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This episode contains descriptions of violence. Please use discretion. When I was a young girl, perhaps I was just around 10 years old, my mother took me and my brother to visit my great grandmother in Pennsylvania. Her name was a failure, but we just always called her Thalia Grandma Thalia. She was bed ridden. I recall going up the stairs in her home and I recall seeing her in bed in and out of consciousness. I don't know what her exact health issue was, but I recall her being excited and appearing to be happy when she saw us come into the room.
I went to the bedside just beside her, and I remember her looking over at me.
And in a very almost panic stricken way, she began to ramble about not letting that happen to me. I did not understand. I did not know what she was referring to and. I gather that I look confused and concerned, my mother didn't fully understand either, but then within moments, her level of anxiety increased just so much and she she didn't sit up, but she leaned and turned more towards me. And what I recall most is the way that she grabbed my wrist and shaking a bit, she grabbed my wrist and she just said over and over again, if it happens, run.
Don't let that happen to you. Run if it ever happens, run. Cynthia Brown says it wasn't until much later that she would begin to understand what her great grandmother was talking about and what had happened in Wilmington, North Carolina. I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.
Cynthia Brown's great grandmother, Ophelia Howe, grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the late 80s, hundreds in a predominantly black neighborhood called Brooklyn. At the time, the American Baptist publication Society called Wilmington the freest town in the country for black people.
Wilmington was really a Mecca of sorts for people of color, for African-Americans, because during the reconstruction era, you had a thriving African-American business owners.
You had some professional people, whether they were in Madison, a few who may have been in the legal profession.
You had many builders.
And so across the spectrum, you had people of color who were thriving in a sense, and they were able to enjoy social and economic and professional opportunities that they could not have enjoyed in other parts of the South at that point in time.
So it was a relatively good place to be.
I would I would say, given that the era in time that they lived in.
Yeah, Wilmington was a real outlier among Southern cities. Author David Yukino that had a majority black population.
It was 56 percent black at a time when most southern cities had white majorities. But more importantly, it had a multiracial government, which was quite unusual at the time in the South. It had black elected officials and black appointed officials. The county paymaster, for instance, the treasurer was black. There was a black coroner and a black jailer, and there were black magistrates who presided over court cases with white defendants. Three of the 10 city aldermen were black men, and 10 of the 26 police officers were black.
So blacks were well integrated into city government. So it was really unusual. There really wasn't another city like it in the south.
Wilmington was a power center for what was called the fusion party. Poor white farmers and laborers had rejected North Carolina's then white supremacist Democratic Party and formed a coalition with black voters and members of the Republican Party.
It was called fusion. It was unprecedented in the South and it was succeeding. The fusion has won control of the state legislature in 1894, and within a few years, black men became integral in Wilmington's government. White supremacists around North Carolina decided this could not happen around the same time a man named Josephus Daniels took over an influential newspaper, The Raleigh News and Observer.
He later wrote in his autobiography that the paper was relied upon to be the militant voice of white supremacy by 1898, the News and Observer was the most powerful newspaper in North Carolina, and Josephus Daniels used it like a weapon. He was fixated on Wilmington and winning it back for the white supremacist party, the Democrats, he often met with party leaders, including a man named Furnival's Simmons, the state chairman of the Democratic Party.
They came up with a plan to first win the fall election in November and made it very clear that violence and intimidation was going to be part of that campaign. And secondly, they said after that, they were going to overthrow by force and by guns the elected government of Wilmington. The municipal election wasn't until the following March, and they weren't going to wait that long. They were going to steal the election. They announced that they were going to do it with intimidation and then they were going to overthrow the government.
And what's unusual about it is that they announced it all ahead of time.
Josephus Daniels said he would do it by ballot or bullet or both. Would you describe a little bit about the campaign that started in in newspapers by Josephus Daniels? Yes, this was a very deliberate and premeditated and orchestrated disinformation and propaganda campaign led by Josephus Daniels at the News and Observer.
But all the other newspapers in eastern and southern North Carolina, all of them were published by white supremacists and they joined in. So it was very coordinated campaign. And first of all, they created this false narrative of what they called, quote, the black beast rapist. And they really played on white men's sexual insecurities and fears of of black men. And they, over the summer and fall of 1898, published reams of completely false stories of an alleged rape epidemic of white women by black men.
There was no epidemic at all, but they just printed false stories or played up incidental contact between a black man and a white woman into rape. And this really, really stoked the fears of white voters.
Josephus Daniels would stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning writing racist editorials that he hoped would incite readers into what he called a fever heat.
Wilmington was home to what was reported to be the only daily black newspaper in the country, The Wilmington Daily Record, the editor was a man named Alex Manley, who for the most part had ignored Josephus Daniels and the false reporting coming out of the News and Observer and other North Carolina papers. But one day he read something that he refused to ignore.
He read a speech from a woman in Georgia named Rebecca Felton, who was the wife of a congressman from Georgia. And she gave this fiery speech about a supposed rape epidemic in Georgia and said the only solution was the lynch rope. And her quote was, I say Lynch a thousand times a week if necessary. And Alex Malley read this and he was enraged. And he responded in August of 1898 with an editorial in The Daily Record that essentially said that most black men who were supposedly raping a white woman were, in fact, their consentual lovers.
And he also wrote that for generations, white men had been raping black women with impunity. And this, of course, was an incendiary thing to say in 1898. And whites reacted with calls to Lynch Manly.
But the leaders of the white supremacy campaign said, no, this isn't the time. We want to wait until November, till closer to the election. We promise you in November you can burn down the newspaper and you can lynch Manly. But right now we can make political use of this. And what they did was reprint Manley's editorial in papers across the state and in fact, papers across the South to incite and enrage white voters. And it worked because this rage just built up over the summer and fall leading to the election in early November.
Josephus Daniels had said that his campaign to end what he saw as black, quote, domination would need three kinds of men, men who could write, men who could speak and men who could ride. He taken care of the writing part with his newspaper for the speaking part, he and the Democratic Party launched a speaker's campaign to promote white supremacy and the men who could ride were called the Red Shirts.
These were white vigilantes and their job in the summer and fall of 1898 was to ride out through the Cape Fear countryside around Wilmington and Wilmington at night with guns. And they would break into black homes and yank out black men and beat them and whip them and tell them if they dared to register to vote, they would come back and kill them.
White supremacist started buying shotguns and pistols from the city's hardware stores, buying so many guns that they had to send up to Baltimore and Richmond to restock their supplies. A Washington Post reporter who had been sent to Wilmington wrote that the city seemed to be preparing for a siege instead of an election. We'll be right back. Support for criminal comes from Progressive, one of the country's leading providers of auto insurance with progressives name your price tool. You say what kind of coverage you're looking for and how much you want to pay.
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See for yourself right now you can try as a recruiter for free at zip recruiter dot com slash criminal that supercute or dot com slash CRM IANAL. The night before the election, November 7th, a man named Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell gave a speech in Wilmington. Waddell was a former Confederate officer, though by 1898, he was unemployed and supported by his wife's music lessons. It was said that it got on people's nerves with what David Zucchetto described as grating pontification.
But members of the Democratic Party knew he was a dramatic speaker, and so the night before the election, he was asked to give a speech to a crowd in Wilmington.
Waddell said, quote, The crisis is upon us. You have the courage, you are brave, you are the sons of noble ancestry. You were Anglo-Saxon, you were armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. At the end of the speech, Wadle told the crowd, go to the polls tomorrow and if you find a black man voting, tell him to leave. And if he doesn't, quote, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.
The next morning on Election Day, the Red Shirts and other armed vigilantes patrolled the streets, beating or intimidating black men who tried to vote and creating chaos and diversions in polling places, sometimes they would knock an oil lamp onto the floor and start a small fire.
And in the chaos and confusion, they would remove Republican ballots and replace them with phony Democratic ballots. And in some precincts, there were more, quote, Democratic votes than there were a number of voters registered in the precincts. So it was a complete fraud, but it was quite successful with the ballot stuffing and with the intimidation campaign that greatly reduced the black vote. The Democrats, quote, won the election for the state legislature, for county offices around Wilmington and for the U.S. Senate and the House.
After the election, Josephus Daniels published a cartoon in the News and Observer with the caption, The game is over. The white men win. But they hadn't won the election for the city's municipal government, that wouldn't happen until March. They didn't want to wait. They intended to overthrow the municipal government by force. A notice of a meeting was printed on the back page of the Wilmington Messenger. The headline was Attention White Men. A full attendance is desired as business in the furtherance of white supremacy will be transacted.
And there was a meeting on the ninth of more than a thousand white men who met and Theilen Hall, which was the seat of government and as well as a theater in downtown Wilmington, and declared a white a Declaration of Independence. They declared that they would no longer be under what they called, quote, Negro rule and Negro domination, that from that point on, white men would dominate and blacks could either obey or they would be killed or driven out of town.
Waddell specifically discussed Alex Manley and the city's black newspaper, adamant that the paper be shut down and Alex Manley forced out of town. The next morning, more than a thousand men gathered. Waddell told them they were going to burn down the paper.
Once Waddell orders this mob to march to the paper, it gets bigger and bigger and eventually it's up almost 2000 white men armed with guns and among them were merchants. And there were even some white ministers armed with guns. So basically an armed mob of enraged white men, they marched to the paper, burned it down. By this time, Alex Manley had been warned that he was going to be lynched and he had escaped a couple of days before the election.
He wasn't there and no one was at the newspaper because it hit it shut down because of the threats the previous day.
They burned the paper, came back and were looking for something, some other target to attack and were whipped up by Wadle and by others and decided to confront black men in a neighborhood which was a predominantly black neighborhood and a confrontation. And a showdown ensued at this corner, and it built to a point where the whites finally opened fire and killed three or four black men in the opening salvo. And then the riot was on and the coup was underway. And the rest of the afternoon, these white gunmen coursed through the streets looking for black men to kill.
My great grandmother witnessed this. Cynthia Brown's great grandmother, Ophelia Howe, lived in that neighborhood, she was a teenager at home with her mother. She remembered seeing a man leave his house very early in the morning.
That day, she didn't really know what was occurring, but she looked out of a window and the man began to run back to his home. And one of the men on horseback got off and stopped him.
And they shot him. He was they dragged him back out the walkway onto the street.
I also learned that after she saw this, she she was distraught. She was frightened. She was confused. She was inside of their home. But her mother, who quickly figured out what was happening, gathered her and her sister. And I don't know the chain of communication.
Nothing was ever explained to me about that. But they left their house, I would imagine they left from the back door, but they gathered with a few other women who had children. And they, in their own strategic way, ran between the houses, zigzagging, trying to make it the St. Stephen AME Church, which was their home church, but when they were approaching, I understand they saw men on horseback, but they saw a set of men on a horse drawn cart.
And they had what my father described and what I call a Gatling gun, like a mounted machine gun. My great grandmother did not know what was happening, but I later understood through church records that the church was under threat and the minister was in the doorway trying to calm the men on horseback, get them to go away. But all I was told by my family was that. My great grandmother, her mother, other women and children continue to run, they made their way to Pine Forest Cemetery, which was by then an established African-American cemetery here in town.
And that's where they're here thinking that the white men wouldn't go looking in the African-American cemetery or wouldn't want to bother going in there. Absolutely, absolutely, and it's been a tradition in my family for generations to go to pine forests on holidays, but in between to Cleanaway vegetative growth and take care of family plots. And so I do know it was dimps. It was like a wooded garden of flowering trees and shrubs. And so there would have been lots of places to hide.
Toward the end of the day, on November 10th, Colonel Ladell marched the mob to city hall to finish the coup and confronted the white and black aldermen and at gunpoint demanded that the 10 aldermen, which included three black men, quote, resign of their own accord. And this is the way they portrayed it later. But essentially, they forced them at gunpoint to resign. They also forced the white mayor and the white police chief, both of whom were Republicans and perfusionist.
They forced them to resign and then they appointed the mob leaders to those positions of Colonel Waddell was appointed as mayor and the other leaders of the mob were appointed to the city council and another mob leader was appointed as the police chief. So the coup was complete.
After hiding for two nights and three days, Cynthia's great great grandmother and great grandmother received word that it was safe enough to come out of the cemetery.
And I don't think they came out like marching across the Pettus Bridge or anything like that. They they slowly, quietly came out and. When they left the cemetery, they did not find bodies in the street or anything like that. They did find some of the homes with broken window panes. They also found her father. They were fearful because he had already left for work and they didn't know if he was alive or dead or what.
But he survived. He hid. He he survived. And they were reunited.
There were estimates from black ministers who were there that day that hundreds of black men were killed. The best estimate I've seen came from a state commission that spent five years studying the riot in the early 2000s. They came up with an estimate of at least 60 black men killed and many, many more wounded.
Was this whole thing getting national coverage, were there newspapermen from around the country, if it was as well-known and planned as it apparently was?
Yes, all the major papers of the day, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, in addition to all the white supremacist papers from the South, they all sent the reporters down.
And of course, they were all white men and the white supremacists as part of their disinformation and propaganda campaign. They met these reporters coming in at the train station and immediately provided for their lodging, gave them cigars and whiskey and basically embedded them. I mean, that's the term we used today. But essentially they took the white reporters and said, hey, we're going to set you up with these white vigilantes who were patrolling the city. And of course, they completely absorbed and believed the white narrative of this black uprising being planned and of black incompetence and of these corrupt black leaders, this, quote, Negro rule that was dominating white men.
And that was the story that Northern readers got. And this really sold the white narrative to to the country. That is the story they got. And that is the story America believed. And it had consequences later on. So no one was ever held accountable. There was no investigation. There were no grand jury, no indictments. They completely got away with it.
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At least 20, 100 black people fled the city and never came back. And over the next several months, hundreds more left, as I said, of Wilmington was 56 percent black in 1898. Today, it's 18 percent black. So the black community there was basically wiped off the map. They were either killed or forced out of town. The black middle class obviously collapse. These black professionals were driven out of town. Wilmington went from being a really model of a multi racial democratic government, small D to a white citadel, and remained that way to this day.
The WHO also instituted white supremacy as official city and state policy for the next 50 or 60 years. And it ushered in the first Jim Crow laws. The first Jim Crow law in the state was passed by this new government in Wilmington, desegregate streetcars. And of course, they went from there and Jim Crow took effect not only in North Carolina but across the south. And the KU had the effect of eliminating the black vote in North Carolina for the next 70 years.
And in the weeks and months after the coup, the white supremacist leaders the bragged about it and inspired white supremacists across the South. This was a real model.
So they were very proud of what they had done and very open about it.
But after that generation died out, the story was basically tamped down and forgotten. And if it was talked about, it was completely mischaracterized as a white good government initiative to get rid of a corrupt black and multiracial government, as well as violence that was unfortunately necessary to put down a black riot. And that's the way it was portrayed. It was even portrayed that way in high school history textbooks that just portrayed this, again, as a good government initiative, getting rid of corrupt and incompetent black rule.
There was a whole century where this was mischaracterized or basically forgotten to the general public.
It was one big secret. And for people who either survived or who had ancestors who survived, for those who remained here, it wasn't discussed.
When Cynthia Brown was about 16, she remembers talking to a friend about what she'd heard had happened in 1898, little bits here and there from her parents.
And so they decided to go to the library to try to find out more.
And we were told we were first asked by the reference librarian why we needed that information. And I said, we're just wanting to learn more about it. We've learned a little about it and we were rejected. We were told and I remember it so clearly with a stern, stern look on her face that that information was not available. It was kept, quote, downstairs and quote our vault. I looked at her and my girlfriend took her foot. I sort of kicked my ankle where she wouldn't be seen by the librarian.
And then she ultimately took her elbow and punched me like, let's go. And I said, But something did happen here. We'd like to see it. And we were denied access. And I said to my friend Debbie, I said, I'm going to find out. I'm going to piece this all together. Something really bad happened here. Today, Cynthia Brown lives in Wilmington and attends St. Stephen AME Church, same church her great grandmother attended.
It is an odd. And a very rich sort of legacy, I guess, but odd in the sense that. It has a stabbing, almost piercing, almost haunting effect.
On me when I allow myself to stop and just.
I don't know, block out the noise of the day.
And I try to put myself in her shoes and I try to imagine what it may have been like when this happened, and I also try to imagine what it was like to stay here afterwards and not flee the feelings of fear and anxiety that she probably harbored, but.
Didn't feel that she had a pathway out, her mother didn't feel she had a pathway out, so they put their heads down and they worked and they kept quiet and they tried to survive. And I can only believe that she had a vision that if she could endure that, the next generation would go forward.
This has been I'm so happy to get to speak with you, and I want to thank you very much for taking all the time and telling me about your great grandmother.
Honestly, I was talking with my husband about five thirty this morning. We woke up and he said, do you need to sleep longer? I said, maybe, but maybe not.
And I said, never in any of my dreams or vision what I did I ever imagined that anyone would want to know about Grandma Thalia and what happened to her.
Criminalist created by Lauren S'pore and me, Nita Wilson is our senior producer, Susanna Robertson is our producer, audio mix by Rob Byers. Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal. You can see them, and this is criminal dotcom, where we'll have a link to David Zakynthos book Wilmington's Lie The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy. Today, Josephus Daniels newspaper, The News and Observer is still around. David Yukino told us he used to work there in the early 70s.
It was my first job out of journalism school and there was a small bust of Josephus in the lobby. There were all these tributes to him around the newsroom. I had no idea of what his role was. He was portrayed as a progressive crusading journalist, and that's the way he was portrayed for years and years. And it was only recently that people realized that he was this committed white supremacist who was the the architect of the misinformation and propaganda campaign. During 1898, there was a statue of Josephus outside the News and Observer building in downtown Raleigh.
And last summer, the Daniels family decided on their own to take the statue down.
Criminal is recorded in the studios of North Carolina Public Radio WNYC, where a proud member of Radio Topia from PUREX, a collection of the best podcasts around. I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.
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