Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy

Edited by David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson
With a Foreword by John Hope Franklin

From Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, edited by David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson. Copyright 1998, The University of North Carolina Press. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without the express permission of the Press. For additional information about this book, see the links below.


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In the history of the United States, and especially the history of the South, the past seems not to have receded significantly, even today. In some very fundamental ways, change has come slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly. Thus, while our past is interwoven with our present, some of our past stands out in stark relief, as if it were some relic held over from an earlier time. Despite the increased population density in places long settled, the spirit of the raw frontier persists among those who reject new "rules of the road." Such persons retreat to places where they insist on making their own rules or abiding by the old ones, frontier style. Consequently, the mountain men at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians at Waco insisted that at some point history had taken the wrong turn, and they refused to follow that course. Instead, they would follow the old rules that would lead them down the right road.

This disinclination to follow the "rules of the road" is not confined to the likes of Idaho's mountain men or the part religious cult, part paramilitary group at Waco. It is also characteristic of others who prefer to focus on past ways rather than countenance current trends. They would see history--their sacred, misunderstood past--as their security and would retreat to it rather than venture from an uncomfortable present into an uncertain future.

Those who resist change are reminiscent of the ex-Confederates who, in the years following the Civil War, preferred to dream of a South that never was and never could be rather than accept one that was within the reach of all, if they would join together and make it so. But many whites in the post-Civil War South saw change--any change--as unsettling and dangerous, and they wanted no part of it. Surely they wanted no part of an uncivilized, uncultured South in which their former slaves would enjoy the vote and equal rights in all aspects of educational, social, and economic life. To move in such a direction would be catastrophic as well as tragic. Retreating to a safer, more secure past was infinitely more attractive and desirable than proceeding into a reckless future that seemed to offer the revulsive prospect of "social equality."

The history of the South in the 1880s and 1890s is essentially the history of a search for a past so attractive that many regarded it as a nirvana. If other parts of the country did not share in this search, at least they would not interfere with it, especially as they came to regard the new dispensation as beneficial in many ways. The collusion was complete as Northern financiers and industrialists reaped enormous benefits from economic developments in the South. And, if these Northerners sinned as accessories in stimulating sharecropping, peonage, and convict labor, they did penance by offering pittances to educate the former slaves in ways that would not be offensive to Southern mores and predispositions.

As the new South emerged and as it exported huge quantities of material goods to the North and even tried its hand at manufacturing many things, from cotton textiles to electric power, the North-South partnership was consolidated further. White families, North and South, began to intermarry; Southern homes in New York were matched by Northern homes in Florida. Blacks began the Northern trek that would reach a high point during World War I. Thus, the Southernization of the North and the Northernization of the South began in earnest.

All of this was accelerated by the determination of Southern whites to replicate the slave period in everything but name. Their attack on the Civil Rights Act of 1875 found success in the 1883 decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared the act unconstitutional. In 1890, Mississippi found a way in its new constitution to disfranchise blacks effectively, and by the end of the century a trend had set in that led South Carolina and Louisiana to follow in creative and ingenious ways. The temptation to segregate blacks and whites was encouraged further by the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson.

The only thing left was to make certain that blacks who claimed any equal rights under the Constitution were blocked in whatever attempts they might make to realize their claims. If blacks thought that the "rules of the road" had changed since the Civil War, they must be made to understand that the rules had not changed. If they entertained the vague notion that they could exercise their right to vote according to the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, they must be persuaded otherwise. As Alfred Waddell, the Wilmington firebrand, told his listeners the night before the election in 1898, "If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns" (Outlook, November 19 1898).

This was the clear, unequivocal position of the people in a part of the South where the slave code had been "humanized" and duly elected freedmen had occupied seats in the Congress as well as positions in local government. These very achievements were enough, however, to persuade Waddell and his cohorts that the course of history must be changed, even reversed, if racial peace was to be achieved in Wilmington and elsewhere in the state. This was the spirit that prevailed in North Carolina's statewide white supremacy campaign in 1898 in which Wilmington served as a metaphor for violent change.

The spirit that led Wilmington to its lawless escapade in 1898 persisted long after Alex Manly and his fellow travelers had fled from the wrath of the self-appointed keepers of the white South's purity and integrity. It would rear its head from time to time, but seldom so crudely as in 1995, when a duly elected district attorney in Wilmington sought to drive out of a place of public accommodations another customer whose only offense was that he was an orderly, well-mannered African American athlete with a national reputation. This time, however, the public official could not change the rules, and he discovered that his drunken condition was no defense for having attempted to do so. In 1995, there was no Alfred Waddell and no groundswell of supporters for his would-be successor. Almost a century after the Wilmington riot, an important lesson had been learned.

Just as there are lessons to be learned from the recent past, there are lessons to be learned from the events of a century ago. This volume will inform some and remind others that our past can help us understand the challenges that this nation confronts as it undertakes to deal with the problem of race in the twenty-first century. As we stand on the threshold of a new century, we can look at our past and learn much from it. We can better understand the promise of real equality, made by the Founding Fathers more than two centuries ago, a promise neither they nor their successors kept. This promise was given new urgency by the poet Langston Hughes, who said, "Let America be America again . . . the land that never has been yet." We can better understand this if we learn well the lesson that there is something unethical and immoral about changing the rules merely to suit those who no longer enjoy special advantages that they never really earned or deserved.

John Hope Franklin

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