African American Innovation During Difficult Economic and Discriminatory Times

On November 10, 1898, a disgraceful event in North Carolina occurred: as part of the White Supremacy campaign of the 1890s, Democratic leaders in Wilmington overthrew leading black and white Republicans and Populists to regain control of Wilmington’s government.  

After a six-year investigation, the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission on May 31, 2006 recommended fifteen ways to “repair the moral, economic, civic, and political damage wrought” by the events of that day.  Suggestions ranged from incorporating lessons concerning the episode into school curriculums to seizing vacant commercial properties and selling them to low income residents with guaranteed mortgages.  But the study’s recommendations are based solely on the 1897 and 1900 Wilmington City Directory and therefore inadequately measure any long-term economic impact on the African American community.

During the 1890s, the Democratic Party lost legislative seats and patronage appointments as Fusion politics—the alliance of black and white Republicans and Populists for political objectives—had gained incremental success.  As a result, some black males were elected and appointed to political office.  In 1898 Wilmington, where less than fifty-percent of the population was white, black men held various elected and bureaucratic political offices.  

Many Democrats in Wilmington meanwhile alleged black corruption, and a “Secret Nine” plotted to regain control of the port city.  Unwittingly accelerating the white “revolution,” Alexander Manly, the black editor of the Wilmington Record, with clever editorials enraged many local whites.

On the morning of November 10, whites burned Manly’s press.  News of the blaze quickly spread, and in the streets, whites and blacks confronted each other.  Gunfire soon erupted (both sides claimed the other fired first).  When the smoke cleared and the gunfire ceased, 22 blacks lay dead, leading black and white Republicans had fled the city, and Democrats had regained power.  

What happened in Wilmington, asserts one member of the Commission, “suppressed the political, social, educational and economic development and aspirations of African-Americans in this state for over ninety years.”

To be more comprehensive and accurate, however, the Commission should have studied city directories beyond 1900—especially because Wilmington directories at the turn of the century were published continuously.  If it had done so, the Commission would have found that, despite the exodus of many of its leaders and professionals after the Riot, the African American business community in Wilmington did well.

In 1902, for instance, 25 of 27 eateries were run by blacks, and by 1915, they operated 38 of 39.  The number of black grocers from 1895 to 1915 increased four-fold, and by 1915, black women increasingly started businesses requiring low entrance costs.  This was not new.  From 1885 to 1915, black Wilmingtonians started more businesses and increasingly entered formerly whites-only professions.  These trends extended to the Piedmont, particularly Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Durham.

Although prominent African Americans could still vote in 1901, the passage of poll taxes and literacy tests eliminated a constituency that elected African Americans.  The decrease in African American patronage appointments therefore contributed primarily to the short-term economic setback in Wilmington from 1897 to 1900.

Although after the Riot the location of many black businesses moved from its downtown, Wilmington continued providing “a relatively attractive business environment” for African Americans, writes historian Robert Kenzer in Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915.  Meanwhile, blacks across the state increased “their share of real estate,” and the number of black college graduates increased as enterprising black Southerners ensured that their children had opportunities that they did not.

Although innovative blacks worked in unfair circumstances during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Commission’s assumptions and recommendations reveal a 1960s Revisionist focus on failure instead of an emphasis on black agency and fortitude that reveals how African Americans remarkably achieved success during difficult times.