In 1898, the American Baptist Publication Society called Wilmington, North Carolina, “the freest town for a negro in the country.” By November 10 of that same year, Wilmington had devolved into perhaps the most dangerous place for black people in North Carolina, if not in America. David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy explores in gripping detail the efforts of white supremacists to overturn black political and social power in Wilmington and to eliminate black citizens by any means necessary.
One long-held view of the November 1898 events in Wilmington is that they were race riots. Zucchino digs deep into archival records, interviews locals’ descendants about their relatives’ involvement in the events and discovers that there’s simply no evidence that race riots fomented by black people against white people occurred. Instead, he uncovers evidence that on that November day, white men had been buying guns, vowing to remove Wilmington’s “interracial government and black officials by the ballot or the bullet.”
Zucchino carefully outlines the roles that black people held in Wilmington’s government and explores why white people were bothered by what they called “Negro rule” when black people held only a small portion of elected positions in the city. With dramatic opening sentences (“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads.”), Zucchino creates a suspenseful atmosphere as he unfolds the stories of white supremacist Democrats who would stop at nothing to, as they saw it, take back Wilmington. The results of these events “inspired white supremacists across the South. . . . Wilmington’s whites had mounted America’s first and only armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered blacks with impunity. . . . They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.”
Wilmington’s Lie is a riveting and mesmerizing page turner, with lessons about racial violence that echo loudly today.