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Early African American Perspectives on the Wilmington Race Riots of 1898

On Thursday, November 10, 1898, Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, a Democratic leader in Wilmington, North Carolina mustered a white mob to retaliate for a controversial editorial written by Alexander Manly, editor of the city's black newspaper, the Daily Record. The mob burned the newspaper's office and incited a bloody race riot in the city. By the end of the week, at least fourteen black citizens were dead, and much of the city's black leadership had been banished. This massacre further fueled an ongoing statewide disfranchisement campaign designed to crush black political power. Contemporary white chronicles of the event, such as those printed in the Raleigh News and Observer and Wilmington's The Morning Star, either blamed the African American community for the violence or justified white actions as necessary to keep the peace. African American writers produced their own accounts—including fictional examinations—that countered these white supremacist claims and highlighted the heroic struggles of the black community against racist injustice.

J. Allen Kirk's "A Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, N.C. Of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States," seeks to "impartially" recount the event for both white and black audiences. Kirk, the pastor of a Wilmington church, refers to himself almost exclusively in the third person and explains that he writes about the massacre in hopes that he might "prevent exaggerated stories from being heaped upon the community or upon the country." He describes hiding with his family in the African American cemetery outside of town, hearing about the burning of the Record office, and watching as a mob of white men escorted white women and children to safety while black citizens fled to the swamps or woods to avoid being killed in the streets. Even as late as the following Sunday, the mob was still searching for missing black leaders, including Kirk, who was eventually forced to leave his family behind and flee North Carolina.

Almost three years after the massacre, David Bryant Fulton (1863?-1941) published Hanover, a fictionalized account of the events. Fulton, writing under the pseudonym Jack Thorne, casts black Wilmington as defiantly heroic, falling victim to the "persecution of the lowly" at the hands of powerful white Democrats. Fulton, an African American journalist, essayist, and novelist, was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but spent most of his adolescence in Wilmington. In 1887, he followed the path of many black southern men and left Wilmington to become a Pullman porter in the North. Fulton, however, remained close to his North Carolina roots. In the 1890s, he began writing dispatches for the Daily Record. Fulton's observations focused on African American life and race relations in the cities along his Pullman route, and he published a collection of these essays in 1892 as Recollections of a Sleeping Car Porter. Fulton's prose and fiction reflected his racial pride and fond memories of his North Carolina home.

Shortly after Fulton released his story, Charles Chesnutt published what would become a famous fictional account of the event, The Marrow of Tradition. Set in the fictional town of Wellington, The Marrow of Tradition centers on two prominent families, the Carterets (white) and the Millers (black), and explores their remarkably intersected lives. The novel also contains several intricate subplots involving a wide cast of secondary characters: a heroic rebel's vow to avenge his father's wrongful death; romantic entanglements; and endless doublings and pairings of both white and black characters. Yet throughout The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt depicts the problems afflicting the New South, offering an invective that criticizes the nation's panicked responses to issues of social equality and interracial relationships.

This event continues to interest historians today, and in 2000, the North Carolina General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to develop a historical record of the event.

All three accounts are part of DocSouth's "The North Carolina Experience: Beginnings to 1940" Collection.

Jennifer L. Larson