America has been fueled by conspiracies throughout its history, many concerning race. And its government has always been populated with racists. Recently, many of us learned what we had not been taught before, the racism of Woodrow Wilson. But let’s consider the lesser-known Josephus Daniels. I first learned about him in biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Daniels was Secretary of the Navy during World War I, and FDR served as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The two became friends, and when he became President, Roosevelt appointed Daniels to be ambassador to Mexico, a position he filled from 1933 to 1941. These biographies told me that Daniels for decades at the end of the nineteenth century controlled and edited the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer. He held progressive political positions, supporting public schools and public works, seeking more regulation of trusts and railroads, supporting prohibition and women’s suffrage. However, I don’t remember those books telling me that Daniels was a vehement racist and white supremacist. He maintained that America’s greatest mistake was to give Blacks the vote, and his newspaper published vicious editorials, letters, articles, and cartoons about what was labeled the “horrors of negro rule.” Through his newspaper and personal contacts, he was a promotor of a successful overthrow of a validly elected American government, what has been called the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Yes, this country has had precursors to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Wilmington was one.
The oppression of the Jim Crow laws had not yet descended upon North Carolina in the 1890s, but economic disparities had. A populist party with an emphasis on the needs of poor whites allied with the biracial Republican party to form Fusionist slates that won statewide offices during that decade. Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina, was majority Black, and Blacks held political offices in a biracial government. Moreover, they held economic power by being successful in many professions and by owning butcher shops, restaurants, carpentry businesses, and a newspaper.
To regain its ascendance, the statewide Democratic party, with Josephus Daniels as one of its leaders, consciously used white supremacist rhetoric, leaning heavily on the unfounded fear of rapes of white women by Blacks. Finding this propaganda insufficient, a NC Democratic official said, “We cannot outnumber the negroes, and so we must outcheat, outcount or outshoot them!” Blacks had to be either frightened away from the polls or be forcibly resisted when they tried to vote. And in the 1898 elections for statewide office, the Democrats were successful—perhaps, many thought, with the aid of stuffed ballot boxes—in removing the integrated Fusionists. Local officials, however, were not part of this election, and the biracial government of Wilmington remained.
A self-appointed committee of nine white men who were not happy with such a government issued a manifesto telling the Wilmington elected officials to leave and insisting further that if Blacks were not going to be servile to whites in the future, they, too, should depart. Next day, not seeing the demanded exodus, up to a thousand whites exercised what today would be called their Second Amendment rights by arming themselves, not just with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, but also with a gatling gun. Accurate records of the ensuing carnage were not kept, but the estimates of Blacks killed go from 60 up to 300. The rampaging whites installed their own unelected government officials.
Americans often profess a belief in democracy and elections, but in Wilmington a duly elected government was violently overthrown and replaced without any voting. The slaughter was the coup. Then came the revolution. The white insurrections recognized that without further steps, they might face a biracial government again. After the 1898 election, the white supremacist government gave North Carolina voting officials, who of course would be white, broad discretion in deciding who was eligible to vote. They could ask any “material” question on identity and qualifications. Legislators advocated for a poll tax and literacy test, but others pointed out that these devices could also prevent whites from voting. North Carolina then adopted the “grandfather clause” that exempted those who had voted before 1867 or whose father or grandfather had voted before 1867 from a poll tax or literacy test. In 1868, 80,000 blacks were registered to vote; by 1900, it was 15,000, and “perhaps half of them were able to vote.” By 1906, about 6,100 North Carolina Blacks were registered to vote.
The Wilmington Insurrection pioneered a formula that would be used throughout the South: deny black citizens the vote, first through terror and then by legislation. And even when the Supreme Court did rule in 1915 that the grandfather clause violated the Fifteenth Amendment, the South found other ways to suppress the Black vote.
Although I consider myself reasonably well versed in American history, I had not heard of the Wilmington Insurrection until recently. For those who want to learn more, I recommend David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (2020). Zucchino goes on to point out that Blacks in North Carolina did not vote after 1898 in significant numbers until after Voting Rights Act of 1965.
However, NC Republicans in 2012 started collecting data on such things as how many Blacks did not have a driver’s license; how many used early voting hours; how many voted on Sundays. A voter identification law was thwarted by the preclearance provision of Voting Rights Act, but in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the democratically enacted Voting Rights Act, and North Carolina immediately enacted a voter ID law, which is now enshrined in the state constitution. The crazy, conspiratorial actions of today follow the steps taken in 1898 in Wilmington.