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November 10th 1898: Wilmington Insurrection

On this day in 1898 the Wilmington Insurrection began in Wilmington, North Carolina. The insurrection, which lasted several days, saw a white supremacist mob of around 2,000 Democrats illegally overthrow the elected local government; this therefore makes it the only coup d'état in American history. The violence occurred against the backdrop of post-Reconstruction North Carolina politics, when Democrats sought to retake the state from Republican rule. They successfully won the state from the Republicans in the November 1868 elections through a campaign of intimidation, voter suppression and appealing to white racial prejudices. Soon after the statewide elections, the mob descended on Wilmington to remove the last vestiges of biracial Republican government. In the violence that ensued, the mob attacked African-American newspaper buildings and black citizens, eventually killing over 50 and driving hundreds more out of the town. Before the insurrection, Wilmington had a majority-black population, and a small but thriving African-American middle class; after the insurrection, Wilmington became a majority-white town. After the coup the mob’s leader Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell was elected mayor of Wilmington, and the new Democratic leadership in North Carolina swiftly enacted racial segregation laws and voting restrictions targeted at African-Americans, including a poll tax and discriminatory literacy tests. Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition featured a fictionalised account of the Wilmington insurrection which, with more accuracy than contemporary portrayals, showed the riots as having been initiated by whites against the town’s African-American population. In the 1990s, the town of Wilmington began to investigate and come to terms with this brutal chapter in its history and its devastating effect on the local African-American community.