Tragically unbeknownst to many, Wilmington, NC, is home to the only successful coup against a locally elected government to occur on United States soil. Erroneously known for a time as the Race Riot of 1898, the Wilmington insurrection (or massacre or coup) on November 10, 1898 was a white supremacist mass riot. The express purposes of the rioters were to violently overthrow the duly elected government, to destroy Black-owned businesses, and to drive out Black political leaders and white allies from the city. It’s estimated that upwards of 300 Black citizens were killed in the insurrection, and another 2,000 were displaced.
As a then-bastion of progressivism in the South with a prominent Black middle class comprising Black doctors, police officers, councilmen, lawyers, and other professionals, Wilmington was an obvious target for the terrorist plot as organized by white politicians and businessmen. And while it is easy to draw parallels between this uprising and the events of last month’s attempted coup at the United States Capitol, it is worth recognizing that both events are merely two notable instances in a long history of political violence either directly or indirectly motivated by white supremacy.
Nonetheless, the events of 1898 have left a scar in the Wilmington community that still goes unacknowledged by many. Two years before the coup, 126,000 Black men had registered to vote in North Carolina. Four years after the coup, the number had dropped to 6,100. After the insurrection, the city fired Black police officers, replacing them with white supremacists who were eager to enforce a status quo and policies that would go unchallenged for decades to come, even once the force was reintegrated. And it wasn’t until 1972–74 years later–before another Black Wilmingtonian served in public office.
The eradication of (1) Black business ownership and the Black middle class, (2) integrated policing that prioritized community protection over the privatized interests of white supremacy, and (3) Black political leadership with an investment in the Black community’s well being, all stunted the development of job (and thus, economic) opportunities for the city’s Black community for decades. Prior to the coup, Wilmington’s population was 56% Black. Today, that number sits at 18%. Each year, historically Black neighborhoods become more gentrified. Despite only being 18% of the city’s population, Black Wilmingtonians comprise 41% of the city’s 23% poverty rate. And though we ensure that each graduate from StepUp Wilmington’s training who is placed in a job receives a living wage, our Black graduates on average make $1.50 less than their white counterparts.
There is no question that the events of 1898 and the countless others like it, as well as the systemically enforced racism that preceded and that continues to follow it, have had the biggest impact on this country’s Black citizens. However, racially motivated division and systematic racism ultimately impacts all of us, both socially and economically.
While the growth in public awareness of the events of 1898 in recent years is a positive change that historians, educators, and artists should be celebrated for contributing to, simply acknowledging the tragedy and the lasting impact it has had is not nearly enough. Intentional and direct action must be taken to improve the material conditions of Wilmington’s Black community if we are serious about our commitment to racial equity. We at StepUp Wilmington are fully committed to this fact and to this mission. Like countless other organizations, we want to join our nation this Black History Month in not only celebrating the triumphs and heroes of the Black and African American community, but in acknowledging and doing our part to rectify the atrocities this country’s committed against them. However, our commitment to doing so extends far beyond a single month; it is a year-round and unending commitment to framing our work through the lens of racial equity.
At StepUp Wilmington, we are firm believers that the lives of each of our candidates can be changed, and entire communities can be uplifted, through satisfying employment that pays a sustainable living wage. We also recognize that we have an important role to play in supporting our city’s fight to actively learn from its past and present, to eradicate poverty, to eradicate systemic injustice and white supremacy, and to improve the material conditions of each citizen, for an equitable future. StepUp continues in its commitment to use our platform and services to support the Black community of this city, and to support the success of Black businesses and the rejuvenation of our Black middle class, one person, one family, and one job at a time.