North Carolina Formally Recognizes 1898 Racial Massacre as a ‘Coup’ With New Historic Marker

Photo: Jason W. Smith (Wikimedia Commons)

The historic port city of Wilmington, N.C., is finally recognizing one of the most consequential moments in its history—a white supremacist-led insurrection—for what it was: a coup.

Officials installed a new highway marker in the city’s downtown that details the 1898 “Wilmington Coup,” the only successful coup d’état in American history. The marker sits just feet away from the Wilmington Light Infantry building, where white supremacists met before marching to burn down the city’s black-owned newspaper, The Daily Record, the Wilmington Star-News reports.

Previously, the coup had been referred to as a “race riot”—a term local historians and activists have criticized as misleading.

“You don’t call it that anymore because the African Americans weren’t rioting,” Ansley Herring Wegner, administrator of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, told the Associated Press Thursday. “They were being massacred.”

The event that forever reshaped the city of Wilmington is one that the city has quietly buried—it’s rarely mentioned in K-12 curricula, if at all, and the names of the white supremacist insurrectionists remain prominently displayed on the city’s most well-known parks, buildings, and streets. On Nov. 10, 1898, a mob of 400 white supremacists overthrew a democratically elected government comprising black Republicans and white populists, burning black businesses to the ground, murdering an estimated 60 people (though this number could be far higher) and expelling many hundreds more. While the details resemble that of other horrific examples of mass racial violence—including the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, also incorrectly described as a “race riot”—the mob attack in Wilmington stands alone because it’s the only case where a government was toppled.

The marker is in a prominent part of town—sitting off a well-trafficked road en route to downtown Wilmington’s historic waterfront, one of the focal points of the Port City’s commercial life and a popular destination for tourists. Nearly 200 people gathered for the unveiling of the marker on Friday, reports the Star-News. Tracey Burns, assistant secretary for Diversity and Cultural Inclusion for the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources was among those delivering remarks.

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“If you don’t know the stories of a place, you don’t know that place,” Burns said. “You have to know a place to care about a place, and you have to care about a place to try and better that place. So today we pause to remember a story from our shared past, from our shared place. Here we tell the story of the coup of 1898 for all who pass by, every time they pass by.”

While the marker is an overdue addition to the public narrative of Wilmington’s history, other cities have taken steps to do what Wilmington so far has been reluctant to do: strike the names of the white supremacists from its most high-profile landmarks.

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From the AP:

Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, a temporary logo has been placed over one of the plaques at the University of North Carolina football stadium that’s dedicated to a man who was a coup leader. A newspaper report at the time said [William] Kenan Sr. was in charge of the machine gun used during the coup.

News outlets report that photos this week show the logo covering Kenan’s name.

A prominent fountain in Wilmington’s downtown is dedicated explicitly to Kenan Sr., while one of the city’s largest parks remains named for Hugh McRae, who organized campaigns to block black Wilmingtonians from the polls and co-authoring a “White Declaration of Independence” just days before helping lead the violent coup.

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Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?