The Passionate Storyteller

John Sayles on the set of his film Passion Fish, 1992

The only successful coup d’état in American history occurred on November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina. At the time, the city was one of the most prosperous ports on the East Coast and a center of African- American economic and political power. The local government had been controlled by Democrats for two decades, but that changed in 1894 and 1896 when black voters, now a majority of the citizens, elected a coalition of Republicans and Populists. The city’s white aristocracy would not stand for it.

“We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes,” declared one of their leaders, a former congressman and Confederate colonel named Alfred Moore Waddell. “Even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”

On the morning of the 10th as many as two thousand white men and boys took to the streets, armed with rifles, pistols, and rapid-fire Colt machine guns mounted on horse-drawn wagons. They began by burning down the offices of The Daily Record, the city’s black newspaper. In photographs taken afterward, the men pose in front of the incinerated building with their shotguns raised. The second floor has been reduced to a single wall, the smoke billowing from its splintered planks. Grinning boys stand in the front row, cradling their smaller guns. (See illustration on page 42.)

The mob proceeded to the neighborhood of Brooklyn, the heart of Wilmington’s African-American community, where they slaughtered what men they could find. Some of the revolutionaries—for that’s how they saw themselves, having issued a “White Declaration of Independence”—boarded streetcars and fired into the windows of homes and businesses as they passed by. Corpses began to collect in the streets. In the midst of this tumult, the revolution’s leaders stormed City Hall. At gunpoint, they forced the mayor and his board of aldermen to resign, and installed their own government. Colonel Waddell became mayor. It’s not known for certain how many people died in Wilmington that day—the estimates range well into the hundreds—but eyewitnesses claimed that the Cape Fear did in fact run red with blood.

The city’s African-American businessmen and political leaders were stripped of their possessions and marched to the station, where they boarded trains headed north. The new administration moved quickly to fulfill the points of their Declaration of Independence, chief among them the revocation of black suffrage and the transfer of jobs from blacks to whites.

Despite numerous conflicting reports at the time, the most widely accepted account of the massacre was Colonel Waddell’s. In “The Story of the Wilmington, NC, Race Riots,” published two weeks later in Collier’s Weekly, Waddell described the burning of the Record’s office as “purely accidental” and suggested that the violence was incited by black politicians. It was not until 2005 that a historical commission, created by…

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