The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898
The second in a month-long series of
stories commemorating Black History Month
Alex Manly had to get out of town fast. The lynch mob was coming,
and they held him personally responsible for the demise of the Southern
way of life.
Manly was the editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, and he published
an editorial in response to a speech delivered at the annual meeting
of the Georgia Agricultural Society on Aug. 11, 1897 by Rebecca
Felton, the wife of a Georgia congressman and a leading women’s
She argued that the greatest danger to white women living in the
rural South were “black rapists” and that the threat
should be stopped even if it meant “lynching a thousand Negroes
“When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize
a crusade against sin;” Felton said, “nor justice in
the courthouse to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the
nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue —
if it needs lynching to protect women’s dearest possession
from the ravening human beasts — then I say lynch, a thousand
times a week if necessary.”
Manly didn’t like what he read. In fact, some say, he hated
what he read.
In his editorial, Manly argued that “poor white men are careless
in the manner of protecting their women,” and “they
should guard their women more closely … You leave your goods
outdoors and then complain when they are taken away.”
“Our experience,” Manly wrote, “among poor white
people in the country teaches us that women of that race are not
any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored
men than the white men with colored women.”
He instructed Felton to “tell your men that it is no worse
for a black man to be with a white woman than for a white man to
be intimate with a colored woman.”
Manly went on to disagree with Felton that more education would
discourage white women from falling in love with black men and concluded
with a direct challenge to white men: “Don’t think ever
that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours.
You sow the seed — the harvest will come due in time.”
In the eyes of some whites, Manly’s editorial was the equivalent
of “literary rape” and it was a miracle that he wasn’t
killed immediately. It was one thing for blacks to want to vote
and own their own businesses. It was a completely different matter
when the subject became inter-racial relationships, especially of
the sort that Manly talked about where “white girls of culture
and refinement” would “fall in love with” with
More than anything else, Manly symbolized extremely combustible
elements during Reconstruction — independent thinking, political
power and sexual freedom, particularly in Wilmington, at the time
the largest city and economic center in North Carolina.
Southern politics were changing after the Civil War — and
most former slave owners wanted life to return to the good old days
before the Civil War. Under Republican and Populist Party leadership
in Wilmington, blacks held four of the ten alderman seats and gained
numerous positions throughout municipal government, including 13
of the 30 jobs on the police force. That political growth was unacceptable
to white supremacists, many of whom openly — and violently
— campaigned to overthrow the local government and restore
“law and order” back to Wilmington.
Making matters worse was the growing change in social customs. On
one occasion, a white business owner complained, he was talking
with another white businessman on a downtown street and both of
them were forced to move because a black carriage driver refused
to go around them as the driver would have in days gone by.
Manly’s editorial, published in Aug. 1898, became a rallying
point for white supremacists — and source of shame for African
Americans. Both reactions were equally as fast.
Days after the publication, Manly was evicted by his white landlord.
White newspaper publishers ran Manly’s editorial, some for
three straight months, under headlines such as “Vile and Villainous”
and “an attack on white Christian womanhood” by the
“scurrilous negro editor.”
During a speaking tour through North Carolina, “Pitchfork”
Ben Tillman, the U.S. Senator from neighboring South Carolina, appeared
to speak for the masses when he asked, “Why didn’t you
kill that damn nigger editor who wrote that?”
Even the city’s Republican Party Executive Committee, consisting
of 14 blacks and one white, distanced themselves from Manly by adopting
a series of resolutions making it clear they had nothing to do with
the editorial. The committee called the paper “a kicking,
disorganized concern” and denounced the editorial as “a
base and vile libel upon countless thousands of good people.”
They also encouraged other Republicans to cancel their subscriptions.
Blacks living in Wilmington at the time were not necessarily objective.
A few weeks before the election, a group of supremacists invited
twenty-five black leaders to the witness a demonstration of a Gatling
gun brought to Wilmington and given to the local state militia.
After firing a few rounds from what was then the latest technology
in machine guns, the blacks were asked to withdraw from the upcoming
Historians readily agree that that Manly unwittingly played a significant
role in the 1898 election in which the Democrats and white supremacists
handily won. With those victories in place, the good white people
of Wilmington took steps to insure that Republican politics —
and its doctrine of equal rights for blacks — would become
a stranger in North Carolina.
The day after the election 454 men signed the White Declaration
of Independence. It proclaimed that the framers of the U.S. Constitution
had never anticipated the “enfranchisement of an ignorant
population of African origin” and “that the men of the
state of North Carolina who joined the union did not contemplate
for their descendants a subjection to an inferior race.”
“We will no longer be ruled, “ they declared, “and
will never again be ruled, by men of African origin.”
They also made it clear what they thought of Manly. His newspaper
was singled out for publishing an article “so vile and slanderous”
that “we therefore owe it to the people … that the paper
known as the Record cease to be published, and that its editor be
banished from this community … If the demand is refused, …
then the editor Alex Manly will be expelled by force.”
In case anyone didn’t know what they meant, about 2,000 whites
paraded through downtown Wilmington on Nov. 10, 1898, and destroyed
Manly’s newspaper office. The mob broke into the building,
overturned kerosene lamps, and started a fire that spread and consumed
the top floors. After the fire died down, they proudly posed in
front of the building, many openly brandishing their shiny shotguns.
The only remaining problem was Manly. He was nowhere to be found,
and the mob was looking, wreaking havoc along the way.
No telling the actual number of dead and wounded caused by the Wilmington
Riot of 1898. Accounts vary between a dozen and 200. Apocryphal
or not, the riot saw chaos and bloodshed in the predominantly black
neighborhood as shotgun toting para-military groups patrolled the
streets, shooting blacks almost at will. Some blacks returned fire,
but they were outgunned and outmanned. One thing was clear. More
blacks than whites were killed or wounded.
Once the shootings ended, the Democratic controlled government banished
white and black republicans, many of whom were both sympathetic
to Manly and the plight of blacks.
One of the blacks that was banished was Ari Bryant. He owned a butcher
shop and was an active member of the Republican Party. The local
newspaper claimed that he was a target because he was “looked
upon by the negroes as a high and mighty leader. He was of vicious
temperament toward the white people and counseled his race to strife
… inciting the blacks to violence.”
One of the banished white men was Charles McAlister. According to
historical accounts, he burst into tears on the train as he left
behind his wife and five children. He was accused of providing weapons
to blacks. Another white forced into exile was Robert Bunting. He
was justice of the peace in the U.S. Circuit Court and was targeted
because of the way he ran his court and claims that he was married
to a black woman.
But still no Manly.
It’s unclear who actually tipped him off. Some historians
claimed it was a white reporter for the Wilmington Messenger. Others
say it was Manly’s youngest brother, who because of his light
skin and age was able to overhear conversations among the white
mob without any fear of detection. Either way, Manly and another
brother escaped. Family tradition suggests that they left town the
night before the riot and were given the pass-codes and money to
get through the armed checkpoints.
The other reason that Manly was able to escape was also because
of his light skin. He could pass for white — and therein,
as some historians have noted, lies part of the reason for Manly’s
intense reaction to miscegenation — and Felton’s rant
about the sanctity of white women without a mere mention of the
sanctity of black women.
Though Manly’s legal father was a slave named Trim and his
mother an enslaved maid named Corrine, it was widely believed that
Manly’s real father was Charles Manly, the former governor
of North Carolina and owner of the plantation.
The fact that Manly was a mulatto didn’t go unnoticed especially
among critical blacks. Cyrus Bell, the editor of the Afro-American
Sentinel in Omaha, Nebraska, placed the blame for the Wilmington
Riot squarely on Manly.
“The violence in Wilmington,” Bell said at the time,
“comes from the elements that are so nearly white that they
are miserable anywhere except in the white race. They are the meanest
animals unhung. They have no race, and as a rule, less principle.”
Manly left all of that behind. He moved to Washington, D.C. and
later to Philadelphia. He ran newspapers in both cities and listed
his profession on one census as “a journalist.”
But he left his mark in Wilmington. In 1895, shortly after he and
his brother bought the Wilmington Record, he wrote about black political
power. “In North Carolina the Negro holds the balance of power
which he can use to the advantage of the race, state and nation
if he has the manhood to stand on principles and contend for the
rights of a man.”
There is a little question where Manly stood.
(Editor’s note: it is unclear whether Alex Manly and Howard
Manly are related.)