Brent Staples: When Democracy Died in Wilmington, N.C.

Roundup: Talking About History

The United States abolished the practice of owning and selling human beings when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. But the commercial component of slavery was in some ways the easiest to dispense with. The systems of black powerlessness and white supremacy that supported the enterprise proved to be far more pernicious. They persisted for another 100 years in the Deep South, enforced by lynching, disenfranchisement and state-sanctioned racial terror.

By the rise of the civil rights movement, many black Southerners had been so thoroughly conditioned to be subservient that they dared not look white people in the eye, much less seek the right to vote. This posture was understandable in the Deep South, where racial violence had been a kind of blood sport. But it seemed out of place in states like North Carolina, which was not as closely associated with hard-core brutality as were states like Mississippi and Alabama.

This rosy version of Carolina history turns out to have its bloody side. A draft of a voluminous report commissioned by the North Carolina legislature has recently outlined a grotesquely violent and stridently racist version of state history that rivals anything ever seen in the most troubled parts of the Deep South. The report, by the Wilmington Race Riot Commission, has thrown a klieg light onto a coup and riot that were staged in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 - and that still have an evident impact on the political landscape of the state.

The uprising was engineered by white supremacists who unseated a government that had been elected by an alliance that included black citizens and white progressives. Scores of black citizens were killed during the uprising - no one yet knows how many - and prominent blacks and whites were banished from the city under threat of death. White supremacists hijacked the state government, stripped black citizens of the right to vote and brought black political participation to a close. ...

The riot commission is circulating a draft version of its report (which has also been posted on the Web at, and hopes to find descendants of blacks and whites who fled Wilmington for places like Washington and New York. The draft report has already begun to pull back the covers on a brutal but little-known episode in Southern history. If the commission's progress so far is any measure of things to come, the final report will make an even more impressive contribution to public understanding of this period.

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