WILMINGTON — “This has been a turbulent day in Wilmington. Race war and revolution have held carnival,” was the lede of the top story in the New York Daily Sun on Friday, November 11, 1898 – the day after white supremacists took power in Wilmington in the only coup d’etat in United States history.
The events of November 10, 1898, have been much studied and – over more than a century – the story has changed dramatically. Initially reported locally, and for decades taught in schools, as a “race riot” instigated by black residents, the bloodshed eventually came to be understood as a massacre, part of a pre-planned overthrow of the city’s ‘Fusionist’ government by a number of prominent white men, many of whose family names still adorn streets, parks, fountains, and other Wilmington landmarks.
The brunt of the violence was initially directed at The Daily Record, a black-owned daily newspaper published by Alexander Manly, who had fled the city before the coup. Members of the armed white insurrection then turned on blacks in the streets and then forced city council and the chief of police to resign at gunpoint. The violence effectively ended any Reconstructionist hope of racial cooperation or equity in the city and set the stage of decades of segregation under Jim Crow.
There are still many unanswered questions about the coup today and some tragic aspects – like the ultimate death toll, or the full extent to which black property was stolen in the wake of the riot – but in the days following the riot reports varied wildly.
A new addition, a different perspective
In large part, that’s what makes a copy of the November 11 Daily Sun so interesting for the staff at the Cape Fear Museum (the broadsheet newspaper was donated from the Bellamy Mansion Executive Director Gareth Evans).
The Daily Sun account of the coup is different in a number of ways from other accounts, according to Museum Historian Dr. Jan Davidson.
“Newspapers are an essentially flawed source, because the person who writes them doesn’t know everything, and doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight,” Davidson told Port City Daily (with an unapologetic note of irony).
Davidson said many of the white-owned newspaper reported the coup as a race riot, instigated by black residents forcing whites to ‘restore law and order.’
But that wasn’t the only narrative, as evidenced by the Daily Sun’s reporting. The Sun doesn’t call the event a coup, nor does it simply call it a race riot. The article gives some details that accommodate or excuse the coup members – including noting that “conservative men very much regret the fire” that ultimately destroyed The Record – but also some that are quite damning, including a description of a black man, accused of shooting a white man, taken out into the street and told to run for his life, only to be “riddled with bullets” after only making it a few yards.
While the paper’s format is not as sensationalist as others – modern readers may be surprised to see the simple blocks of text without large-font headlines – the article does take up prime real estate on the paper’s top right-left side.
For Davidson, the paper is interesting both because it shows how outsiders saw Wilmington, and because it shows Wilmingtonians were interested in how they were being seen.
The Daily Sun was the most politically conservative of the serious New York papers, including the Daily Herald and the New York Times, but it’s difficult to compare the politics of late 19th century New York and North Carolina. But the divide between North and South is palpable in the paper.
“In many ways, they’re different worlds — there’s the regional difference,” Davidson said. “But there is a piece of it that is ‘the South is backward,’ element to it. There’s a corner that is ‘the South has lynchings and mob rule, so it’s a stereotype,” Davidson said.
In fact, printed alongside news of the Wilmington coup is an article on the Phoenix, South Carolina election violence, where racial tensions between recently-enfranchised black voters and white supremacists boiled over into four days of violence against blacks and the whites who had tried to help them vote. Eight black residents were murdered.
But the lynching and mob rule wasn’t just printed for the sake of shock value, Davidson said. There was also a genuine interest in what was happening in the South. As Davidson noted, Manly visited Cooper Union – a college near the East Village in Manhattan – to speak about the events of the coup.
And, of course, residents in the north were concerned about how violence in southern cities could impact national stability, just 33 years after the Civil War.
“It becomes a matter of national importance because the President discusses sending in troops — which leads to the question of what happens to the post-War peace if the South is ‘re-invaded’ by federal troops,” Davidson said.
Ultimately, the paper is fascinating for Davidson – and important to the museum – not because it’s a factual account of history but because it’s an unmediated piece of history.
“It’s clear that people in Wilmington were interested in how these events were perceived,” Davidson said. “It gives you a different perspective. It gave people a different perspective then, and one of the reasons we love things like this is that it gives you something different than what’s in The Daily Record, which was our African-American newspaper, or in the Wimington Star, which was the white newspaper. So having this just enriches your sense of what was going on.”
The original copy of the Daily Sun is unlikely to appear in the museum’s 1898 section, but museum staff are hopeful that a digitized version will one day become part of the museum’s online archives and perhaps appear in the exhibit.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001