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123 years later, victims of the Wilmington Massacre are remembered

Published: Nov. 10, 2021 at 6:50 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - On this day, 123 years ago, historians estimate that between 60 and 100 people were racially targeted and murdered in Wilmington in what they call the only known, successful coup d’état in United States history.

So, why are many North Carolinians unaware of the details of this historic event?

ECU historian Dr. Karin Zipf says it wasn’t until college that she, a North Carolina native, even heard about the horrors of November 10, 1898.

“I was shocked. This was such a huge thing in North Carolina history and nobody ever talked about it,” said Zipf, “and what teaching the Wilmington coup does is it unearths and reveals the damaging effect of white supremacy.”

After the election year of 1898, biracial fusionists were elected into government. In response, Alfred Waddell led a ‘Take Back the City’ campaign rooted in white supremacy and racism.

Waddell led a mob of 2,000 others that took to the streets of Wilmington; they set fires, destroyed black businesses, and murdered crowds of innocent people fleeing for their lives.

“Those families then went off into the cemetery and huddled in that cemetery around their dead in order to escape the terror of the mob,” said Zipf.

But the violence did not stop there.

Waddell then gathered a crew of men to disrupt the aldermen in an emergency council meeting and complete what is said to be the only occurrence of its kind in American history: a successful coup.

Waddell and his men held the aldermen at gunpoint, forcing their resignations from power. They then transitioned that governmental seat to themselves, finishing their hijacking with a “vote” to make Waddell the new mayor of Wilmington.

Over a century later, archeologists work to uncover and identify the remains of the victims. This is work that Dr. Charles Ewen of ECU’s Department of Anthropology is very familiar with.

“We can tell by archeological methods how the person was, what sex they were, sometimes what race they were,” said Ewen. “Then, you can go back to the historical record and see who that might match up with.”

This year, the remains of Joshua Halsey, a target of the mob’s attack, were identified. On Saturday, he was given a proper burial and funeral.

The city of Wilmington dedicated a memorial structure and public park to the memory of the massacre’s victims in 2008. Each year, they host commemorative events to educate more people.

“And now, it’s not common knowledge,” said Zipf, “but I think a lot more people know about it than previously.”

An assumption she hopes only grows to reach more people as the anniversaries continue.

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