Book of the week
Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
(Atlantic Monthly, $28)
David Zucchino’s gripping new book revisits “one of the most disturbing though virtually unknown political events in American history,” said Fergus Bordewich in The Wall Street Journal. In 1898, four years after a biracial fusion ticket took control of Wilmington, N.C., the state’s largest city, white supremacists mounted a coup in which they shot and killed at least 60 black residents. The headquarters of possibly the nation’s only black-owned daily newspaper was torched, the population swung overnight from majority black to majority white, and the insurrectionists lied for years about what triggered the violence. To Zucchino, a veteran journalist, the massacre, which achieved the only coup in U.S. history, becomes a “grim but fascinating” coda to Reconstruction.
The coup didn’t occur in a vacuum, said Louis Masur in The Washington Post. Democrats across North Carolina had been determined to fight back against “Negro domination” after widespread victories for the fusionists in 1894. The Raleigh News and Observer spread lies about runaway crime and corruption in Wilmington, and when Wilmington’s Daily Record, a black newspaper, published an editorial that spoke bluntly about consensual sexual relationships between white women and black men, white-owned newspapers kept reprinting it for months to stoke outrage. Rifles were transported into the city to arm the white population, and on Election Day, Democrats across the state stuffed ballot boxes and drove black voters away from the polls. Two days later, at least 1,500 white men joined the planned siege.
The 1898 coup wouldn’t be the last occasion on which a massacre of black Americans was characterized as a race riot, thus blaming the victims, said Ben Steelman in the Wilmington Star News. It was even reported that the siege had preempted a planned violent black uprising—another lie. In the end, 2,100 black citizens were chased from the port city, Wilmington’s black middle class was destroyed, dozens of people lay dead, and “no one seemed to care,” said Eddie Glaude in The New York Times. One of the coup’s leaders was anointed the new mayor that very day, and the News and Observer’s contemptible editor became U.S. Navy secretary. If you think this is only history, read Zucchino’s closing interviews with some of the descendants of the perpetrators and victims. “Memory and trauma look different depending on which side of the tracks you stand.” ■