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Wilmington's Lie
Cover of Wilmington's Lie
Wilmington's Lie
The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
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From Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino comes a searing account of the Wilmington riot and coup of 1898, an extraordinary event unknown to most Americans

By the 1890s, Wilmington was North Carolina's largest city and a shining example of a mixed-race community. It was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, police officers and magistrates. There were successful black-owned businesses and an African American newspaper, The Record. But across the state—and the South—white supremacist Democrats were working to reverse the advances made by former slaves and their progeny.

In 1898, in response to a speech calling for white men to rise to the defense of Southern womanhood against the supposed threat of black predators, Alexander Manly, the outspoken young Record editor, wrote that some relationships between black men and white women were consensual. His editorial ignited outrage across the South, with calls to lynch Manly.

But North Carolina's white supremacist Democrats had a different strategy. They were plotting to take back the state legislature in November "by the ballot or bullet or both," and then use the Manly editorial to trigger a "race riot" to overthrow Wilmington's multi-racial government. Led by prominent citizens including Josephus Daniels, publisher of the state's largest newspaper, and former Confederate Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, white supremacists rolled out a carefully orchestrated campaign that included raucous rallies, race-baiting editorials and newspaper cartoons, and sensational, fabricated news stories.

With intimidation and violence, the Democrats suppressed the black vote and stuffed ballot boxes (or threw them out), to win control of the state legislature on November eighth. Two days later, more than 2,000 heavily armed Red Shirts swarmed through Wilmington, torching the Record office, terrorizing women and children, and shooting at least sixty black men dead in the streets. The rioters forced city officials to resign at gunpoint and replaced them with mob leaders. Prominent blacks—and sympathetic whites—were banished. Hundreds of terrified black families took refuge in surrounding swamps and forests.

This brutal insurrection is a rare instance of a violent overthrow of an elected government in the U.S. It halted gains made by blacks and restored racism as official government policy, cementing white rule for another half century. It was not a "race riot," as the events of November 1898 came to be known, but rather a racially motivated rebellion launched by white supremacists.

In Wilmington's Lie, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino uses contemporary newspaper accounts, diaries, letters and official communications to create a gripping and compelling narrative that weaves together individual stories of hate and fear and brutality. This is a dramatic and definitive account of a remarkable but forgotten chapter of American history.

From Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino comes a searing account of the Wilmington riot and coup of 1898, an extraordinary event unknown to most Americans

By the 1890s, Wilmington was North Carolina's largest city and a shining example of a mixed-race community. It was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, police officers and magistrates. There were successful black-owned businesses and an African American newspaper, The Record. But across the state—and the South—white supremacist Democrats were working to reverse the advances made by former slaves and their progeny.

In 1898, in response to a speech calling for white men to rise to the defense of Southern womanhood against the supposed threat of black predators, Alexander Manly, the outspoken young Record editor, wrote that some relationships between black men and white women were consensual. His editorial ignited outrage across the South, with calls to lynch Manly.

But North Carolina's white supremacist Democrats had a different strategy. They were plotting to take back the state legislature in November "by the ballot or bullet or both," and then use the Manly editorial to trigger a "race riot" to overthrow Wilmington's multi-racial government. Led by prominent citizens including Josephus Daniels, publisher of the state's largest newspaper, and former Confederate Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, white supremacists rolled out a carefully orchestrated campaign that included raucous rallies, race-baiting editorials and newspaper cartoons, and sensational, fabricated news stories.

With intimidation and violence, the Democrats suppressed the black vote and stuffed ballot boxes (or threw them out), to win control of the state legislature on November eighth. Two days later, more than 2,000 heavily armed Red Shirts swarmed through Wilmington, torching the Record office, terrorizing women and children, and shooting at least sixty black men dead in the streets. The rioters forced city officials to resign at gunpoint and replaced them with mob leaders. Prominent blacks—and sympathetic whites—were banished. Hundreds of terrified black families took refuge in surrounding swamps and forests.

This brutal insurrection is a rare instance of a violent overthrow of an elected government in the U.S. It halted gains made by blacks and restored racism as official government policy, cementing white rule for another half century. It was not a "race riot," as the events of November 1898 came to be known, but rather a racially motivated rebellion launched by white supremacists.

In Wilmington's Lie, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino uses contemporary newspaper accounts, diaries, letters and official communications to create a gripping and compelling narrative that weaves together individual stories of hate and fear and brutality. This is a dramatic and definitive account of a remarkable but forgotten chapter of American history.

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  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2019

    In the late 1890s, Wilmington, NC, was a successful mixed-race community with a strong African American middle class that actively participated in a government comprising Republicans and Populists. Then white supremacist Democrats used a black newspaper editorial to foment unrest aimed at overthrowing Wilmington's elected officials, eventually dispatching 2,000 armed night riders to terrorize the populace. At least 60 black men were killed and their families driven into the swamps in the infamous Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Pulitzer Prize winner Zucchino resurrects a little-known incident wrongly called a race riot; it was in fact the violent subversion of government.

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2019
    A searing and still-relevant tale of racial injustice at the turn of the 20th century. In 1898, the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, was unusual in the South for having a government that included African Americans. Many moving parts went into that development, including the short-term disenfranchisement of Confederates during Reconstruction, the ratification of the 15th Amendment, and the rise of a prosperous black middle class in the port city. As Pulitzer Prize winner Zucchino (Thunder Run: The Armored Strike To Capture Baghdad, 2004, etc.) shows, it was met by an organization that "acquired a formal name proudly embraced by Democrats: the White Supremacy Campaign," the goal of which "was to evict blacks from office and intimidate black voters from going to the polls." The product of a politician and a newspaper editor, the movement took a paramilitary turn when thousands of "Red Shirts" turned up to besiege Wilmington in what amounted to a coup d'état, the only violent change of government in the history of the nation, though certainly not the only instance of racial violence. The author writes, meaningfully, "for whites in Wilmington, blacks had ceased to be slaves, but they had not ceased to be black." The coup, in which at least 60 blacks died, was successful. It replaced the city's government with an all-white one, and it led to widespread disenfranchisement throughout the South. The newspaper editor, Josephus Daniels, moved on to Louisiana and campaigned for white supremacy there, promulgating a voter-suppression law that, in New Orleans, "helped reduce the number of black voters from 14,117 to 1,493." Efforts by the biracial Republican Party in North Carolina to undo the wrong were met with indifference even by Republican President William McKinley. The complexities of racial division and party politics in a time before the Republicans and Democrats effectively switched sides are sometimes challenging to follow, but Zucchino's narrative is clear and appropriately outraged without being strident. A book that does history a service by uncovering a shameful episode, one that resonates strongly today.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 9, 2019
    Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Zucchino (Thunder Run) delivers a searing chronicle of the November 1898 white supremacist uprising in Wilmington, N.C., that overthrew the municipal government. At the time, Zucchino notes, Wilmington’s “thriving population of black professionals” made it, according to one contemporary source, “the freest town for a negro in the country.” Determined to end “Negro rule,” a cabal of white politicians and newspapermen launched a statewide campaign of voter suppression, intimidation, and ballot stuffing that flipped control of North Carolina’s state legislature from a Republican-Populist alliance to Democrats in the 1898 elections. The next day, the white supremacist leader Col. Alfred Waddell read a “White Declaration of Independence” in the Wilmington courthouse; among its seven resolutions was a demand for black newspaper owner Alexander Manly to be banished from the city for publishing an editorial that, Zucchino writes, “upended the core white conviction that any sex act between a black man and a white woman could only be rape.” When Waddell falsely claimed that Wilmington’s black leaders didn’t deliver their written response to the demands by 7:30 the next morning, as was required, nearly 2,000 armed white men burned down Manly’s newspaper offices, killed an estimated 60 African-Americans, and installed Waddell as mayor. Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, Zucchino paints a disturbing portrait of the massacre and how it was covered up by being described as a “race riot” sparked by African-Americans. This masterful account reveals a shameful chapter in American history. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic.

  • Booklist

    December 1, 2019
    In November 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina, became the only American city to have its government overthrown by a minority faction of its own population, a coalition of racists, thugs, and Democratic Party operatives who opposed the biracial governing political alliance and were willing to cheat, threaten, and kill to get their own way. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Zucchino (Thunder Run, 2004) shines his reporter's spotlight on what he aptly calls a murderous coup as well as exploring its background and long-term consequences. He details how cynical operatives fanned racial hatred among Wilmington's white working class, the vibrancy of the African American community, whose very existence was threatened by the coup, and the passive federal response that helped to entrench white supremacy and terror throughout the South, using the stories of figures like crusading Black newspaper editor Alex Manly and Democratic leader Josephus Daniels (whose reputation as a prudish but generally progressive politician takes a well-deserved hit) to add depth and nuance. The result is both a page-turner and a sobering reminder of democracy's fragility.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

  • Publishers Weekly, on Thunder Run Praise for David Zucchino:

    "Even a very short, victorious shooting war against a disorganized, dispirited, vastly outnumbered and underequipped enemy is hell. That is the central message that Los Angeles Times correspondent Zucchino brings home startlingly well in this riveting account of the American military's lightning capture of Baghdad in April 2003...[A] high-quality example of in-depth and evocative war reporting."

  • Kirkus Reviews, on Myth of the Welfare Queen "Zucchino does not obscure the ugliness--including welfare recipients who embrace dependence--that surrounds them, but what stands out is the resilience of these women in the face of events that would be insurmountable tragedies for most middle- and upper-class Americans. It is unlikely this book will engender new and widespread respect for welfare mothers, for the 'welfare queen' myth draws its strength from what people want to believe, not misperceptions of reality. But by setting aside presuppositions and moral judgments to simply describe what he finds, Zucchino offers a substantive image of life on welfare."
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Wilmington's Lie
Wilmington's Lie
The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
David Zucchino
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