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ESSAY "The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina" Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1 898 by Andrea Meryl Klrshenbaum ? ?? November 1 898 hundreds ofwhite men took to the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina, to retake the city from the clutches of "negro domination." The rioters began their day of death and destruction by reducing the offices of the local black newspaper to rubble. They then headed into the predominandy black section of the city, where shooting ensued. Most African Americans were defenseless against the onslaught ofwhite violence, destruction, and murder. Estimates vary widely, but by the end of the day, anywhere from 14 to 250 people, most ofthem black, were dead, and many prominent Republicans, Populists, and African Americans were banished or had fled the city in fear.1 The Wilmington race riot of 1898 marked the violent culmination of the Democratic party's white supremacy campaign in North Carolina. In their efforts to end political control by the Populist-Republican coalition, also known as Fusion , Democrats used the protection of white women as a rallying cry to unite white men in Wilmington and across North Carolina. The use ofwhite supremacist ideology to incite the riot is well documented in historical accounts, while the importance ofwomen and gender, defined here as societal expectations based on perceived sexual differences, is often ignored.2 Gender greatly influenced the power structure oflate-nineteenth-century political developments in North Carolina . Adding fuel to the fire of the white supremacist campaign, the combined power of gender ideology and sexual anxieties shaped the dynamics that led to the Wilmington race riot. The Democratic political machine effectively combined the fear of aggressive black male sexuality and the ideal of white female purity to create a sexualized and gendered political rhetoric that incited members ofthe white community to violence. Democratic, Populist, and Republican newspapers all used this rhetoric to greater and lesser advantage throughout the white supremacy campaign. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew all of the Federal troops remaining in the South, marking the end of Reconstruction. Across North Caroli- na, Republican control ended as Democrats regained the majority ofpolitical offices in elections held around this time. In Wilmington, Democrats had regained power one year earlier by electing a majority to the board of aldermen, the governing body of the city. As the Democratic party consolidated control after 1 877, the number of black officeholders and voters in North Carolina shrank rapidly. Party leaders then enacted several measures to ensure their continued power. Democrats gerrymandered Wilmington voting districts in order to reduce the political strength ofthe black population. Under the new system, blacks would be a majority in only one of the five wards even though they constituted 5 6 percent ofthe city's population. According to the city charter, each ward would elect two representatives to the board of aldermen; the board would then elect one of its members as mayor and fill the vacant position by election or appointment. As in many larger urban areas, the government of Wilmington consisted of a small cadre ofpowerful city bosses who ensured that people supportive of their views were elected to the board of aldermen.5 The Democrats held power in North Carolina until 1894, when they lost control ofboth houses ofthe legislature to the statewide fusion ofthe Populist and the Republican parties. "Frequent reminders of the turbulent era of carpetbaggers and scalawags had for years kept the mass ofwhite men voting solidly Democratic," notes historian Helen Edmonds. "But to many white farmers, by 1 894, the familiar cry of defending the state against Negro rule was becoming an outworn shibboleth."4 The Populist party was formed in the late 1 880s out of the Farmers' Alliance, an organization created to voice agrarian discontent with economic conditions across the South and Midwest. Prices for farm products had dropped steadily since the Civil War, and farmers were struggling to survive economically.5 The rural poor hoped that the creation of a new political party would give them a voice in government. Populist leaders initially employed the ideology ofwhite supremacy and excluded blacks from the party. In 1 892 Populist candidates wielded racist messages to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 6-30
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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