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Wilmington Riots
(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)


The Wilmington Race Riots were caused by the fact that many blacks got elected into office in Wilmington, NC. The reason for this is that a large number of blacks lived in Wilmington NC. The whites did not like that so many blacks were being elected into office. What brought the riots to a peak was that Alexander Manly of the "Daily Record," the only African American newspaper, printed an editorial on interracial liaisons in his newspaper. He was offended when "Wilmington Messenger" resuscitated a year old speech that Rebecca Latimer Felton had given at a Georgia Farmers' Convention. She stated that white men were soft on black men who raped white women. When Manly heard of this he fought fire with fire. He said that most white women lied about being raped. Then he said that white men both raped and seduced black women. He wondered why it was wrong for a black man to be intimate with a white woman and not wrong for a white man to be intimate with a black woman. He accused white men of failing to live up to the demands of patriarchy. When Manly suggested those poor white women welcomed the attentions of black men, he played into the hands of Democrats. White newspapers reprinted the statement every day until the election. The white landlord that was over him evicted him and the black Wilmington Ministerial Union helped Manly move. Tensions then ran wild as rumors circulated that whites were plotting to burn Manly's press. Just before the election a group called "An Organization of Colored Ladies" put their response to the rising tensions in Manly's paper. (Besides the street incidents and the Organization of Colored Ladies, other hints showed that black women played an active role in the Wilmington politics.)

The day after the election white Democrats called a mass meeting. They decided that men of African origin would never again rule them. It ordered Manly out of the city. On November tenth Wilmington businessmen, using a Colt rapid firing gun, destroyed the "Wilmington Messenger" office. A mob of men went rampaging through the city. They burned Manly's press and then hunted down prominent black leaders and either shot them or ran them out of town. By the end of the day more then ten African Americans lay dead in the streets. (In other accounts, the number reported dead is much higher.)


Due to the riots, many of the African Americans fled the city. The blacks that had horses sped to other towns to get on trains headed north. In some parts of the state whites climbed water towers to make sure that they could spot blacks as they were fleeing so that they could shoot them. The poor black people of Wilmington ran into the woods where they lived for several days. The survivors had no way of knowing if there would be more violence or not. When they had gained the courage to return to their homes it was difficult to know where the missing were. They wondered if they had been killed or ran off. A black woman wrote a letter to President William McKinley three days after the Wilmington massacre and asked why he had not sent troops to help Wilmington’s African Americans. She said that most of the blacks that had been slaughtered were property owners. Black women had no forum and little resources other than anonymous appeals to the authorities outside of the state and still no protection came. McKinley did direct the attorney of the Eastern District of North Carolina to look into the affair, but then the investigation bogged down. McKinley ignored an appeal from R.H. Bunting and John R. Melton, white men who had been U.S. commissioner and police chief. The Democrats especially hated Bunting because his wife was black. They told McKinley of the death threat that hung over their heads and begged him for help. About a month after the riots 1,400 African Americans left Wilmington. Six months later, African Americans were still departing by special rented cars attached to regular passenger trains going north or west. When the blacks departed whites got their property for unpaid taxes. Then whites started firing blacks and hiring whites in their places. Finally the North Carolina Regiment returned home. From the north, Manly wrote that while the black troops were away fighting that the white men rose up to drive the blacks out of the ballot box. During the turmoil and election week and the violence of the race riots, few people noticed an incident that recalled Manly’s assertion that white women freely loved black men. Just before the election a white woman ran away with a black man while her husband was away visiting a neighbor. When they got caught the woman was taken to stay with her father, who was liberal on racial issues. No one heard anything about the black man until he was found hanging from a tree on the side of the road.


The slaughter in Wilmington raised a storm of protest among African Americans across the nation as well as those in North Carolina. African Americans that remained in the state were afraid that there was going to be another violent outbreak. After the riots everyone turned to black congressman George White to apppeal for help. Some hoped that McKinley might condemn the violence in his December address, but he did not. White stood up and recounted the events and then he asked for justice. After Christmas, the National Afro-American Council met in Washington, D.C. They begged McKinley to speak out about the violence that had happened in Wilmington, North Carolina. McKinley would not speak out for the blacks. When McKinley would not speak out Republicans panicked, and some African Americans started blaming themselves. John Dancy, one of the members of the NAAC, started blaming Manly for saying that white men did not care for their women.