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White Mob in front of the burned out offices of the Wilmington Daily Record. Originally published November 26, 1898 in Collier's Weekly. Click for a larger picture.


Democracy’s Denial:
Revolutions in Wilmington
[1898 and after]

In 1898, White Supremacists seized power in the beautiful port of Wilmington North Carolina. They

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burned the town's Black newspaper -believed to be the only Black daily in the South-after it challenged the justice of lynch-law for Black "rapists." The plotters exiled the mayor and many officials, killed a number of African Americans and drove thousands out of town in the only coup d’etat in U.S. history.

While the U.S. government looked away, southern states limited voting to white men. Black and White novelists wrote of heroism and tragedy; and a curtain of silence came down. Seventy-three years later Wilmingtonians were haunted by several weeks racial of violence, but it took a century for them to look back at what they'd become in the state of Jesse Helms.

Democracy’s Denial uses oral histories and documented eyewitness accounts to explore Wilmington's story in economic, political and sexual context, including the memoirs of at least four participants in the events of 1898, read by their direct descendants. It looks at the town's struggle to repair its battered sense of community through public forums and partnerships, and raise questions about what happened, why and how it affects us today.

Production was supported by the Southern Humanities Media Fund, the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.








The law of the land: The Supreme Court’s 1896 “Separate but Equal” decision sets the stage.


Life in one southern city: Alarmed by African Americans’ political and economic power, white leaders set out to reassert control, while the (white) mainstream press spreads scare stories.  Social relations, the press and politics


Race and Sex and Politics: A Black journalist’s challenge, and s a leading white woman’s defense, politician’s defense of “racial purity.” A fateful chapter in the great debate on interracial sex and lynching.



Escape & Escalation The press, politics again, and “passing” for White. With elections approaching, a newspaperman faces the contradictions of challenging the racial orthodoxy as Whites mobilize to seize political power.



Election under the gun: November 8-9, 1898: a white “declaration of independence.”



“Riot” or “Revolution”?



The only coup d’etat in U.S. history:  After the vote and the violence, the political, economic, and social structure of a southern city is changed.



Images of Wilmington: for the nation, in the popular media, and at the limits of democracy. A battle for hearts and minds: the tragedy of black and white pictures of a complicated situation minds.



Reforming the Vote:  Democracy and “responsible” voting. Southern white leaders versus African Americans and the “ignorant” poor. The ‘threat,’ and a response that changed the nation.



Progress:  Race relations in Wilmington in the new century.  Was North Carolina special?



The War: As African Americans seek their rights, white North Carolina issues a warning.



The Wilmington 10: The  Civil Rights movement; Wilmington is “condemned to repeat its history” — of violence in another confrontation of national importance.



Commemoration and Reconciliation:  Wilmingtonians confront the continuing impact of 1898 today. How do actions of 1898 compare to current practices? How can a community heal its wounds? Must reconciliation be based on facing unpleasant historical events, or can we put the past behind us?




  • Politics, power and propaganda: 2,3,4
  • Social and sexual relations and race:3,4,8
  • Democracy in action: 5,6,7,9
  • The uses of history: remembrance and reconciliation  8,12,13
  • Media: 2,3,4,8
  • Law and government: 1,9

See FORUMS for more discussion-prompts and two actual discussions facilitated by Listening Between the Lines and public/community radio station WHQR.



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