A field note. Tim Tyson and I edited an anthology on the Wilmington “race riot” of 1898 nearly 20 years ago, but I still got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach a few weeks ago when I looked at Edward Price Bell’s diary and notebooks at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
Founded in 1887, the Newberry is located in a lovely old Romanesque building on Washington Square. It is one of the foremost independent libraries and archives in the U.S. The library’s holdings range from the oldest known copy of the Mayan Popol Vuh to Chicago railroad records.
They also include the personal diaries and notebooks of Edward Price Bell, a longtime journalist in Chicago.
Bell covered the white racial violence in Wilmington, N.C., as a roving reporter for the Chicago Record. I wanted to see the notebook that he kept while he was in Wilmington.
Bell knew what was going to happen before he got to the old seaport. He was covering a story in Washington, DC when he learned that white conservatives in Wilmington planned a violent overthrow of the city’s elected leadership and an all-out assault on the black community.
He immediately caught a train to Wilmington. On his arrival, he began to interview local people. In his notebooks he recorded his observations of political meetings, and he described what he saw happening in the streets.
While he was in the city, Bell filed articles for the Record. Many years later, he also included a chapter on the trip in his memoirs.
To me neither was as riveting as what I read at the Newberry Library. I found a raw, gut-wrenching power in the words that he rapidly scribbled in his reporter’s notebook as events unfolded.
Here are samples from each of the days that Bell was in Wilmington. I’ll put direct quotes from his notebook in italics.
Day One. Sunday, Nov. 6, 1898:
“Conditions are rife for a battle”
On his first day in the city, Bell interviewed J. R. Kenly, general manager of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, and George Rountree, a prominent white lawyer, member of the state legislature and leader in the state Democratic Party. All the conditions are rife for a battle here Tuesday [Election Day]. White men are armed. Men carrying firearms who have not done so before since the [civil] war. Naval reserves. Light infantry & Colt machine gun and two Hotchkiss guns. White men hauling rapid fire gun through the streets today. He was referring to a Gatling gun. Every block organized and such signals in force as make the whole white population available at a moment’s notice.
Day Two. Monday, Nov. 7, 1898:
“Dam current of Cape Fear River with carcasses”
Negroes coming in from South. Rural blacks were apparently coming to help the town’s black citizens defend themselves. Col. Waddell ex-congressman made sensational speeches. [He said they will] “dam current of Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
Bell interviews two local newspaper editors, as well as white lawyer W. D. McCoy and Hugh MacRae, the owner of the Wilmington Cotton Mills.
Some shooting. St[reet] cars stoned. Guards…. He attends a Fusionist rally—the Fusionists were a political alliance of largely white Populists and largely black Republicans that favored more direct democratic government, public education and an interracial politics. They had been elected into office throughout North Carolina in 1894 and 1896.
Bell finds a circular in the streets. No negro labor in cotton mills. No white man there who does not support white supremacy.
Later that day he writes: Hardware men sold out all firearms. Negroes can’t buy guns.
Things obviously getting out of hand. James Cowan, reporter on Messenger, shot by Justice James McGowan…. Mayor Wright cannot control matters… Sale of liquor stopped. Special police – citizens did not show up. That was apparently a group of white citizens that the mayor recruited to help maintain order.
Day Three. Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1898:
“All guns and gunners on one side”
This was Election Day. Bell’s notebook describes massive voter fraud: ballot boxes upended, ballot stuffing, black voters turned away from polls and fraudulent reporting of results. All guns and gunners on one side. Negroes unarmed and unorganized body of men. Helpless.
He interviews John E. Taylor, a leading black businessman and for many years the deputy port collector in Wilmington.
More voter fraud: Were intending to smash ballot box & scatter ballots. 5th div. of 1st Ward. 218 ballots thrown out in the diversion of 1st Ward.
Tensions mounting. 10th & Prince Sts. Negroes parading and whites also. St[reet] cars rocked. More white voter fraud. In one precinct, Bell observes that 198 blacks voted as of 2 PM, but only 26 votes are recorded. He finds false ballots have also been circulated.
Violence escalates. Mayor Wright & the sheriff abdicated. Chaos reigns. Law was suspended. Men with Winchesters ruled the town. Constant firing. Conservatives order mayor and the sheriff out of town. Both are white. Neither papers nor people make any pretense that the election was fair. They admit that the whites were determined to rule at any cost and did not hesitate to adopt such measures as were necessary. Bell sees white hoodlums patrolling the city and firing guns.
He attends one of the white conservatives’ rallies. He quotes some of the orators. Colored men and their white allies alleged to be in “a most villainous conspiracy against virtue and intelligence, honor & character, prosperity and peace.” White men urged to conduct themselves as sworn enemies of negroes.
“If a `white negro’ extends his hand[,] spit in it,” he hears a white leader say at the rally.
The “white negro” quote refers to whites that had aligned politically with black voters.
More notes from that rally: Southern [white] men want the negro to be contented, prosperous and happy, but they say he shall not make laws for them or rule their county and city affairs. They must keep their places and not aspire, by the aid of selfish and disreputable white men, to be masters of the great white race.
Day Four. Wednesday Nov. 9, 1898:
“I am virtually a prisoner of war”
Col. A. M. Waddell made chairman at courthouse meeting. Wild cheering. Always ready to carry out will of my white fellow-citizens. (He is quoting Waddell.)
Waddell then proposes resolutions. The [Wilmington] Daily Record ceased to be published and its editor be banished from this city. Send his presses away. If he does not go, expel him by force. (A white mob soon burns the Record’s building and runs the African American editor, Alexander Manly, out of town.) Another resolution calls for resignation of the board of alderman and its replacement by a committee of conservatives led by George Rountree.
A quote from Rountree — “I bow my head in humility and give all praise to him [who] rules above.”
Rountree counsels moderation. By moderation, he means that he does not think it should be necessary to kill their white opponents in order to remove them from office. He thinks they will resign under pressure.
The meeting names a committee to carry out the resolutions. Comm of 25 take up all matters here discussed and carry them into effect. Citizens Committee. Will make them resign if possible. Everybody signed.
Bell talks to the Wilmington chief of police, John R. Melton. Quotes Melton: Threatened my life for a month. They have advantage over us and are organized. Have their military. Have lawyers & courts. I am virtually a prisoner of war.
Bell quotes someone—I cannot tell who—justifying the white assault in terms of Social Darwinism: We would as well tackle the law of gravitation, hoping to annihilate it, as to attempt to reverse the law of the survival of the fittest…. [The white man will always] mount into ascendency over his black brother and crowd him down into the place nature has given him.
Bell’s voice again: In reality it was the most brazen and amazing subversion of the will of the majority ever witnessed in the history of popular government…
When Bell leaves town, the election is over, but the greatest crimes and the worst racial violence—what people later called the “Wilmington race riot”—would actually begin the next day.