The Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat occurred on Nov. 11, 1898. This is the 5th and last in my series about the white supremacy movement of 1898-1900 in other parts of North Carolina.
We have always known that the Red Shirts played a key role in North Carolina’s white supremacy movement back at the turn of the 20th century. They were what we today would call a white nationalist militia group. Bedecked in red trousers and shirts, they barricaded polling sites, shot into homes and generally terrorized those who supported black voting rights.
Their capacity for lawlessness had few limits. On Election Day 1898, they nearly lynched the state’s governor. A few days later, they played a murderous role in the Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat.
In 1898 they were active mainly in southeastern North Carolina. But two years later, in 1900, they operated in at least of the 24 of the state’s counties, including towns as far west as Charlotte and Gastonia.
Yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen an up-close look at a local brigade of Red Shirts.
I mean the kind of up-close look that would tell us how a local group of Red Shirts got started, who their leaders were, where they got their support, how marginal or mainstream they were and how they related to the “white supremacy clubs” and other parts of the state’s white supremacy movement.
So today that’s what I want to do. I want to take a close look at a local band of Red Shirts in one place– Lumberton, N.C.– and mostly in one brief period of time– the summer of 1900.
“To organize the Red Shirts”
I am picking Lumberton because it is the only place I have found in which I can tell exactly where and when a local brigade of Red Shirts was born– at least the 1900 version of the Red Shirts.
The Red Shirts had also been active in Lumberton and the rest of Robeson County, N.C., in 1898.
Prior to the 1898 election, violence in Robeson County was widespread. Red Shirts surrounded polling places, fought black activists and ambushed voting rights supporters. As many as a thousand armed and mounted Red Shirts had ridden through Lumberton’s streets on Nov. 4, 1898.
But after the statewide victory of the white supremacists in November 1898, the Red Shirts in Lumberton put away their Winchester rifles and their red shirts and trousers and went home.
For a time, the Red Shirts slumbered. But they did not sleep long. Less than two years later, they stirred again.
While the Red Shirts rested, the N.C. General Assembly– in what was called “the white supremacy legislature”– was very busy. Among other things, the state legislators passed a state constitutional amendment aimed at taking the right to vote away from the state’s black citizens. They then scheduled an election to bring the amendment before the voters on August 2, 1900.
As the Red Shirts were jostled back to life, they were given the mission of fostering a climate of terror that would keep supporters of black voting rights away from the polls on Election Day.
In Lumberton–as in perhaps no other place– we know exactly when they were roused. According to the town’s weekly newspaper, The Robesonian, the Lumberton White Supremacy Club met at the Robeson County Courthouse on June 21, 1900. One of its agenda items was “to organize the Red Shirts.”
The Lumberton White Supremacy Club
I do not know how often a local Red Shirt band grew out a white supremacy club– but that was the case in Lumberton.
In the summer of 1900, those opposed to black voting rights organized hundreds of “white supremacy clubs” in North Carolina. Their role in the campaign to pass the disfranchisement amendment was different than that of the Red Shirts. You can learn more about those white supremacy clubs in the first part of this series, “Edenton and the Struggle for White Supremacy.”
So to understand better the roots of Lumberton’s Red Shirts, I did a little research on the members of the Lumberton White Supremacy Club.
In my research, I was able to identify a total of 44 members of the Lumberton White Supremacy Club. I can’t say for sure, but I would guess that the club had somewhere between 200 and 400 members.
Of the 44 members of the Lumberton White Supremacy Club that I identified, I was able to learn about the backgrounds and occupations of 21 of them without much difficulty.
Rowdies and ruffians they were not. None were poor or working class. None were tradesmen, clerks, tenant farmers or farm laborers. None were women, and of course none were African American. I do not believe that any of the 21 were Croatan (Lumbee) Indian, the native people that made up 30 to 40% of Robeson County’s population at that time.
Far from being poor or working class, the Lumberton White Supremacy Club’s members included Angus W. McLean, the president of the town’s largest bank, a builder of cotton mills and a future governor of North Carolina.
Several other local bankers also belonged to Lumberton’s white supremacy club. They included R. D. Caldwell, a merchant instrumental in founding the National Bank of Lumberton and the London, Dresden and Jenning Cotton Mill.
Caldwell was also the longtime chair of the board of deacons at Lumberton’s First Baptist Church.
Other members of the Lumberton White Supremacy Club included attorney Edward K. Proctor, Jr., who was the town’s mayor; R. B. Morrison, who was the town attorney; H. F. Beasley, the manager of the local tobacco warehouse; at least half a dozen downtown merchants and several of the township’s most prominent farmers.
The club’s president was W. A. McAllister, a well-respected farmer, merchant and educator. In the early 1890s, he had been the head of the Lumberton High School. He later served as county school superintendent as well as secretary of the Cotton Growers Association of Robeson County.
In Robeson County at least, the Red Shirts of 1900 had their origin in a white supremacy club that was made up of Lumberton’s leading white citizens. They were landowning, educated, church-going pillars of the community.
Red Shirt Memories
At or soon after that June 21, 1900 meeting, the Lumberton White Supremacy Club endorsed one of its own to lead the Red Shirts in Robeson County. His name was Col. Neill Archie “N. A.” McLean.
Of Highland Scots ancestry, McLean was originally from Blue Springs, in the northern part of the county. (It’s now part of Hoke County.) He had the classic education for the sons of the state’s ruling families at that time: the Bingham School and the University of North Carolina, both in Orange County, N.C.
After UNC, McLean came home and established a successful law practice in Lumberton. Prior to 1900, he also served a term in the N.C. General Assembly.
After the June 21st meeting, McLean and other local Red Shirt leaders moved beyond Lumberton and began to organize throughout Robeson County. According to a former Red Shirt named Tom Cox, they organized brigades in each of the county’s 15 precincts between that time and the election on August 2nd.
A newspaperman from The Robesonian interviewed Cox in 1951 for a special historical issue of the newspaper. As a young man, Cox had belonged to the Red Shirt brigade in Alfordsville, a rural community 18 miles west of Lumberton.
In that interview, Cox recalled that another Red Shirt brigade was located only 3 or 4 miles south of Alfordsville, in Rowland.
“The Rowland group was called the Rowland clan,” he told the Robesonian’s reporter. He noted that “the Rowland and Alfordsville Red Shirts usually met together and numbered about fifty.”
They were among the county’s smallest Red Shirt brigades. The Red Shirts in Maxton, Red Springs and Lumberton claimed hundreds of members.
Cox recalled that he and the other Red Shirts “would ride through the county on horseback and influence the darkies against voting.”
“Influencing” African Americans against voting meant parading through black neighborhoods firing rifles, shooting into homes and attacking voting rights activists caught alone.
They did so openly, Cox said. Unlike the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts did not wear masks or cloaks or cling to the night. They wanted to be seen and feared, which was one reason that they wore red.
“A Militant Voice of White Supremacy”
Josephus Daniels, the publisher of the state’s most widely read newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, attended a Red Shirt rally in Robeson County in 1898. He gave a vivid description of Red Shirt riders.
Daniels was not a critic of the Red Shirts. Quite the opposite, he had turned his newspaper into what he called “the militant voice of white supremacy.” Yet even he was astonished by the sight of the Red Shirts.
“If you have never seen 300 red-shirted men towards sunset with the sky red and the red shirts seeming to blend with the sky, you can[not] conceive the impression it makes. It looked like the whole world was carmine. I then understood why red-shirted men riding through the country, even if they said nothing and shot off no pistols could carry terror to the Negroes in their quarters.”
At the time Daniels seems to have looked at the Red Shirts with a combination of fear, awe and desire.
“[W]hen the Red Shirts marched, . . . their appearance was the signal for the Negroes to get out of the way, so that when the red shirt brigade passed through the Negro end of town, it was as uninhabited to all appearances as if it had been in a graveyard.”
Of course the Red Shirts did not always keep their pistols holstered or their rifles strapped to their horses.
Another source, this one from 1900, described the Red Shirts when they were not on parade, but on one of their marauding rides through the countryside. This account comes from The Union Republican, a Republican newspaper published in Winston-Salem, N.C. (9 Aug. 1900).
“With their blood red shirts, cowboy hats, military leggings, pistols in their belts, Winchester rifles in their arms, galloping horseback over the country, firing off their weapons and shooting skyrockets, they make an appearance not to be forgotten.”
The Flogging of Mose Cobb
In the 1951 special issue of The Robesonian that I mentioned earlier, Tom Cox recalled that his Alfordsville brigade of Red Shirts also targeted Republican and Populist political rallies and meetings.
I know it’s confusing because the Democrats are a party committed to racial justice today, but at that time, North Carolina’s Democrats called themselves “The Party of White Supremacy.” To defeat the Democrats, two other parities, the (largely black) Republicans and (largely white) Populists, had successfully forged a political alliance in the period from 1894 to 1898. By the summer of 1900, however, that alliance was on its last legs.
Cox remembered in particular going to a Republican meeting in Purvis, east of Alfordsville. “The speaker did not show up, probably because he heard that [we] were coming,” he told The Robesonian.
That was common: in much of eastern N.C., Red Shirts broke up political meetings at courthouses, town parks and churches. They issued death threats to opposition political candidates, both black and white. In many cases, they shot into their homes or otherwise assaulted them.
Aware that the Red Shirts had attempted to take the governor, Daniel L. Russell, Jr. off a train in Hamlet, N.C., a short ways from Robeson County, and lynch him on Election Day 1898, few Republican or Populists candidates failed to take such threats seriously in 1900.
One of the local cases of the Red Shirts targeting political activists in Robeson County involved Mose Cobb, an African American man who resided 3 miles west of Pembroke, next to the Maxton Road.
According to a historical article in The Robersonian (1 Nov. 1951), Red Shirts flogged Cobb for being “a little too friendly with the Republicans.” A relic of slavery, flogging usually meant 39 lashes with a cowhide whip.
To the Red Shirts, the idea behind that kind of brutality was to create a climate of terror that would keep African Americans as well as the whites that supported black voting rights away from the polls on August 2nd.
The historical record indicates that African Americans put up considerable resistance to the Red Shirts, defending their homes and churches and meeting force with force whenever possible. Ultimately, however, they were outgunned.
They also knew that nobody was coming to their aide. In Robeson County at least, the county sheriff and local militias stood with the white supremacists.
In addition, African American activists took for granted that the federal government would not come to their rescue. If Pres. McKinley did not listen to their pleas for aide after the Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat in 1898, he certainly would not intervene in 1900 either.
Nobody knows how many “Mose Cobbs” there were in Robeson County in 1898 or 1900. We know at least a bit about the Red Shirts in larger towns and cities, but rarely get a glimpse of what they did in quiet country places such as Saddletree, Philadelphus and Burnt Swamp.
The Great Red Shirt Rally
The climax of the Red Shirts movement in Robeson County was a white supremacy parade and rally in Lumberton on July 19, 1900. It was said to be the largest gathering of Red Shirts in the state’s history.
The Lumberton White Supremacy Club organized the parade and rally. At a meeting in early July, the club’s leaders appointed committees to decorate the town, provide a dinner for at least 5,000 people and greet the event’s keynote speaker, Charles B. Aycock.
Aycock, a Goldsboro attorney, was the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor and the state’s most popular white supremacist.
The white supremacy club’s members also adopted a motion “requesting all Democrats to wear red shirts on Aycock day” and appointed a three-person committee to provide “plenty of red shirting for the day.”
N.A. McLean, the Red Shirt’s leader, was named the grand marshal of the parade.(Robesonian, 10 & 20 July 1900)
Red Shirts began arriving in Lumberton the day before the rally. Others arrived on the same train as Aycock at 11 AM on the day of the rally. By noon that day thousands of Red Shirts filled the town’s streets.
McLean and a dozen other Red Shirts met Aycock and the rally’s other main speaker, Robert Glenn, at the train depot that morning. Glenn, an attorney in Winston-Salem, N.C., was a tireless campaigner for the white supremacy ticket and the disfranchisement amendment.
A local brass band led the parade. The Red Shirt leader, N.A. McLean, followed behind the musicians, presumably in a buggy. A young woman, Annie French, dressed in white, seated in a buggy draped in white, with two footmen also dressed in white, rode behind him in another buggy.
The Robesonian proclaimed that Annie French and her retinue were “representative of the purity and spotlessness of North Carolina after the 2nd of August 1900,” the date of the election that they were confidant would take the right to vote away from the state’s black citizens. (The Robesonian, 20 July 1900)
“As you love the state, hold Robeson.”
Through no fault of her own, young Annie French represented more than “the purity and spotlessness of North Carolina.” Because her father was Col. W. Foster French, she was also a powerful symbol of the readiness of the Red Shirts to seize power by force and fraud, no matter what the vote on August 2nd.
Col. W. Foster French, was known throughout North Carolina because he had received what was the most famous telegram in the state’s history: “As you love the state, hold Robeson.”
The telegram came from a prominent conservative leader in Raleigh, William R. Cox, during the statewide election to choose delegates to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1875. As the last votes were being counted, Cox realized that the race was so close that control of the entire convention would hinge on the outcome of a very tight race in Robeson County.
In response to Cox’s telegram, Robeson County’s election board executed an unprecedented act of election fraud. They threw out the votes in four heavily Republican townships and then certified the vote as final.
If the votes in those four precincts had been counted, the Republicans would have won Robeson County, which would have given control of the constitutional convention to the Republicans.
Instead the conservatives won Robeson County by an extremely narrow margin, giving control of the Constitutional Convention of 1875 to the Democrats, who at that time boasted that they were “the party of white supremacy.”
At the convention, the Democrats passed 30 amendments to the state constitution. They included amendments that re-configured the state’s electoral system and altered the relationship between state and local government in a way that kept the white supremacists in power in North Carolina from 1876 to 1894.
Three floats came behind Annie French. One was decorated in white and held young women representing the original 13 states, while two others that carried young ladies were draped in red, white and blue.
A final float carried the Colt machine gun that had been used to suppress black resistance during the Wilmington massacre on November 10, 1898. More than once, Red Shirt leaders had displayed the gun in their parades as a warning to those who supported black voting rights.
The Colt machine gun belonged to the Wilmington Light Infantry. One of the Infantry’s officers, Capt. C.H. White, had carried the gun to Lumberton for the occasion. (Wilmington Morning Star, 20 July 1900)
The Red Shirts paraded behind the machine gun. The Robesonian estimated that the procession of Red Shirts was over a mile long and included at least 1,500 white men, two-thirds of them on horseback.
Nearby gunners fired cannons throughout the day– a message for both black voters and the white men who supported black voting rights.
“Such an assemblage of Red Shirts has never been seen in the state before,” The Robesonian proclaimed. Eyeing the crowd estimated as high as 8,000 people, the newspaper’s reporter judged it the largest gathering of any kind in Robeson County’s history.
At 12:30 in the afternoon, a local minister, the Rev. J. B. Pate, led the crowd in a prayer and then Glenn spoke in favor of white supremacy for nearly two hours. One of the most striking features of his speech was his reference to U.S. Senator Marion Butler, a Populist leader from Sampson County, as a “Mary Ann”—a Victorian, usually derogatory term for a gay man.
When Glenn finished his speech, the band played “Dixie” and the Lumberton White Supremacy Club treated the crowd to a barbecue dinner. Later in the afternoon, N.A. McLean introduced Aycock. The gathering concluded with his speech. (Robesonian, 23 Oct. 1968, citing a 1900 article from the Lumberton Argus)
Aycock made more than 60 speeches at Red Shirt and other white supremacy rallies in 1900. We do not know if he belonged to the Red Shirts, but his support for them was unequivocal. He worked hand-in-glove with Red Shirt leaders, eagerly joined their parades and rallies and never criticized them for terrorizing those who supported black voting rights.
In the last weeks of the election, Red Shirts continued their violent assault on voting rights in Robeson County and in at least 23 other counties.
Their presence was greatest in southeastern North Carolina, but they were active even as far west as Charlotte, Gastonia and Winston-Salem.
Wherever the Red Shirts appeared, their message was clear. The Wilmington massacre could happen again. No law or constitution will protect you. Nobody is coming to your rescue.
On Election Day, Robeson County was like a war zone. Gangs of Red Shirts openly blocked roads into towns and access to polling sites, shot into homes and threatened all who refused to support the “white supremacy ticket.”
“Grady Harrell of Saddletree said the Red Shirts kept the Negro from voting in 1898 with Winchester rifles at the Saddletree poll, near Red Springs,” The Robesonian reported in one of its historical issues. The Red Shirts used similar tactics in 1900.
Harrell was apparently also a former Red Shirt. He was interviewed by the same reporter that interviewed Tom Cox.
The Victory of the Red Shirts
You know the rest of the story. The state constitutional amendment disfranchising black citizens passed in the August 2, 1900 election. Charles B. Aycock became the state’s next governor.
Robert Glenn, the other keynote speaker at the big Red Shirt rally in Lumberton, succeeded Aycock as governor in 1904.
N. A. McLean, the leader of the Red Shirts in Robeson County, was soon elected again to the North Carolina General Assembly. He became one of the state’s most powerful legislators. When he died in 1911, his obituary in The Robesonian (16 Feb. 1911) described him as “Robeson County’s Most Distinguished Citizen.”
Even as late as 1925, a former Red Shirt, Cameron Morrison, was governor of North Carolina. He had been a Red Shirt leader in Laurinburg, 30 miles west of Lumberton.
None of the Red Shirts were ever held accountable for their crimes. No attempt at justice for their victims has ever been considered. No historical marker, statue or plaque reminds us of what they did.
What grieves me most, perhaps, is this: the North Carolina General Assembly is currently considering a bill that could prohibit the state’s public school teachers from teaching this history.
And no historic site or museum is dedicated to helping us not make the mistakes of 1898 and 1900 again.
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