North Carolina’s Forgotten Race Massacre

In the acknowledgments of David Zucchino’s brilliant new book Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, he writes, “This book is a work of journalism.” It’s a stark statement in its simplicity given the 350 odd pages that precede it — pages that demonstrate how true journalism is the recording of wrongs rather than the abetting of them.

Through painstaking, well-documented research, Zucchino — a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter — revisits the Wilmington insurrection of 1898, when white mobs murdered dozens of Black citizens and destroyed their businesses in North Carolina’s then-largest city. The accompanying campaign of terror and the subsequent takeover of the city’s elected, multiracial government are told with the clear-eyed calm and precision of an embedded war correspondent.

The matter at the heart of Wilmington’s Lie is straightforward. In the chaotic time after the Civil War, many white North Carolinians perceived themselves to be under “Negro domination.” Although the number of Black officials serving in the Reconstruction-era state government was small, even one position was too many for the committed white supremacists of the state. The fault lines became even clearer as Reconstruction drew to a close. The Democrats, then the party of white supremacy, had allied itself with moneyed interests and took the white farmers in their coalition for granted. Once an economic recession hit and cotton prices plunged, the white Populist members looked elsewhere.

“They [the white farmers and Populists] teamed with Republicans, white and black, in an uneasy political and racial alliance known as Fusion,” Zucchino writes. “It was a bold and virtually unprecedented experiment. Nowhere else in the South during post-Reconstruction did whites and blacks so successfully unite in a multiracial political partnership.”

The outcome was a multiracial government in North Carolina, albeit still overwhelmingly white. Since many former slaves had relocated to Wilmington given the port city’s abundant job opportunities, it soon became a majority Black city, and this was simply too much to bear for many white North Carolinians. 

Seeing that the electoral math would not add up in their favor in Wilmington, two prominent white supremacists huddled in a meeting in nearby New Bern to solve what they dubbed “the Negro problem.” Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of the News and Observer, and Furnifold Simmons, the party’s state chairman, devised a two-pronged strategy that proved effective and influential far beyond Wilmington.

The first prong was to stop Black citizens from voting. The second was to overthrow the current Fusionist city government. The men envisioned no tactic too brutal to be used in furtherance of their goals. What flowed from New Bern down the coast to Wilmington was an election-year chaos that Zucchino brings to vividly terrifying light through the real lives of the people affected.

There are so many stories unearthed that a convenient dramatis personae is included up front, but rarely does the narrative become too laden with cast. Save only a few brief flashbacks, Zucchino reports his way through the action and the personal stories with great care, culminating in the central story that has been covered up over the last century: the stunning overthrow of the legitimately elected Wilmington city government. 

The epilogue to these events is nearly as heartbreaking. Many of the Black citizens killed that November were never found or identified. Many of the citizens dramatically escorted out of Wilmington spent the rest of their lives either trying to get justice for what happened, or trying to forget it. None were successful.

The white citizens that had stoked the rage of their fellow North Carolinians and encouraged murder and mayhem were never met with justice, and in many cases led lives of privilege and plaudits. Some even enjoyed rewards long after their deaths.

In fact, the dramatis personae bears an uncanny resemblance to my own freshman year schedule at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where some thirty buildings are named after the very white supremacists that helped overthrow Wilmington’s government. Perhaps Zucchino walked some of those same halls during his time at UNC. To understand the political state of North Carolina in 2020 is to learn about the Wilmington of 1898. The success of the Daniels/Simmons two-pronged strategy is both alarming and long-lived.

It is important to note that Zucchino commits this work of journalism with no special favors to his own trade. He emphasizes that none of the horrific acts of 1898 would have been possible without the help, witting and otherwise, of those purporting to be in the business of journalism. From the flagrant propaganda of the white newspapers to the News and Observer (still around today in a much different form) that colluded directly with the white supremacist Democratic Party to popular national press outlets, very few journalists in this book are spared the horrific judgment that follows. Incredibly, some of the most moving contemporaneous reports of events are from diaries and unpublished memoirs of ordinary citizens. David Zucchino dedicates Wilmington’s Lie “to the dead and banished, known and unknown.” Through this act of documenting, he brings truth to the lie.

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
By David Zucchino
Atlantic Monthly Press
Published January 7, 2020