Black Families and the Wilmington Massacre of 1898

This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”

African American family (State Archives of North Carolina)

During the election campaigns of 2020, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) responded to a question about civil unrest due to the murder of George Floyd: “If you’re a young, African American…you can go anywhere in this state, you just need to be conservative, not liberal.” When mostly Black residents of Jackson, Mississippi had no clean water, the Governor Tate Reeves (R-MS) told a Hattiesburg audience it’s ‘great day to not be in Jackson.”’ It is not merely the flippant callousness of Graham and Reeves that is problematic. Worse, is the undergirding belief that Black communities are not rightfully entitled to help, security, and protection from their governments. Rather, the rights of Black families were conditional and at the behest of those in power—akin to charity governments dole out to migrant/refugee communities. This question of whether African Americans are indeed full members of the “imagined” American political community that is fully protected by rights, emerged in political discourse since the 2020 summer of racial reckoning, and emerges again in any political discussions of “real America.” And it has a long history, specifically in episodes of racist violence.

The Wilmington Massacre of 1898 remains one of the clearest demonstrations of white supremacy and Jim Crow violently erasing the progress and promise of African America. In Wilmington, North Carolina, a white mob was dissatisfied with winning statewide office on a blatantly race-based fear campaign. Alexander Manly, an African American newspaper editor had dared to challenge the sexual mores that underpinned Jim Crow violence by suggesting that white women engaged in sexual relations with Black men voluntarily. Local African American politicians were ousted from office by force. The homes were raided for good measure. African American families were in effect, displaced, becoming domestic refugees in a nation they held citizenship.

During and after the violence of Wilmington, African Americans fled the city, a displaced community in aid. The United States has had a checkered past in regard to the rights of refugees. The position of refugees is always tenuous. Hannah Arendt wrote that those displaced suffered “not the loss of specific rights, then, but the loss of a community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever.” African Americans in Wilmington were not stateless, they had a nation to appeal to. Nonetheless, they were functionally stateless, as they faced a national community that was not willing to guarantee their rights. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss labeled the Black businessmen and their families who fled Wilmington an “economic diaspora.” Further, it was not solely the immediate loss of life and property that was taken from this community. The future inheritance of their descendants was stolen. The success of the Black community here made these families a target of envy, and thus a target of white violence. While it is possible over 100 died, more than 2,100 Black Wilmingtonians fled the city turning what was once a symbol of Black stability to an enclave of white supremacy. The ensuing inaction of the federal government, contractually sworn to protect them and guarantee their rights, showed African American families had no right to rights.

The concept of “rightlessness” finds equal application in the circumstances of African American families in 1898 Wilmington. Naomi Paik noted that in most circumstances, the U.S. state narrows the scope of “rightlessness” to the non-citizen. Or in other words, those without citizenship were those outside the boundaries of having rights that were entitled to them. Nonetheless, the contours of those bound by rightlessness are fluid and “legal citizenship does not protect against being rendered rightless.” That much seemed true from the perspective of Black Wilmington. A Black woman wrote to President William McKinley, “Can we call on any other Nation for help… This Grand and Noble Nation who flies to the help of suffering humanity of another Nation?” This Black woman was aware of the tension between her rights which she should be granted, and the rights assumed for refugees. What other nation could African Americans justifiably appeal to? At the same time as the Spanish American War, American politicians claimed that those in Cuba and the Philippines needed liberating from a Spanish empire that abused their subjects. Nonetheless, when President McKinley refused to send federal troops to aid Black Wilmingtonians for fear that it might anger white citizens, his actions rendered African Americans, at best, colonial subjects. The potential retaliation of white citizens was of more concern than the present rights and realities of African Americans and their families.

The lack of protection was a clear abandonment of the property or political rights of the Black family, and to any sense of security in public or private. The violence took place in all parts of the community. The Black woman wrote to McKinley, that the white vigilantes “searched all the Negro Churches. And to day (Sunday) we dare not go to our places of worship,” a practice of violence and intimidation echoed later in the Birmingham bombing in 1963 and the Charleston Emanuel Church shooting in 2015. She and others feared that, “when our husbands go to work we do not look for their return.” Her appeals seem, today, so fundamental and yet so contemporary. Wives, wondering if their husbands would make it home safely for dinner. Families, feeling unsafe whether in travelling to and from work, and in their places of worship. These basic rights of the family fell at the altar of partisan politics as McKinley looked at this event as potentially wading into the “culture wars” of the South. Bringing together the white North and South, rendered African Americans orphaned, without a political community that would advocate for their rights. This Black woman asked if this vibrant community of Black families would be left without a place to seek redress or go to with their grievances. The federal inaction signaled a resounding yes. The African American families of Wilmington indeed had no political body willing to provide redress.

Thinking of these families and their experiences, it is hard not to see their plight in the eyes of being made refugees of their own nation. They, too, fled political violence that ravished their homes, businesses, and places of worship, and terrorized their families. The thousands that survived fled to other communities in the nation—leaving their homes and memory behind, their security and future wealth stolen. Written citizenship did not save them. North Carolina African Americans had federal representation in the person of George Henry White. But having a Black seat in the power structure did not equate to true political belonging or protections. Their only true redress came at the hands of their own families within the nation. Those willing and able to relocate and shelter the evacuees and refugees of Wilmington. When the mobs came, Black Wilmingtonians were forcibly removed from the American social and political community, and instead left to become rightless migrants within the nation’s borders. It mattered not their citizenship status, their local political power, or whether Black people occupied seats in the U.S. Congress. What mattered, was that African American families were not envisioned to be a part of the imagined community of Americans whose rights were real and needed to be acted upon.

100 years after Wilmington, Black families’ rights are still not secure. They are not secure, because, for a segment of the U.S. population, the Black population remains conditional citizens. Black people are currently not refugees in the U.S. nation but rather treated as those of temporary protected status. A population here for now, but not awarded full rights, and whose rights can be removed at any point.  Wilmingtonians only true aid and refuge came from their Black family members across the nation after 1898. When Flint, Michigan was without clean water, outrage and aid largely came from the Black community throughout the nation, a displaced diaspora still providing mutual aid. During the current pandemic, the more white Americans were made aware of racial disparities in Covid-19, the more they had “reduced support for safety precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.” The reduced support for safety precautions, because it was no longer seen as a “white problem,” led to policy decisions to lift safety precautions. Because again, the perceived anger of primarily white citizens was deemed more important than the rights of Black citizens, and still families are left to manage the impact.

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DJ Polite

DJ Polite is an Assistant Professor of History at Augusta University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in American studies from Williams College, a master’s in education from CUNY-Brooklyn College and his Ph.D. in history from the University of South Carolina. Prior work includes teaching special education in a public charter high school, and as a historic guide and interpreter for home museums in South Carolina. His research looks primarily on the mutually reinforcing growth of U.S. Jim Crow policies and empire in the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico. It explores the ways that the solidification of both relied on each other and cemented secondary citizenship status for African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and especially women of both groups. You can follow him on Twitter at @Polite_DPJ.