In San Domingo (Haiti), Boukman's attempt to free himself and other enslaved blacks results in his followers witnessing an extraordinary event. By the witnesses' account, Boukman's body rises from the slaveholder's woodpile, having never been touched by the flames. Thirty years later, it's the will of the enslaved on the island that frees an entire people from the ash heap of history.
Inspired by the Haitian Revolution, Denmark Vesey of South Carolina decides in 1822 to organize enslaved blacks to free themselves from slavery in the US. Over nine thousand enslaved blacks may have joined him; but eventually, his capture and hanging hasn't dampened the memory of his effort to be free of tyranny.
By 1898, real and imagined narratives of unconfined blacks, violent blacks assured sleepless nights for white Southerners in fear of witnessing an uprising of freed blacks demanding voting rights and even more power. Many whites in Wilmington, in particular, recalled Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, who, in 1831, organized blacks in Virginia, near the North Carolina border. David Zucchino writes, in Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, that despite white rule over black residents, nonetheless, "white memories of a momentous black rebellion half a century earlier still had not faded."
Turner's men, killed some fifty-five whites before his capture on November 11. No Boukman will escape the flames white fear produces here! Turner's body, writes Zucchino, "was flayed and quartered. Scraps of his skin were later fashioned into a purse. His bones were handed out as souvenirs. His head was hacked off and put on public display."
It was the task of the white newspapers to leave no room for blacks to consider Turner a rebel. As Zucchino writes, the newspapers proceeded to publish "sensational stories of slave armies marching toward Wilmington." Uprisings! Uprisings to butcher white women and children! White Wilmington bound its spirit to the perpetuation of more violence. As if enslaving black people weren't enough! "Alarmed whites," writes Zucchino, picked up their weapons and went searching to blacks to maim and to kill. Indiscriminately!
The white newspapers depicted a collective nightmare and its obligatory monster, black violence, readying to pounce into action on every plantation and in every back yard. A "get you while you sleep" narrative that results in the kangaroo trial of twelve black men who are forced to confess to a "'diabolical plot'" to burn down Methodist and Baptist churches in the city. Monsters! Evil! Black! After days of killing indiscriminately, white Wilmington sentenced to death twelve black men. "Severed heads were mounted on poles along a public highway," writes Zucchino.
White fear. Quite a danger thing.
Abraham Galloway, the former escaped slave who became a state senator thirty years before, is dead in 1898. But it's an election year. "Universal male suffrage provided under the new state constitution had represented the culmination of generations of struggle for Black Belt blacks led by Abraham Galloway." As Galloway predicted, blacks voted for the Republican Party, and many won key positions through the city, county, and state. Thanks to that struggle, Wilmington boasted of three black aldermen out of ten, and, out of twenty-six policemen, ten were black. "There were black health inspectors, a black superintendent of streets [along with] black postmasters and magistrates." The city had "a black barber, coroner, country jailer, and county treasurer." In addition, President Benjamin Harrison appointed "a black man, John C. Dancy, as federal customs collector for the port of Wilmington."
Some called Wilmington the "freest town for a Negro in the country." But Wilmington just wasn't free of white fear.
Blacks voting reasonable Republican leaders into powerful positions was no more tolerable than those blacks who organized uprisings. Any uprising of any kind was a threat to the stability of white supremacy. And white leadership believed that something had to be done to rid Wilmington of this threat to white dominance.
The Conservative Party is renamed the Democratic Party in 1876, and, writes Zucchino, working hard to erase the "majority black vote," it rallies white voters to demonize black men. The playbook calls for "race-baiting tactics" that work in this election year. "Democrats returned to power statewide in 1876, taking over the legislature, the governor's mansion, and the county governments." Without hesitation, the Democrats eliminated the "popular election of county commissioners." Under Democrats' rule, the "commissioners were to be chosen by justices of the peace." The selection of these "justices of the peace" would be the tasks of the state legislature. This measure, Zucchino explains, would leave the Black Belt counties "powerless to elect black county officials."
Since Democrats "controlled local elections officials," "procedural ruses" disqualified black voters. In 1876, Democrats congratulated themselves "on redeeming the state in the name of white supremacy." By the following year, when Reconstruction was effectively halted, the Redeemers had "suspended the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments in North Carolina," and for the following seventeen years, they oversaw the triumph of white supremacy in state.
White fear literally killed democratic rule" But, enter the Fusionist Party!
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