Annual Meeting Programs Build on Ties Between Wilmington Coup, NCBA Founding

On November 10, 1898, the duly elected government and thriving Black community in Wilmington was overthrown and violently run out of town. Many businessmen, civic leaders, and families were faced with the horrifying option of either leaving their homes, businesses, and positions or facing death. In a matter of hours, a new government was installed, and Wilmington was transformed. Not only did it change the economic opportunity and livelihood of the Black people living in Wilmington at the time but also for the generations that followed. These events were the culmination of a political campaign that had swept the state based on white supremacy that put the Democratic party in power and led to the disenfranchisement of Black North Carolinians and the enactment of early Jim Crow laws.

Three months to the day after the Wilmington Coup, on February 10, 1899, the NC Bar Association was founded at a meeting at the NC Supreme Court. Many leaders of the white supremacy campaign, massacre in Wilmington, and legislature responsible for the Jim Crow laws were members and founders on that day. The founding constitution contained white supremacist policies and ideas including limiting membership to “any white person.” These leaders and ideas had a profound impact on not only Black lawyers but on Black North Carolinians who lived daily under the weight of Jim Crow. In 2020, the Bar Association authored a report acknowledging its racist history and making several recommendations and actions to begin the process of change.

With this year marking the 125th anniversary of the 1898 Coup and Massacre, there is still a lack of knowledge amongst North Carolinians and our members about the events. As our annual meeting will take place in Wilmington, June 22-24, it is only fitting to focus our educational programming in ways that shine a light on an important part of both North Carolina and NCBA history.

We will begin with a table setting session that will explore the ties between the founding of the NC Bar Association and the 1898 massacre in Wilmington. It will also delve into the impact on the city, the role of early Jim Crow laws, and how they impacted the new organization and how it operated. We will follow that with a session that continues the story, moving forward from 1899 and the impact on Black lawyers. It will discuss the exclusion of Black lawyers in the Association until 1966, the work Black lawyers were doing in North Carolina during the Civil Rights era, and their contribution to the legal history of NC. Finally, we will close out with a look at how we approach the future. As the civil rights era transitioned, we recognize the door was opened for several other movements to advance. The last session will continue the story by highlighting the advancement of women, particularly Black women on the bench. The focus being a discussion of the journey to the bench, while addressing the reality of well-being for black women in the profession, strategies for success, bringing others along, and access to justice.

These discussions offer a unique opportunity to highlight the events that shaped not only the association, the legal profession in North Carolina, but directly impacted generations of North Carolinians. The session panelists all bring powerful experiences and personal histories to help us tell the story of our past and the hope of our future. We hope that you will join us in Wilmington for this year’s annual meeting.

Ebony Bryant is director of diversity & inclusion at the North Carolina Bar Association.