1898 And The Shadow Of Jim Crow In North Carolina
November 2023 marks the 125th anniversary of the 1898 election and the Democratic Party’s White Supremacy Campaign, as well as the racial massacre/coup d’état that occurred in Wilmington two days after ballots were cast. The election and the subsequent bloodshed in Wilmington had a profound effect on North Carolina law, of course, but those events also impacted the founding of the North Carolina Bar Association, which occurred two months later. Drawing upon my recent book, Jim Crow in North Carolina: The Legislative Program from 1865 to 1920 (Carolina Academic Press, 2021), and the November 2020 Report from the Executive Director of the NCBA on the Bar Association’s racially exclusionary origins and history, this article recounts North Carolina’s history from 1865, what happened in 1898, and the ways that the N.C. Bar Association intentionally excluded African American attorneys from membership for generations.
The White Supremacy Campaign of 1898 and the Wilmington massacre/coup d’état were not a part of the public memory of North Carolina over the last century. North Carolinians were not taught this history in the state’s schools, and many generations of this state’s citizens grew up not knowing anything about what happened in November 1898, why it happened or what impact it had on law and on the status of racial minorities over the subsequent decades.
What happened in North Carolina in the years after the end of the Civil War was unique in the South, and these events set the stage for the politically tumultuous 1890s. Part of the uniqueness resulted from the political geography of the state. The western part of North Carolina was overwhelmingly Unionist at the outbreak of the Civil War in that many western residents supported the Union and tended to be aligned with the new Republican Party, and they opposed succession. The mountainous west was not conducive to the type of farming that required large numbers of slaves and, as a result, the African American population was relatively small. The eastern part of North Carolina, on the other hand, did have farms and plantations that grew crops which relied heavily on chattel slavery. After 1865 and emancipation, these areas in the eastern part of the state were staunchly Republican—because the newly free African Americans had joined the political party of Lincoln who, it was said, “freed the slaves.” The size of these two Republican strongholds in the state was unique in the South, and it meant that North Carolina had a larger Republican Party and a more closely divided electorate. There were always numerous Republicans, and even continuous officeholding by African Americans, in North Carolina’s General Assemblies from 1865 to 1899.
Political power shifted between parties and factions in North Carolina in the years after 1865. President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation in 1865 that allowed the former Confederates to vote and even to hold office, and the ex-Confederates unsurprisingly returned to political power in the November 1865 election. And the ex-Confederates enacted laws, such as the so-called Black Codes, that disadvantaged African Americans at every turn. But, in Washington, D.C., congressional Republicans believed that four years of a bloody civil war required more fundamental change, and not a return to the antebellum status quo. Thus, with the passage by Congress of the first Reconstruction Act on March 2, 1867, over Johnson’s veto, the existing governments in the Southern states were explicitly abolished and governing authority was transferred to the U.S. military. In North Carolina, those military commanders began registering the freedmen to vote in 1867 (women not being eligible to vote during this era), and Republicans won in a landslide in the November 1867 election for delegates to draft a new state constitution. The framework of the resulting 1868 North Carolina constitution is largely the outline of state government that remains to this day.
While the Republicans maintained control of the General Assembly in the election of 1868, they lost their majorities two years later, and the Democrats held on to majorities in the legislature for the next twenty years. Those elections were always closely contested because of the continued strength of the Republican Party in the state and, indeed, there were Republican governors until 1877. In 1870, though, the Conservative Party (soon to be renamed the Democratic Party) won majorities in the General Assembly. These Conservatives/Democrats were known as the “Redeemers” by Whites in the South because they supposedly “redeemed” White rule and the cause for which the war had been fought.
The Democratic majorities after 1870 used their legislative power to disadvantage African Americans through law. Statutes were enacted to require racially segregated county schools (1872), racially segregated cemeteries (1885), and even to segregate tax dollars and appropriations for public schools along racial lines (1880 and 1883). And statutes were used to target Republican (read: African American) political power. Wilmington was the state’s largest city in the 1800s and, after the Civil War, it became a majority Black city, with 5,526 Whites and 7,920 “Colored” in the 1870 U.S. Census (at this time, the U.S. Census Bureau used “Colored” as a catchall for everyone who wasn’t “White”). It followed that New Hanover County was a majority Black county, with 11,779 Whites and 16,199 “Colored.” In 1875, the General Assembly enacted a statute to break up New Hanover County, packing African Americans into Wilmington and a shrunken New Hanover, while making the northern two-thirds of New Hanover a new county, Pender. The Democrats’ goal was to concede defeat in New Hanover by making it even more Republican (again, read: African American) in order to create a new racially balanced, rural county where the Democrats hoped that the White landowners could help tip the balance in favor of their candidates.
The Tumult of the 1890s
When the 1890s began, Democrats were in power, but it was to be a decade of upheaval. There was a severe economic depression in the early years of the decade that hit farmers across the nation particularly hard. And while prices for crops declined precipitously, the railroad rates that the farmers paid to ship their goods to market skyrocketed.
White farmers here in North Carolina were overwhelmingly aligned with the Democrats and they sought the enactment of laws to ameliorate their financial strains, such as the creation of a railroad rate commission, but the Democrats in the General Assembly generally legislated in support of corporate and business interests. The Democrats, holding majorities in the legislature for the previous two decades, were financially backed by the business lobby and, thus, the elected Democrats’ legislative agenda tended to align with those corporate interests and not the interests of the White farmers.
The disgruntled and impoverished farmers, unhappy in the Democratic camp, were lured away by a new political party, the Populists. The Populist Party had its roots in the Farmers’ Alliance, a nationwide organization of (generally White) farmers who advocated for farmers’ interests and who counted 100,000 North Carolina farmers as members. In the early years of the 1890s, the Populist Party was formed by defectors from the Democratic Party, both in North Carolina and across the nation. The Southern Democratic argument against the formation of a third party had always been the risk that it might split the White vote and allow the Republicans to regain power. But, in 1892, the Farmers Alliance, under the People’s/Populist Party banner, ran their own candidates in numerous North Carolina districts, and while it garnered less than 20 percent of the vote, the real importance of the elections results was that the Democrats’ vote totals fell below 50 percent.
With their leaders recognizing the potential benefit of combining forces, in 1894, the Populist and Republican parties “fused” to challenge the dominance of the Democrats in Raleigh. This “fusion” did not create a new political party. It was, instead, a non-aggression pact between the Populists and the Republicans. The basic strategy behind fusion was that the Populists and Republicans would generally only field one candidate between them in a given race to run against the Democratic candidate, the choice being based upon each party’s respective strengths in different parts of the state. It wasn’t that the Populists and Republican were united on all policy fronts, but each party saw the value in working with the other to achieve legislative goals that the Democrats had blocked.
The strategy worked. In 1894, the fused Populists and Republicans won a majority of seats in the General Assembly. While the fusionist approach had been tried in other Southern states, North Carolina was the only state where it actually unseated the Democrats. And two years hence, in 1896, the fusionists also achieved something that happened in no other Southern state: in addition to strengthening their majorities in the General Assembly, the Republican Daniel Russell won the gubernatorial election. Fusionists also captured five out of the state’s eight U.S. congressional seats. Of those electoral victories, one member of the congressional delegation and eleven members of the General Assembly (out of 170 total seats) were African American.
The White Supremacy Campaign of 1898
North Carolina Democrats, humiliated by the defeats, devised a political campaign to regain power, and the strategy was to be centered upon race. Led by party chair Furnifold Simmons, the Democrats recognized that if they could get the White Populists to return to the Democratic fold, then fusionism would crumble and the Republicans would then be consigned to minority status in the state.
The Democratic campaign goal was to force White voters to choose a “side” based on their race, either to support White political interests or to vote in a way that, in their portrayal, enabled African American political power. The Democrats portrayed the latter choice as effectively treasonous to the White race. A White’s vote for a Populist candidate was thus depicted as de facto support for Black political and social power. Furnifold Simmons asked “whether in any part of North Carolina men of Anglo-Saxon blood should be subjected to the rule and mastery of the negro.”
The Democrats’ sought to instill fear in Whites by claims that the state, and especially eastern North Carolina, was in the grips of “Negro domination” and “Negro rule.” Although there were and had been African American officeholders in the state, this charge was entirely contrived. In terms of federal offices, there were local Black postmasters and John Dancy had been appointed as the Collector of Customs at Wilmington’s federal Customs House by the Republican administration in Washington. And, after 1896, 11 out of 170 members of the General Assembly were African American. But, in reality, those meager numbers did not equate to “Negro rule” in eastern North Carolina.
The 1898 White Supremacy Campaign also relied on Whites’ fears about social equality and the supposed need to protect White womanhood from the predations of African American men. On August 18, 1898, Alexander Manly, the mulatto grandson of former governor Charles Manly, published an editorial in his Wilmington newspaper in opposition to lynching by highlighting Whites’ hypocrisy on the possibility of consensual interracial liaisons. This editorial was used by Democrats and their newspaper allies such as Josephus Daniels in Raleigh to inflame Whites. Democratic orator Charles Aycock repeatedly used the subject of Black male sexuality to inflame crowds. In a debate in September 1898, Aycock made favorable reference to the recent lynchings of two Black men: “Why, you white men of Cabarrus don’t even wait for the law when negroes have dishonored your helpless, innocent women.” The Charlotte Observer account reported that upon the utterance of this line, “Men sitting rose unconsciously to their feet! The thunder of the cheering rose and fell and rose again.”
In this era before radio, television or the internet, the Democrats coordinated their message with the newspapers in the state and, most prominently, with Josephus Daniels’ News and Observer in Raleigh. During the 1898 campaign, the News and Observer constantly ran stories about Blacks’ supposed insolence and immorality, their alleged criminality, and the dangers of “Negro Rule” by Black officeholders. The News and Observer ran huge headlines which might strike the modern reader as absolutely ludicrous, but they were meant to stir up the fears of the paper’s White readers. One example is from the top of the page on September 11, 1898, “Negro Road Overseer in Craven County,” with the subtitle in only a slightly smaller font, “Scene on the Road Where White Men are Working the Public Roads Under a Negro Overseer.” In a political cartoon on the front page of the paper on October 9, 1898, entitled “This House is Built Upon a Rock,” the “rock” is labeled White Supremacy and the house sitting upon it is the News and Observer. Daniels later claimed, correctly, that his News and Observer “was the printed voice of the campaign.”
A White paramilitary group, the Red Shirts, was active in using violence and intimidation of African American political leaders and voters across the southern counties of the state in support of the Democratic party. Although they were not as murderous as the Ku Klux Klan in the years after 1865, several murders of Blacks by the Red Shirts did occur during the 1898 political campaign. Like in South Carolina where they originated, the Red Shirts rode on horseback and their weapon of choice was the Winchester rifle. They used violence to break up Populist and Republican political rallies in support of the Democratic Party and White supremacy. Rallies to be headlined by North Carolina’s U.S. Senators Marion Butler (Populist) and Jeter Pritchard (Republican) and by Governor Daniel Russell (Republican) had to be canceled because of threats of Red Shirt violence. Indeed, the threats of Red Shirt violence included a potential assassination attempt against Governor Russell on a train headed out of Wilmington, with Russell warned by Red Shirt and future governor Cameron Morrison at a train stop about the plot to kidnap Russell at a later stop and kill him.
While the 1898 election vote margins were relatively close, with the Democratic candidate winning 52.8 percent of the vote in the only statewide race that year, the Democrats’ political tactics worked, and the party achieved large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. For example, the state Senate flipped from a 43-7 split in favor of the fusionists to a 40-10 Democratic advantage with the 1898 election. White voters, egged on by racist fears and told that their vote was a test of racial loyalty, abandoned the Populist Party and returned to the Democratic fold on Election Day, November 8, 1898.
Wilmington Racial Massacre/Coup d’Etat
The White Supremacy Campaign in 1898 did not end with the election because the White leaders of Wilmington had other plans. Wilmington had been a focal point for Democrats during the election given that it was North Carolina’s largest city and a Republican stronghold since it was a majority Black city. Throughout 1898, the White leaders of the city had worked on numerous fronts to shore up White support and to prepare for the use of force in support of White Supremacy. The bloodletting that occurred in Wilmington two days after Election Day was not an impromptu convulsion of violence by an unruly mob, but was a deliberate finale to the White Supremacy Campaign.
The day before the election, former Congressman Alfred Moore Waddell energized a Wilmington rally by stating: “Go to the polls tomorrow and if you find the negro outvoting [sic], tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him; shoot him down in his tracks.” This sentiment was in line with that of organizations which had sprung up during the campaign in support of White supremacy. The White Government Union club (WGU) in Wilmington asked White men to join its ranks and, when they declined, they were marched from their homes to the WGU headquarters and told that if they did not sign up, they would have to leave the city “as there was plenty of rope in the city.” The activities of the WGU and two secret groups of White leaders in Wilmington worked to further Democratic interests, but they did it their own way, as Wilmington Democratic leader George Roundtree informed state chair Furnifold Simmons that “we are going to run the campaign to suit ourselves down here.” One of the ways that Wilmington’s White leaders ran the campaign was the purchase of a large $1,200 Colt rapid-fire gun, and its potency was shown to the city’s Black leaders a week before the election.
On the morning of November 9, 1898, the day after votes were cast in the statewide election, two of the White newspapers in Wilmington announced that there was to be a meeting for “white men” at 11 a.m. that morning for “business in furtherance of White Supremacy.” The large mass meeting was attended by Roundtree and Waddell, and a document termed the “White Declaration of Independence” was issued which called for the banishment from the city of the newspaper owner, Alexander Manly, the cessation of publication by his newspaper, The Daily Record, and called for the immediate resignations of Wilmington Mayor Silas P. Wright and Chief of Police John R. Melton. The demand that Wright and Melton resign their offices was not related to the 1898 election, because their terms of office were to continue until the next year’s municipal elections. Alfred Moore Waddell was selected to chair a group of twenty-five individuals who were charged with ensuring that the provisions were executed, the so-called “Committee of Twenty-Five.”
Although Alexander Manly fled the city, the degree of conformity with the White leaders’ demands was irrelevant, and on the morning of November 10, a White mob headed to The Daily Record and burned the building and the printing press. From there, White mobs spread out across the city. While the precise details of what initially happened and when are lost to time, one of the initial flashpoints was at the intersection of Fourth and Harnett Streets.
No Whites died on November 10, but 22 individual African Americans are known to have been killed, with the total number of dead almost certainly much higher. In her book, A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (2009), LaRae Sikes Umfleet researched the deaths and, by only enumerating ones where there were multiple contemporary sources such as newspapers as to the names or the locations of the Black dead, she counted the 22 African Americans murdered and 9 known to have been wounded but whose fate was unknown. These figures were in addition to the individuals, Black and White, who were specifically banished from the city, and those African Americans who fled Wilmington with their lives and who never returned.
November 10 was also the only day in American history (thus far) when public officials were removed from office by force. Sometime during the day after the violence had started in Wilmington, businessman William Chadbourn suggested to George Roundtree that the resignations of Mayor Wright and Chief of Police Melton could be achieved if a new slate of officeholders were put forward. Roundtree presented this plan to Waddell and the Committee of Twenty-Five. With the violence continuing in the streets, Wright and Melton resigned along with all of the Wilmington Board of Aldermen. The person chosen to replace Wright was none other than Alfred Moore Waddell. The front page of the next morning’s News and Observer ran a picture of Waddell and the caption read: “The New Mayor of Wilmington Who was Elected Yesterday.” There were no quotation marks around the word “Elected” and, of course, there had been no election on November 10 in Wilmington.
The Founding of the NCBA
Two months to the day after the Wilmington racial massacre and coup d’état, a group of individuals met in the N.C. Supreme Court’s courtroom to establish the NCBA. There had been a previous organization in the state, the State Bar Association, formed in 1885, but it had met only twice over almost 15 years. It disbanded with the establishment of the N.C. Bar Association in February 1899.
It will probably surprise no one that the new constitution of the N.C. Bar Association, adopted on February 10, 1899, limited membership to White attorneys: “Any white person shall be eligible to membership in this Association who shall be a member of the Bar of this State in good standing . . . .” As noted in the November 2020 Report from the Executive Director of the NCBA on the ties between the NCBA and systemic racism, what may be surprising is that the constitution of the old State Bar Association had no such limitation as to race.
Many of the individuals who were present for the February 1899 organizational meeting and who served as officers in the new NCBA were active participants in the 1898 White Supremacy Campaign and even the conflagration in Wilmington. As noted in the November 2020 Report from the Executive Director of the NCBA, the individuals at the organizational meeting included George Roundtree from Wilmington, Furnifold Simmons, the chair of the state Democratic Party, future governor Locke Craig, who was the Democrats’ leading campaign speaker at rallies in the western part of the state, and Henry G. Connor, who was selected to be Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives following the 1898 election. And, with regard to the officers of the NCBA, George Roundtree was selected as one of the “First Officers of Association,” and Alfred Moore Waddell was chosen to be a Vice President of the Bar Association for the 1899-1900 term.
While the membership limitation as to race remained in the Bar Association’s constitution until 1965, the change in language that year did not bring about the membership of African American attorneys. The constitution was also changed in 1965 to require a two-thirds vote of the Bar Association’s Board of Governors to be elected to membership. Floyd B. McKissick and M.C. Burt Jr., applied for membership in 1965 and 1966 (along with Romallus O. Murphy and Ralph K. Frasier in 1966), and they were all denied membership. Brothers Eric Michaux and Henry A. Michaux Jr., applied for membership and appeared before the Board of Governors in October 1966, but they were denied membership too, as was William A. Marsh Jr. It was at this point that the Duke University Law School severed its ties with the Bar Association, based upon the rejection of Eric Michaux, a Duke Law graduate. In the following year, though, Julius Chambers and Henry Frye received enough votes to be admitted at the April 1967 Board of Governors meeting. However, William Marsh and Eric and Henry Michaux were again denied membership. The Board of Governors put a very fine point on their opinion in the matter by their continued rejection of Eric Michaux’s applications for membership from October 1967 until June 1969.
What happened on November 10, 1898, irrevocably changed Wilmington. Where Wilmington had been a majority Black city, by the 1900 census, less than two years after the violence, Wilmington was no longer a majority Black city and the Black population had decreased in absolute terms. In the 1890 census, the U.S. Census counted 11,324 “Negro” residents of Wilmington, but in 1900, that number was only 10,407.
It is also the case that the White Supremacy Campaign and the Wilmington racial massacre/coup d’état irrevocably changed North Carolina. The state that had conducted the fairest elections in the decades after the Civil War and that saw continuous African American officeholding in the General Assembly and that had elected a fusionist governor and majorities in the legislature succumbed to the worst political violence in any Southern state. And, following the adoption of the disenfranchisement amendment to the state constitution, North Carolina’s application of the literacy test resulted in an effective percentage of zero for voting by African Americans in the next statewide election following the adoption of the amendment. As calculated by historian Morgan Kousser, that figure was extraordinary even in the South, where 2 percent of African Americans in Mississippi and 10 percent of African Americans in Virginia were able to vote in the next statewide elections following those states’ adoption of similar disenfranchisement laws.
The Wilmington racial massacre/coup d’état was effectively and intentionally hidden from generations of North Carolinians. The memory of the ugliness of the White Supremacy Campaign and the racial bloodshed in Wilmington was essentially erased. It can only be said with certainty that the people who remembered were the surviving victims of the violence and the perpetrators of that violence who continued to work in support of racial exclusion and White supremacy. But what happened in North Carolina in 1898 impacted everyone in this state for generations to come, and some of those impacts occurred through the laws of this state. As I conclude in my book, “Law was central to Jim Crow in North Carolina and elsewhere.” On this 125th anniversary of November 1898, we would do well to pause and try to comprehend the shadow that Jim Crow cast in previous years and continues to cast to this day.
Richard Paschal practices in the Education Section of Tharrington Smith in Raleigh and is the author of the book, “Jim Crow in North Carolina: The Legislative Program from 1865 to 1920 (2021).” He was a featured speaker at the 2023 NCBA Annual Meeting.