Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 - Background

Background

In 1860, before the Civil War, Wilmington was majority black and the largest city in the state, with nearly 10,000 people. Numerous slaves and free blacks worked at the port, as domestic servants, and as artisans and skilled workers.

After the Battle of Fort Fisher, which the Union won in January 1865, Wilmington was taken by Union troops in February, after they had worked their way through Confederate defenses up the Cape Fear River. Numerous slaves had escaped to Union lines before this, seeking freedom, and some fought with the Union. With its victory in the Battle of Wilmington, the Union completed its blockade of major southern ports. The Confederate General Braxton Bragg had burned tobacco and cotton stores before leaving the city.

With the end of the war, freedmen in many states left plantation and rural areas for towns and cities, not only to seek work but to gain safety by creating black communities without white supervision. Tensions grew in Wilmington and other areas because of a shortage of supplies; Confederate currency had no value and the South was impoverished at the end of the long war.

Federal constitutional amendments had abolished slavery, and granted citizenship and voting rights to freedmen. Adults and children were pursuing education, and freedmen were eager to vote, tending to support the Republican Party that had achieved their freedom.

In North Carolina, state and local races were close, with Republicans winning most of the offices. Their ascendancy to power can be traced to granting the franchise to freedmen, plus the successful formation of a biracial coalition of freedmen, recent black and white migrants from the North, and white Southerners who supported Reconstruction. Many white Democrats had been embittered since the Confederacy's defeat, and most veterans were armed. Insurgent veterans joined the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which started in Tennessee but soon had chapters across the South. It generated considerable violence at elections to suppress the black vote, and Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1870. After the KKK was suppressed by the federal government through the Force Act of 1870, new paramilitary groups arose in the South. By 1875, chapters of Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, had formed in North Carolina and were instrumental in suppressing the black vote during elections, but a Republican governor was elected in 1876.

In the years that followed, Wilmington, then the largest city in the state, had a majority-black population with numerous black professionals and a rising middle class. The Republican Party was biracial in membership. Unlike many other jurisdictions, blacks in Wilmington gained positions as members of the police force and fire department, as well as in elected positions.

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