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America’s Only Successful Coup d’Etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898

October 7, 2020 in History

By Aaron Randle

The Wilmington, North Carolina massacre decimated Black political and economic power in the city for nearly 100 years.

It was the only successful coup d’état in the history of the United States and a story of racial terror largely obscured from the annals of American history.

In 1898, a group of white vigilantes—angry and fearful at the newly elected biracial local government—joined forces with area militias to rain terror on Wilmington, North Carolina, then the South’s most progressive Black-majority city.

After stoking fear of a Black uprising that would upend their way of life, endanger their women and bring about an unfathomable new American reality in which Black men—not white—governed, white city leaders pledged to “choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses” rather than allow Wilmington’s Black citizens to succeed, and lead.

When the carnage ended, more than 100 Black government officials—city councilmen, the city clerk, the treasurer, the city attorney and others—had been forced from their elected roles. Somewhere between 60 and 250 Black citizens were murdered.

After the coup, for which no one was ever prosecuted or punished, more than 100,000 registered Black voters fled the city. No Black citizen would again serve in public office for three-quarters of a century.

“It was a massacre,” says Christopher Everett, director of Wilmington on Fire, a documentary on the uprising. “A massacre kept secret for over 100 years.”

READ MORE: How Power Grabs in the South Erased Reforms After Reconstruction

In Wilmington, the Black Community Was Thriving

In the years leading up to 1898, Wilmington stood as the most progressive city in the American South. A bustling, integrated port, the town, historians say, “was what the new South could have become after the Civil War.”

By 1896, nearly 126,000 Black men in Wilmington were registered voters. The city’s flourishing Black middle class boasted some 65 doctors, lawyers and educators, scores of barbers and restaurant owners, public health workers, members of the police force and the fire department. And just three decades after Emancipation, Black Republicans held multiple positions of power, serving as city councilmen, magistrates and other elected officials.

The integration resulted from Fusion politics, a political phenomenon in North Carolina that joined the Populist Party (comprised mostly of poor, white farmers) and the Republican Party (the political affiliation of choice for freed Black Americans) into one entity. They aligned against the Democrats, a party composed of …read more


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