David's Book Club
02.03.13 1:14 PM ET
Up From History, Part 2
In the year 1900, 90% of black Americans still lived in the states of the former Confederacy.
Since the withdrawal of federal troops in the 1870s, these states had asserted an increasingly extreme white domination over the former slaves. State governments had deprived freed blacks of the right to vote and sit on juries. They had sliced contributions to black education to pitiful fractions of the small enough investment in the education of white children. They had adopted increasingly formalized rules of racial subordination in public places. This system of domination was enforced by violence and the threat of violence. The violence was usually informal - "racial terrorism" as Robert Norrell aptly calls it - but not always. Local authorities actively connived in it. State governments accepted it. And while the federal government might occasional issue some deploring statement, it seldom if ever did anything to prevent the violence.
Norrell offers a vivid description of how the system of white domination worked. Until the late 1890s, North Carolina blacks retained some of their Reconstruction era legacy political rights. 120,000 blacks still voted; blacks still served on the Wilmington city council and even worked as policemen - a profound taboo elsewhere in the South.
But time was running out for the Wilmington black community. Blacks had benefited from the disunity of the state's whites. In the late 1890s, however, conservative white Democrats and radical white Populists sank their differences in time for the election of November 1898.
Here's what happened next, according to Norrell:
Alfred Waddell, an out-of-favor politician remaking himself as a white-nationalist leader, became the most vitriolic nativist firebrand. 'You are Anglo-Saxons,' Waddell told a crowd. 'Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.' In early November tens of thousands of black men were too frightened to vote, and the Democrats regained control of North Carolina. Two days after the election, Waddell led a mob in destroying [Wilmington's leading black newspaper]. They gathered the resignation of all Republican city officials at gunpoint, and Waddell was named mayor.
Waddell's mob swelled to 2,000 men, including whites from all classes and vocations. When a shot hit one of them, the mob raged through Wilmington, with whites hunting down blacks in running gun battles through the city streets. The gunfire alerted militias and vigilante groups from outside the city to join the attack. Literally thousands of blacks ran for their lives. As many as 300 African Americans may have been killed. Eyewitnesses later recounted seeing wagon carts piled high with dead black bodies being removed from the city. … The riot depopulated Wilmington of its large black majority.
This was not a reality in which the black protest advocated by people like WEB DuBois was likely to succeed. When judging of the controversy between DuBois and Washington, this is the reality that Robert Norrell would like us to keep in mind.