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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This collection of essays commemorates the centennial of the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot of 1898. It is intended to draw public attention to the tragedy, to honor its victims, and to bring a clear and timely historical voice into the lively debate over its legacy. We have gathered what we consider the best emerging scholarship about the race riot, but we have also sought to avoid the temptations of narrow scholarly debate. We want to address a more general audience, one that may never have heard of the race riot or the white supremacy movement of which it was the most tragic episode. We believe this history furnishes insights that will help all of us navigate the labyrinth of racial anguish that marks public life in what James Baldwin called "these yet-to-be United States."

The contributors to this volume approach the Wilmington race riot of 1898 as scholars, but not only as scholars. Though several of us teach at universities as far away as the West Coast and New England, most--including both editors--have deep roots in North Carolina. Tim Tyson lived in Wilmington in the early 1970s, when his father served as minister of a church there. At that time, harrowing racial conflicts forced the city's residents to contemplate the enduring legacy of the race riot on a daily basis. Michael Honey cut his teeth as a social activist in the political trials of the "Wilmington Ten," a group of black activists, including the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, who were tried and convicted for--but eventually exonerated of--burning a local grocery store during race riots in 1971. Richard Yarborough of UCLA had a great-grandfather who was a barber in Wilmington at the time of the race riot and a great-aunt from Wilmington who became the first African American woman to star in a previously all-white U.S. opera company. Glenda Gilmore, currently a professor at Yale, is a seventh-generation North Carolinian on both sides of her family.

We will not belabor these personal ties to Wilmington and its past, or those held by other contributors, but we think it is only fair to let readers know from the start that we see Democracy Betrayed as more than a scholarly project. The ties that bind us to home have made this book a labor of love. Despite its painful contradictions, we believe that there is no better place than the South to look for answers to the many-sided agonies of the color line. "If, in moving through your life, you find yourself lost," singer and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagan of the Smithsonian Institution instructs, "go back to the last place where you knew who you were, and what you were doing, and start from there." A hundred years ago, a historic experiment in interracial democracy blossomed in North Carolina. Most people have never heard of that experiment or of the Wilmington race riot that helped to destroy it. But the fact that thousands of black Americans have been returning to the South in a stunning reverse migration might encourage all of us to look south for a moment, toward the roots of many of our families and many of our predicaments.

A unique set of circumstances sparked the race riot in Wilmington, but the riot was only one small piece of a white supremacy crusade that swept the American South in the 1890s and the early part of the twentieth century. And, in fact, during these years a wider tide of racist violence reached beyond the Mason-Dixon Line and targeted other groups in addition to African Americans. It was felt in the ethnic ghettos of the Midwest, the Mexican barrios of Texas, and the Chinatowns of California and Washington state. It even found expression in American foreign policy, where national political leaders used white supremacist ideology to justify violence during the colonial occupation of the Philippines and Cuba. Though the Wilmington race riot stands out for both its brutality and the cool deliberation behind it, Wilmington was not fundamentally more prone to racial enmity or mob violence than the next town, county, or state. The racial conflicts that scarred Wilmington in 1898 had deep roots in the American soil, and, in the pages that follow, most readers, like the contributors, should be able to glimpse some part of their own past, their own hometowns.

As Americans search the past for insights into our racial dilemmas today, Wilmington itself is one place to look for guidance and hope. For a hundred years, Wilmington's leaders denied the facts of the race riot. Today Wilmington is a booming Sun Belt city with a historic downtown of antebellum manors, tourist attractions, and gift shops. You cannot help but feel the romance of the Old South when you stroll its broad avenues shaded by live oaks and crape myrtles. Thalian Hall is one of the most beautiful antebellum theaters in America, and the architectural majesty of the Bellamy Mansion seems right out of Gone with the Wind. Yet, despite the city's proud celebration of dozens of historic sites, the most important event in Wilmington's history remains unmarked. As of this writing, not a single monument or museum commemorates the African Americans who were killed or exiled by the race riot of 1898. City leaders did more than deny the tragedy of 1898: school children learned to view the white crusade's leaders as heroes, and civic boosters honored the white vigilantes by naming public parks, buildings, and streets after them. This official repudiation of the past left whites defensive and blacks bitter, creating an explosive racial climate marked by fear, guilt, and misunderstanding. No aspect of Wilmington society that required interracial cooperation was able to prosper: not the schools, not the sense of public safety or community, not downtown businesses. But, of course, this situation was not unique to Wilmington, and we would suggest that, in experiencing the withering effects of racism, Wilmington was, in short, a typical American city.

The centennial of the race riot of 1898 has begun to change Wilmington. Whites and blacks are engaged in a communitywide commemoration of the riot impossible to imagine only a few years ago. Wilmington is marking the centennial with candlelit vigils, a scholarly conference, race relations workshops, the dedication of memorials to the black victims, a new theatrical work about the riot, a remarkable number of interracial study groups, and a host of other church, school, and civic events. Led by a biracial coalition of local groups called the Wilmington Centennial Foundation, the commemoration points toward a racial reconciliation grounded in a clear historical understanding of an afflicted past. At least as important, and more difficult, these local citizens seek to build community support for overcoming the enduring legacies of racism, from the persistent poverty of inner-city neighborhoods to the official neglect of public schools. The contributors to this volume are honored to have been invited to play a small part in these events and hope that Wilmington will provide an example for other communities--North, South, and West--to confront the history of American racism and its hold on the present. It is a struggle fraught with pitfalls, and community activists in Wilmington recognize, as we do, that history is not likely to offer tidy lessons or easy answers. And yet we all remain committed to what Charles W. Chesnutt called "the shining thread of hope," nurtured even through a hard and bitter history, that permitted him to close his account of the Wilmington race riot by declaring: "There's time enough, but none to spare."

David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson
4 February 1998

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