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 8th. 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.
Praise for Wilmington’s Lie:
“One of the great journalists of our time has placed his discerning eye on the steaming cauldron of our shared racial history. The result is this extraordinary book written with the superb quality and journalistic excellence that is Zucchino’s trademark.”—James McBride, National Book Award–winning author of The Good Lord Bird
“A searing and still-relevant tale of racial injustice at the turn of the 20th century… A book that does history a service by uncovering a shameful episode, one that resonates strongly today.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“David Zuccchino is one of the finest foreign correspondents I have ever worked with in 40 years of journalism. Now imagine you take someone with David’s reporting skills and transport him back in history to 1898 and Wilmington, North Carolina. And you tell him to tell us the story of the only violent overthrow of an elected government in American history. It was perpetrated by white supremacists seeking to reverse the remarkable advances in racial pluralism in Wilmington of that day—a positive example that was primed to spread throughout the state, and beyond. What you end up with is a gripping, cannot-put-down book that is both history and a distant mirror on just how much can go wrong in this great country of ours when populist politicians play the race card without restraint.”—Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times columnist
“A staggeringly great book, both thrilling and tragic, shining light on a dark passage of American history.”—Tim Weiner, National Book Award–winning author of Legacy of Ashes
“Wilmington’s Lie is riveting and meticulously reported and powerfully written. It is also scalding and revelatory. As David Zucchino shows with relentless drama, the end of the Civil War was not the end of slavery but the beginning of a period more terrifying, the unchecked rise of white supremacy that culminated in a day of unparalleled blood in a North Carolina coastal town. It is a forgotten chapter in American history. Zucchino has now made it an unforgettable one.” —Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights
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.”—Publishers Weekly, on Thunder Run
“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.”—Kirkus Reviews, on Myth of the Welfare Queen