipitated the rise of the modern Republican Party. Lost in the fire that destroyed The Daily Record were the lives of black citizens and the spirit of a thriving black community, and also the most promising effort in the South to build racial solidarity. In wielding the memory of the massacre in an attack against the Democrats, Woodhouse runs the risk of implicating his own party in those losses.
But history serves higher purposes than blame. It can be employed in understanding the remnants of that white-supremacist regime today, and learning how to truly defeat the ills of Jim Crow. In honoring the past and the victims of Wilmington, history places the responsibility of racial equality at the feet of all political parties, and all Americans. Popular Latest.
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The Lost History of an American Coup D’État