tv David Zucchino Wilmingtons Lie CSPAN November 26, 2021 9:16am-10:03am EST
tonight, it symbolizes something else. the failure of an east german government to resist the wave of change rolling over soviet block nations and the sound of new freedom, the chipping away of the wall itself and the system that built it. follow us on social media for more of this date in history. good afternoon. i'm carol busey. i'm the moderator of this session on "wilmington's lie, the murderous coup of 1898 and the rise of white supremacy." it's an honor to have this book here at the southern festival and because david has won the pulitzer prize for 2021 for non-fiction for this book. it's a very important book.
i hope if you haven't read it, you will certainly be inspired to read it after our session today. david is a contributing writer to "the new york times." his most recent articles have been about the war in afghanistan, the withdrawal and the overall condition of the country there. he did win a pulitzer back in 1989 for his journalistic reporting of the apartheid in south africa. he has been nominated for journalism four different times in addition to that. so i want to introduce you to our author. thank you very much. >> thank you, carol. it's wonderful to be here. i want to thank everybody for coming in. i'm going to talk for 10 or 15 minutes and give you sort of an overview of the book and what it's about, just sort of ground you. then i think we're going to go to questions from carol and
hopefully questions from you in the audience. i would like to begin today to talk about a violent event from 123 years ago that still reverberates in some of the racism, demagoguery, disinformation and political violence we see today. november 10, 1898, 1,500 heavily armed white see president-elect trump sifts in north carolina carries out the only armed overthrow of american government. white vigilantes killed 60 black men and drove more than 2,000 black citizens from the city two days after the 1898 -- wilmington had one of the few multi-racial governments in the south with black men in prominent positions. the white mob evicted the three black and seven white aldermen, mayor, police chief and other
leaders at gunpoint and installed coup leaders. they burned the black newspaper and tried to lynch the black publisher. they banished black leaders who survive and white traitors who served with black men. they were marched at gunpoint to the wilmington train station, thrown aboard departing trains and told, don't come back or we will kill you on sight. no one of them ever came back. the 1898 coup was a pivotal event not just for north carolina but for the south. it cemented white supremacy for the next 60 years and inspired whites across the south to use violence and terror to snuff out the black vote. it turned a black majority city into a white sue premises citadel.
today wilmington is less than 18% black. after the coup, black citizens in north carolina did not vote in significant numbers for almost 70 years until after passage of the voting rights act in 1965. in 1896, two years before the coup, there were -- 126,000. by 1902 it was cut to 6,000. it was effective in destroying the ability for black men to vote. in 1898, there was one black man in the senate or the house. george henry white from a north carolina district next to wilmington. white supremacists hounded him and his family so viciously that he left north carolina forever in 1900. his parting words were, i cannot remain in north carolina and be treated as a man.
no black citizen served in congress in north carolina in 1992, almost 100 years later. that's for a century almost this coup prevented or led the effort to prevent black citizens from serving in public office in washington from north carolina. the three black aldermen were forced from office. the coup also provided a blueprint for terror and intimidation of black men who tried to vote in the south. it ushered in the jim crow era in north carolina. wilmington was among the first cities in north carolina to get jim crow laws when they segregated street cars. in 1906, white supremacists in georgia plotted to steal the election by attacking leaders. the governor in a stolen
election said, we can handle the blacks the way they handled them in wilmington where the woods were black with hanging carcasses. most of you have never heard of the wilmington coup. until i read about centennial events in wilmington in newspaper coverage in 1998, i hadn't either. i went to high school and college in north carolina. the coup was never mentioned by any professor or any history book in all the classes i took. many people who have read the book have the same two questions i had when i first learned of the coup in 1998. one, how could i not know about this? two, how could this happen in the united states of america? i think the best answer i can give is this is a forgotten chapter of american history that was covered up or mischaracterized for a century. it happened at a time when white supremacy went unchallenged. after 1898, white supremacist leaders in wilmington wrote the
narrative of their coup. they portrayed it as a good government initiative that replaced corrupt and incompetent black leaders with white men. they claimed it was black men, not white supremacists, who were stockpiling weapons and planning a race riot. they called it a black inspired riot rather than a violent act of domestic terrorism by armed white supremacist. a century later it was still referred to as a race riot. in fact, it was a racial massacre, a planned murder spree and a white supremacist coup. that's why this book is titled "wilmington's lie." no one was held accountable. no one was ever arrested or charged for the murders or for the coup. the federal government did absolutely nothing. why was wilmington such a threat to whites? it was a black majority city at the time when all major southern
cities had white majorities. second, wilmington was a bold experiment in multi-racial government 30 years after the civil war. black men served in position of the authority. ten of wilmington's 26 police officer were black. the county treasurer, the jailer and the coroner were black. so were many magistrates. they actually preside over cases involving white defendants. there was a thriving black middle class of doctors, lawyers and teachers. the federal customs collector was a black man who earned more than the white governor. this was intolerable to white supremacists. they vowed to overthrow negro rule and negro domination by the ballot. they had a name for their effort. they called it the white supremacy campaign. they issued a booklet. here is one quote that's quite
clear about white intentions that summer. this is a white man's country and white men must govern, must control and govern it. the book that was called the democratic handbook and you have to remember that in 1898, democrats were the party of white supremacy. republicans were the party of lincoln and black suffrage. because the coup leaders announced their intentions, this was a national story. a lot of the research that i was able to do for this book came from newspaper stories in the national press. national newspapers, "new york times," "washington post," philadelphia enquirer, chicago tribune, many others sent reporters, white men, to cover the race war in wilmington. they were met at the train station by white supremacist leaders who arranged their lodging and gave them cigars and whiskey. they were escorted around by white gunmen.
their newspaper stories were key to the white narrative that black men were planning to riot to kill white men and rape white women. that's the story northern readers got. that's the lie that was told for decades. as a side note, i read hundred of articles from 1898 and did not find a single instance where a white reporter interviewed a black citizen, which i found absolutely remarkable. there have been many other so-called race riots in america, tulsa, chicago, atlanta and elsewhere. these were spontaneous outbursts of white rage, usually involving some sort of contact between a black man and a white woman. wilmington was unique. the violence was premeditated. the coup was planned for months. it was a revolution carried out by armed vigilantes. it was america's only permanent violent overthrow of an elected government. you would think this would be described in north carolina
history books. in fact, it was barely mentioned. when it was mentioned, it was portrayed as a heroic white response to a black race riot and a good government effort to replace corrupt negro rule. let me just read you some descriptions of the coup that appeared in north carolina public high school textbooks that helped keep the lie alive. this is from state sanctioned public textbooks for high school students. a quote from a public school textbook, 1903. there were many negro office holders, some of whom were poorly fitted for their tasks. this naturally aroused ill feelings between the races. here is a textbook passage from 1940. the massive negros became poor citizens. to keep their bag, they allowed them to do as they pleased. the worst crimes were not punished. the white people of the south are no longer safe. this is from 1949, quote, a
number of blacks were jailed for starting a riot and a new white administration took over. this is from a 1940 textbook about the kkk and the red shirts who were the armed vigilantes in 1898 used by the white supremacists to intimidate black people. to put an end to this terrible condition, white people joined together in a club which they named the ku klux klan. members dressed as ghosts and scared lawless men into acting decently. on moon lit nights, they could be seen riding to bring order back into the lives of their people. such sights frightened negros into living better lives. the names of the men who had done wrong were listed. the next moonlit night the klan would visit the men and punish them according to the wrongs they had done. lawless men were not so bold and crime became less and less. on that note, i will stop here
and i will answer a few questions from carol. then i will take questions from all of you. thank you very much for listening. >> thank you, david. it is a wonderful introduction to what is a very powerful book. it's really gripping to see what is going on. one of the things that just amazed me so much about the book was some of your sources were these things the perpetrators of this coup had very proudly written for the rest of the world to see and give them accolades for what they were doing to bring what they believed in their head was good government. >> exactly. i thought that was the -- one of the most remarkable things that i came across when i was researching this book is just how many diaries, newspaper editorials and letters and memoirs were written by the perpetrators openly bragging about what they had done and
really extolling the virtues of white supremacy and pointing out that this coup was so effective that it basically eliminated the black man not only from voting but from politics. after that first generation died out, it was really interesting, then suddenly all the information went quiet. people just stopped talking about it. i think the next generation realized how painful that must be for their black neighbors and how embarrassing for the world to know the truth. it sort of was buried after that first generation died out and wasn't really talked about except in certain occasions of textbooks where i mentioned it's mentioned in passing but as a triumph of good government and good order. >> you know, i guess it's a matter of human nature to some degree that the descendents of the perpetrators may be somewhat
embarrassed, but they are not going to speak totally openly about what they know about what their grandfather or great grandfather did. i was interested that you were able to even get interviews with some of those descendents. >> a couple were grandsons. one was the grandson of josephus daniels. the driver of white supremacy during that summer of 1898 and ran a fake news campaign that incited white men to attack blacks. i spoke with him. my first job out of journalism school was there. i worked for mr. daniels. i worked there five years and had no idea his grandfather was involved in white supremacy.
there were busts of him around. never mentioned white supremacy. in talking to the grandson and the grandson of another leader, they both -- their grandfathers were men of their time. that they reflected the beliefs of the time. during that period, it was accepted that black people were inferior to white people. they were performing a sort of public service in bringing the best people possible to government. seemed to me they rationalized the role of their grandfathers, even they are say, of course, it was wrong by today's standards. nobody would do anything like that today. you have to understand what the conditions and the environment was back in 1898. >> after this story began to come out around the 100th
anniversary of the coup, the state of north carolina then had to appoint a special commission to really ferret out from all of the mythology from the african-american population, who had some family interest in the story, as well as the white descendents. how did that commission finally come to grips with all the information they were finding? >> it took them five years. it was a five-year project. their final report was very detailed. it was 460 some pages. their main conclusion was this was not a riot. this was a coup. that it did set back black voting rights for decades. it instilled white supremacy in state policy. so they did correct the historical record, finally, more than 100 years later.
we finally get the truth. i don't think -- people weren't paying attention. there wasn't a lot of publicity, even in north carolina, much less nationally. i think it kind of slipped by. people really didn't notice. people didn't know about the coup to begin with. they tended not to read about an explanation for something that happened so long ago that they didn't know about in the first place. >> that's right. we have a question from eric hall here. this is his question. charles w. chestnut's 1901 historical novel uses the wilmington massacre as the central conflict. chestnut makes it clear that the white mobs are responsible for the massacre of black americans in his novel. why do you think it took so long to reveal the true narrative? >> that's a great question. in fact, that's a terrific book.
i used it as one of my sources, even though it was fiction. it was very much fact based. it was useful for getting the feel of wilmington, the people, the environment. as far as the story coming out, you have to remember, this was a black author. white people back then didn't read black authors. it only enlistened the black people who read the truth. that's why it didn't have a lot of impact. it wasn't until 100 years later that the real story starts to come out. if anybody is really interested in this period of history, it's worth reading that book to get the african-american perspective and when we were talking about the state report a little while ago, it made a point of how difficult it was to get black perspective because so much of the narrative was told by whites. you have to remember that black citizens of wilmington were in
fear of their lives. they were running for their lives. they were leaving town. they lost everything. they were in no position to write memoirs or diaries. they were running for their lives. of course, the black press didn't dare send black reporters to cover this. there were stories -- it was a great resource for me, the black press in other cities where people from wilmington fled, within days after the coup got really real time events and real time interviews with survivors describing what happened. that was an excellent source of the black point of view. >> i hasten to add, that the african-american community, after reading your book i realized how well educated it was. there was a strong group of teachers there. there were doctors and lawyers who had been trained in all sorts of institutions around the
country. one of the central pieces of the book that i saw were these compeing newspaper stories. the spark, i suppose, for starting the decision that we have to take over here from the white supremacists there was an editorial in the african-american paper "the daily record" by the editor. alex manley provoked the whites of wilmington. >> yes. alex was actually the grandson of a white governor. but he lived his life as a black man. he was a very aggressive journalist. he started a daily black readership newspaper in wilmington. in august of 1898, he read a speech from the wife of a white
congresswoman in -- so-called race epidemic, which there is no epidemic but she said there was in the solution she said was the lynch group and she said i say lynch if necessary and she was telling the men of georgia they needed to go start glitching blackman. alex manley heard about this and he sat down the day he found out about it in august and wrote an editorial that absolutely shocked the white supremacists and whites across the south and essentially he said most black men who were clenched were supposedly raping white women. he pointed out what everyone knew what he wanted in writing that white men had been raping black men for generations with impunity.
this absolutely incensed the the vigilantes wanted to lynch him that day. the coup leaders said, this is too early. it will have a better political impact if we wait until closer to the election in november. then you can lynch manley and burn down his newspaper. they did burn down the newspaper but he was warned a couple of days before that a lynch mob was looking for him. he fled and escaped and never went back. >> rebecca felton, she was a feminist and on the other hand a white supremacist. you see the suffrage movement was tied with white supremacy. both the anti-separatists and people who supported women having the right to vote played
the race card loudly. they were trying to get their views known across the country. particularly across the south. there's some version of a lot of this business about lynching in probably every state -- where state slavery was legal at the time of the civil war. not all left the union. there was this tremendous fear. if you can spread fear, you can capture the attention of almost anybody. it was every african-american male is a potential rapist. we have to protect our southern women. one of the things that gave me a little bit of a chuckle in the book was when the legislature of north carolina is discussing laws and the comment was made that they better not go too far into this one because most of the white members of the
legislature are probably guilty. >> exactly. >> that did give me a small chuckle that they were going after themselves in all of this about -- >> it was a white judge who made that comment. it shut down all attempts to pass that law. they quit after that. the term they used in the newspapers to incite whites was the black beast rapists. they planted all these phony stories about black men supposedly preying on white women that were completely false. the narrative was that you better get your gun and go out and lynch black men because they are coming for your women. they're going to rape women. that was a strong component of the whole white supremacy campaign. the other component was that black men were not capable enough or intelligent enough to vote. they certainly weren't competent
enough to serve in public office. that message was just drummed home to the white readership of the newspapers. you have to remember at this time, the newspaper was the source of information. that was the entire news media. they were very, very effective at disinformation and fake news. >> it did get -- they did get their point through to the people. one of the things that you mention were the guns. these people are stockpiling weapons. we have seen some stockpiling taking place in more recent times as well. people piling -- the kinds of weapons the white supremacists had amassed during the planning of this was just astonishing to me. i can only imagine the terror that some of these african-americans felt when they
see all of this, because they have all -- they are already afraid of these folks. so one of the most painful parts of the book to me was that african-americans families who felt like they had to get out of their houses that day because they were going to be burned out or killed. they went into the swamps and into the cemetery on a november night when it's cold and wet. they hit laying down in this wet cemetery for a couple of days. two women gave birth and died in the cemetery. the children died. then when they finally get brave enough to get back, the children are wet, the children are crying. it was such a descriptive scene that i could visualize what it was like for those people afraid to go back but knowing they were
all going to die at the cemetery. >> they left their homes with no warning at all. they knew something was coming. when they see 60 black men murdered in the industries, they are fleeing for their lives. you mentioned guns. they said wilmington was the best armed city in america. the gun stores ran out of weapons and ammunition. they had to telegraph richmond and baltimore to load weapons and ammunition on trains and send them down to wilmington. at the same time, all the gun dealers were white. they refused to sell to black men. the black community had very few weapons. the other very, very effective tactic that the white supremacists used was to make sure the white -- there were two white militias who were the national guard of the day. they were state militias supposedly reporting to the
governor. in fact, they were commanded by -- basically took orders from white supremacist leaders of the campaign. this summer of 1898 was the summer of the spanish american war. two black companies were called up to the war. the white supremacist leaders made sure the white units were back in wilmington in time for the coup. they made sure the two black units were in georgia on a training base and did not get back. that was the only armed young trained men -- black men in the city were out of the city. they made sure they didn't come back in. they unleashed the two militias on the black population and actually during the summer the two militias were equipped with what they called rapid fire guns. the first machine guns they put on the back of a wagon. they were paid for by white
supremacist merchants to make sure they had enough fire power to put down this purported black riot. >> you mentioned the spanish american war. the african-americans had even before november 10th made pleas to president mckinley. mckinley was the son of abolitionists. tell us about president mckinley's reluctance to get involved, his response as well as the response of other national leaders. >> yeah. you mentioned, mckinley was the son of abolitionists. he served in the union army as an officer. was very much against slavery and against segregation. in fact, when he was running as a candidate for president, he was the first presidential candidate to address an all black audience on the campaign trail. it's baffling to me that his
response was minimal. as you mentioned, he was warned by george henry white, the congressman, and black ministers who met with him and warned him, mr. president, there's a coup being planned. white people are beating and intimidating and terrorizing black men. they are planning a coup. he did nothing. after the coup, congressman white and the same ministers met with him again and asked him to send federal troops to protect the voting rights of black men. he made no comment that i could find publically about the coup. it was discussed in one cabinet meeting. the topic of sending federal troops was brought up, but nothing ever happened. no one was held accountable. there was a grand jury set up. white witnesses refused to cooperate. no one was indicted. no one was arrested. no one was jailed or convicted.
they completely got away with it. >> it's really interesting to me that mckinley, as a republican politician, would have cared much about the south. republicans in those days were not in southern states anyway. north carolina and tennessee and some of the border states had populations of republicans in the mountains more or less. eastern part of tennessee. i can't understand why president mckinley couldn't take a strong position about this. because it surely wasn't because he was afraid he was going to lose the south in the election. >> that perplexed me, too. he was running for re-election. i think he figured it would spread that -- there would be no black vote. he realized that.
blacks had helped put him in office. it was very important to him in getting elected. i think he realized because of the voter intimidation and the white supremacy movement across the south, there weren't going to be black voters e. didn't want to antagonize white leadership. he would need them in congress, not necessarily to get elected. he didn't carry the south anyway. i think he made a calculation he needed them. i think for whatever reason, he just kept quiet. i could find nowhere in memoirs or any public record that he made a public comment about wilmington. he had a lot on his mind. there was the peace talks after the spanish american war and there was a lot of political pressure on other fronts. i don't think this was a big issue for him. >> i don't think it was a big issue. the whole subject of voting rights was integral to all of this whole racial tension coming up with jim crow politics and
whatnot across the south. what was interesting to me to learn in your book was the extent of the communication between these white supremacists in north carolina with white and daniels is editor of news and observer, actually not a journalist, he was a politician who owned a newspaper. he was on the executive committee of the democratic party and held democratic party meetings in his newsroom. and they realized they had a
problem, first of all with poll packs. they are a lot of poor whites who could afford the poll taxes, so they would be harmed by that and the literacy test. almost 100% of the white electorate were white in north carolina in that period of time were illiterate. they had to get around that problem. what they did to a certain extent copy --. said if your ancestors voted before 1868 -- and completely disqualified all black voters except maybe those who their grandfather was white to some extent. but that was a minority. so it basically eliminated black men from voting. but gave an out to poor whites and illiterate whites.
>> it definitely suppressed the vote all across the south. you are right about that. and one thing as this riot, this momentum gets started, one thing that i shouldn't have been surprised of was that just groups of men started coming to wilmington. you know, they wanted to get in on the -- it was. >> exactly. >> they wanted to get in on the action there and that was very surprising to me. >> yeah. the real shocking thing was that governor russell was a republican. he was from wilmington. he was part of -- his grandfather was a slave owner. he grew up on a plantation but he was a moderate by the standards of the time and absolutely owed the black voters for putting him in office. and yet he gave the order that day, the day of the coup for the
two white supremacist militia to go out into the streets and start putting down the riot. and that was a pivotal moment. and i still don't -- i think he was completely intimidated by the white supremacists. he was related to a lot of them by blood or marriage. they knew him. he threatened his life. he carried a pistol. and they threatened to impeach. i think he was so intimidated he did whatever they wanted but he stood by and did absolutely nothing as black citizens were murdered in the streets. indirectly on his orders that -- >> north carolina, had the republicans and the democrats. but they also had this other kind of more fluid group. tell us about the fusionists. >> the fusionists is what allowed, i guess you could call them the progressives of the day to take over the wilmington city government in election in 1897.
the peoples party which was mainly poor white farmers had become disenchanted with the democratic leadership. they had voted democratic but they felt they were being ignored by the bankers, the railroads and the lawyers. and these were poor white farmers who had more basic issues like education for their children, crop prices, support for farmers. that they -- allegiance to the republican party which meant they were -- almost all blacks at that time, black men voted with the republican. so this was called fusion. this was the white farmers and then the white and black republicans and it was strong enough to stake the state legislature in 1896 and in 1897 the disputed elections they took power in wilmington and -- black men in office that enraged white
supremacists so much that they planned a coupe. >> and you know it was very interesting to me that from my perspective the main leader of the coup was alfred wie del. and yet somewhere in the middle of the coup he says no lynching, no lynching. and they were looking alex manly. they had checkpoints all around the city. and he says no lynching. and the most silly thing i suppose, one of the many silly things is he almost crowned himself mayor after they get the fusionist mayor out of office. and so all of the government officials, even the white ones, which are the majority of the government officials all got sent home and wie del has of the whole city.
>> his role in the summer was to give these incendiary speeches inciting white men to attack black men and terrorize them and keep them from voting. in in fact the night before the election if they went out and saw a black man going to vote they should address him to go down and if they didn't, shoot him down. that was his direct get. at gunpoint they removed -- held a quote election. fake election and he was quote elected as mayor so here you have the leader of the coup named as mayor and then put in the position having to now provide public security and protect citizens black and white so he started giving speeches okay everybody, go home and put town your guns but this violence he'd incited had gotten out of control by then, then he finds himself in this awkward position you know, lynching is not such a
great idea now that i'm in charge and we have to protect everyone so everybody go home and he was completely ignored of course. >> and so they controlled the narrative of how this story is going to be told. we were saving wilmington. we were saving north carolina. we were saving the south. white women especially. and one of the things that you said in the book, and i will have to paraphrase it. because it was something something that even though slavery had ended with the civil war and white people understood that slavery did not exist, that black people were still black. and that was what made all the difference to these folks. and it was so totally racially motivated. and so, you know, i am a little bit curious to find out a little more about what happened in wilmington after world war i when we have the riot in tulsa
and rejuvenation of the clan at stone mountain, georgia and the 1925 klan convention in washington where they proudly marched down pennsylvania avenue. so i'm very interested in learning a little bit more about the that. because this was only one of these massacres that took place. and there were lots of these kinds of things across the south. tell us here in the two minutes we've got left, what do you hope your readers will take away from this book? >> well one thing, one big reason i wrote the book was to correct the historical record and tell the true story of what really happened. and i hope what people take from this book is that the danger and the power of demagogue, disinformation, of using violence for political ends is
dangerous. it is a real deep and embedded part of our history, as is institutionalized racism. and learn to recognize those signals that tell you that this is happening again. and i see it a lot today, particularly when trump was president. the demagogue, misinformation. i see this being repeated. i hope a lesson from this book is to be alert, to be aware. democracy is very fragile. and once you start inciting people to violence for whatever reason, it is hard to stop it. as -- found out. and i see us in that position today, particularly with the january 6th insurrection which was very similar to what happened in 1898, where people essentially equated patriotism with vigilantism. they were told that their way of life and their very country was being taken from them. and both 1898 and january 6th
people responded with violence in protecting what they thought was their way of life. >> and certainly the price of democracy that we have to be vigilant. we live in this wonderful place and we have to be vigilant. and voting is power. need to make sure that the franchise is there for people to be able to use that power they have to have a say in government. so i want to say thank you to you, david, for writing this book. i want to say thank you to all our viewers for participating in watching this session and encourage you to get this book from your local public library or purchase the book and read it. it is a very important book that i think every american needs to read to understand many of the things that are taking place from time to time across the country. and actually indeed across the world. and so i want to close with a
quote from james lowland who passed away a few weeks ago and this is what he said about american history and how american history is taught which is a debate across the country right now what should be taught and what should be omitted from the teaching of american history. and this is what he said. the anecdote to feel good history is not feel bad history but honest and inclusive history. and he goes on in that passage of one of his books that honest history teaches that the good and bad come together and that it is part of our collective identity and we have to pay attention to our collective identity so we can help our country grow more thoughtful, more tolerant rather than being
an ethnocentric nation. and i do think what is included in the history books is very important to all of us today so i hope you will enjoy getting, coming to grips with this story, learning about it and then learning about the history of your communities or your states that perhaps is not as well known either. thank you very much for coming today. i hope we will see you again next year. >> thank you, carol. thanks everybody. >> cspan's american history tv continues now. you can find the full schedule for the weekend on your program guide or at cspan.org. e tomb ofn soldier. this is the today we're going to talk about the tomb of the unknown soldier. and this is the hundredth anniversary of the tomb of the unknown soldier, the unknown soldier did lay in state in the capitol, and sam is going to talk to you about that. and let me give you a little perspective on sam.