Charles B. Aycock’s Race Violence Moment

Charles Brantley Aycock

Charles B. Aycock was born of simple beginnings.

His father died when he was young, but his mother and siblings recognized his abilities and sent him off to study. Very early on his abilities as an orator and debater were subsequently acknowledged and he began two overlapping careers — that of an NC attorney and that of a party leader in his home state.

Aycock was undeniably Southern. He grew up in the South, he had two brothers who fought as Confederate soldiers, and he espoused a view of the Southern lifestyle that identified his values and cultural upbringing pretty solidly. He was able to marry his Southern-ness with a deep pride for the Union overall and made speeches in Yankee states. He famously spoke to his Southern pride and pride in the union, in New York in 1901, saying:

“I love the Union and its flag. This country is my country. I am a North Carolinian and you dwell in New York, but we are all citizens of the United States […] but neither you nor others will expect of me to forget the deeds of those who served the South. We shall make no apologies for what has passed in our lives and no promises for the future. We love the heroic deeds of those who have gone before us and who have demonstrated the strength of Southern character. […] We do not stop to ask whether they were right or wrong.”

Aycock had his worldview, and it was something he would never surrender. He was a lifelong Democrat and took office as governor of NC in part due to one of the most brutal and aggressive campaigns of violence and voter intimidation in US history.

I have previously pondered the Red Shirts and similarities to 2016, and want to dive into a bit more on the role of the Red Shirts and Charles Aycock in 1898, one of the bloodiest American elections ever recorded.

November 10, 1898 probably began like most Carolina fall days, but it certainly didn’t end like most. Wilmington, NC, then the largest city in the state, contained a mostly-Black population yet maintained a majority-white legislature.

Daniel L. Russell, a Republican/Populist governor, was elected in the previous election of 1896. His opponent, Alfred Moore Waddill, was an incumbent in the previous cycle and was prepared to overthrow the state government should the election not go in his party’s favor. On day of the elections in 1898, the paramilitary group known as the Red Shirts marched to the polls, often with rifles in hand. The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 began at the polls and swept through much of the city before the completion of the state’s only coup d’etat in a history of over 225 years.

The Red Shirts, who had led parades on horseback as early as a week before Election Day, helped to stir up a supplementary white populace, many of whom were armed and even directly involved in local white militia.

White supremacist thinkers and leaders submitted a list of demands to the local organization of non-white leaders asking that they remove from his station the owner and operator of a local newspaper. This man, Alexander Manly, ran Wilmington’s Daily Record, the only Black-owned newspaper in the state. When the leaders refused to comply, white militiamen came out in a force of almost 1500 armed soldiers, where they burned down the Daily Record’s building and destroyed what equipment was inside.

Anyone who opposed the attack and the ensuing armed violence was run from the town of Wilmington and any local leaders who opposed the coup were forced to resign. Waddell and his secret group of white supremacist leaders filled these new vacancies and began passing discriminatory laws almost immediately. The new state legislature began churning out law after law, successfully bringing Jim Crow to North Carolina, in a city that was comprised mostly of Black residents before the insurrection. Civil rights for these disparaged people would remain nonexistent until the 1960’s. New resurgences of racist politics have come and gone since then, most recently in the form of extremely strict voter ID laws now deemed unconstitutional.

Of course, 1898 NC didn’t come about solely on one morning. The context surrounding the events of the insurrection is pretty telling of the impact of words on a populace. The years that followed show the shameful complicity that many North Carolinians and Charles Aycock had in creating an extremely racist NC government.

The election of 1896 was revolutionary on a few accounts. It was at a time when the populations of Black and white people were nearing equal after a many-decades history of a very majority-Black population. This doesn’t at all mean that positions in the government were in any way representative of the years of Black majority, but a growing white presence may have led to an emboldened white population at the turn of the century.

However, the election of 1896 was marked with an unprecedented new level of cooperation between two left-leaning parties, the Republicans and the Populists. This had been an ongoing trend throughout much of the 1890’s and “Fusion” of the parties to beat the pro-white Democrats of 1896 had nearly been complete. This trend was observed by many white voters in Wilmington, especially Democrats who lost their positions of power over the course of the 1890’s.

Daniel Russell, a white man and long-time Republican, successfully defeated the incumbent Democrat Alfred Moore Waddill in 1896. This was shocking to many Democrats. Daniel Russell was the first Republican to be elected as governor since Reconstruction and immediately set out to reverse some of the Democrat’s recent reforms at the state level.

As can be imagined, the deposed Waddill and other Democratic candidates felt humiliated by the defeat and began to immediately strategize for the following elections, to be held two years later in 1898. This in part involved the creation of a secretive committee of nine. Rather than plan solely for winning an election, this informal committee drew up a contingency plan for what they would do if their party lost the elections in 1898.

Fusionist interest in promoting greater Black participation in government worried many pro-white North Carolinians. In a lot of ways, this promotion was only in rhetoric. Black representation was still predictably abysmal, even amid new interest in progress on ethnic relations.

Josephus Daniels

Josephus Daniels’ Raleigh-based News and Observer used this period of time to fan flames of ethnic tensions in North Carolina. Articles and cartoons in the paper often referenced the town of Wilmington and its partial inclusion of Black representatives in the political process. They explained new progress on race not as movement towards greater equality, but as movement towards“Negro domination”. They ignored the fact that the government was still exceedingly white, even in areas of substantial Black population.

Mixed-race relationships were documented by the News and Observer as ones of sexual attack, and Daniels’ paper encouraged white men to take charge and protect their white women from these attacks. Articles written on this topic by his paper enjoyed wide circulation by white supremacists, many times coupled with calls for violence against the Black community.

The committee of nine, Waddill’s new network of violence-prone white supremacists, and a media environment that was actively anti-Black helped to create both the informal planning infrastructure and societal vitriol requisite for active political violence in North Carolina.

The Daily Record was a newspaper owned by Black professionals in Wilmington. Alexander Manly owned and edited the paper with his brother, Frank G. Manly.

In the later days of the paper’s production in Wilmington, the Manly brothers noticed a really disturbing trend among white papers, of which the News and Observer was just one. As mentioned above, these were primarily attacks against the Black people of the area or the spread of new myths about the black men of North Carolina.

Alexander Manly made a pretty daring decision and ran a quick succession of editorials in his own paper, saying that maybe there were redeeming traits Black men shared that women found attractive. This enraged local racists who would eventually gather in anger around the Manly brothers’ Daily Record.

The Redshirts were a paramilitary group of Southern white supremacists interested in suppressing any vote that aimed to afford greater rights or representation to non-white people. They were known, unsurprisingly, for the red shirts that they wore during their marches and while they stood at the polls, more often than not armed with rifles.

In North Carolina, as with many states that the Redshirts operated in, the militiamen would often have pre-election parades through town on horseback. Wilmington was no different in this regard.

In Wilmington, many of the Redshirts in 1898 were military men who had just returned from the Spanish-American war. Many still carried their service revolvers. Most had used the war as a time to learn greater military tactics, develop networks, and bond with like-minded individuals. The return to Wilmington was not always a return to civilian life, and membership in the Redshirts was a natural evolution for many of these returning soldiers.

The election of 1898 was one of some of the most vile, racist language the US has ever seen. Candidates openly ran on platforms of white supremacy, called for killing Black members of society, or expressed extremely close ties to paramilitary groups like the Redshirts. Some voices spoke louder than others in this regard.

The election of 1898 saw a significant reversal of any racial progress that 1896 afforded the newly-fused Populist and Republican parties, as a lot of the success that Fusion candidates enjoyed just two years prior disappeared. It’s even more shameful that this happened at the end of a pointed rifle and acid tongue.

Even with such significant wins at the ballot box, many white supremacist voters of North Carolina were either unsatisfied or over-prepared. Dissatisfaction seems to be less a factor, as the wins were massive and not at all representative of the communities the elections covered. This increase in white representation above an already slim non-white representative population was an explicit goal of these organizing parties and individuals.

As far as over-preparation goes, it is prescient to recall that the governor deposed in 1996, Waddill’s secret Council of Nine played a role in violent hubris around 1896. They spent two years planning for an eventuality that never happened, yet they refused to accept the victory they had received through the legal means of voting and illegal means of voter intimidation. Instead, these folks — in a lot of ways because of political savvy — took the opportunity to seize upon local unrest and a manufactured grievance to take as much power as they could. This, of course, meant activating a population that was ready to jump to violence against a population that, at that time, would not be able to fight back.

These men (and they were all men) seized on the fervor surrounding the election to silence the voices of any Black folks they could find. It just so happened that Manly’s newspaper was more recently on the minds of the racists, so the paper became an early target.

Initially, white men of Wilmington sent a letter asking for the Daily Record to shut down in response to the articles about mixed couples. Of course, this was only one factor in why these men didn’t like the paper, but it just so happened to be the most recent and easiest excuse to use. The letter was sent to the Committee of Colored Citizens, a council comprised of several prominent Black leaders in Wilmington. When the committee was unable to shut down the Daily Record (or more likely uninterested in closing it), the Redshirts called on all-white militia and gun owners to gather outside of the paper’s HQ to force the brothers to close down.

The crowd started gathering at 7:00 in the morning and grew over the course of the morning. By noon, the crowd was quite large and growing more violent with each passing hour.

The crowd set fire to the building. They reveled in the flames shortly before marching on the rest of the city, seeking out Black citizens to intimidate or kill.

The newspaper articles that detailed in explicit detail white views of Black compatriots played a role in motivating these riots. An eyewitness account describes the armed white men of Wilmington escorting the white women through town to protect them from an invisible, nonexistent enemy. The enemy they were protecting the women from was an enemy they themselves imagined into being. Many of the Black people of Wilmington had fled to the swamps or woods surrounding Wilmington as smoke rose from the burning ruins of the state’s only Black-run and Black-owned newspaper.

The heavy, but not unexpected, irony around escorting the white women to safety was that the danger was created not by the people the white men were “protecting” their women from, but instead by these self-proclaimed “protectors”. They formed a violent mob. Then they decided to save the women from violence.

In addition to Robert Glenn and Alfred Moore Waddill, Charles B. Aycock is mentioned by name in North Carolina’s official 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission as part of the men who could speak.

Surrounding the 1898 election, the white supremacy political movement took a three-fold approach for political action. In a lot of ways, the campaign was ahead of its time: many contemporary political campaigns follow at least a similar model.

In 1898, though, there were three key roles for men to fill: men who could write, men who could speak, and men who could ride.

Men who could write were the men who wrote propaganda for publication in newspapers across North Carolina. They wrote for outlets like Raleigh’s News and Observer and the Charlotte Observer. These men wrote party literature outside of the press, circulated then as modern canvassers circulate current pamphlets. Finally, the men who could write published dozens of anti-Black political cartoons in newspapers across the state, often equating contemporary race relations as a reversal of slavery: with Black masters ruling over a white slave class. It goes without saying that this was a massive stretch of any reality, but the cartoons had more than an insignificant impact.

Men who could speak were the men who possessed an eloquence and public presence conducive to creating a strong verbal narrative around the election. The speakers aimed to inflame an already frustrated white population, and they appear to have done a good job of doing so. Future governor Charles B. Aycock was a member of this tribe of campaigners and his words struck home to startling effect.

Men who could ride were the men willing to join violent white groups to suppress and terrify non-Democrat voters. These were the Redshirts, the White Government Union, and a number of local militias. These men acted as henchmen for the words printed in the press and spoken from the podium. (Here’s hoping that 2016 and forward don’t have a strong contingent of men who could ride.)

I’ve already mentioned the role of both the men who could write in the above discussion of the conflict between the News and Observer and the Daily Record before the election. I’ve also mentioned the role of the men who could ride and the physical violence created by the Redshirts surrounding and following election day in Wilmington. The third group of men who could is where the darker side of Charles B. Aycock’s legacy finds itself.

Before the insurrection was even on the horizon, Aycock called Wilmington “the center of the white supremacy movement”. He played no small role in shaping this narrative.

The Democratic convention of 1898 was held in Raleigh, where Charles B. Aycock had an impact beyond his rank. The head of the party, Furnifold Simmons, helped forward a party platform of fear of “Negro dominion”, bolstered by a long campaign of 410 speaking appointments for the party during the campaign (many of which were speeches made by Aycock). The speeches by men who could speak were heard across the state.

Most historians would agree, as did Mr Simmons, that during these years Aycock was the voice of the NC Democratic Party and thereby the white supremacist movement. He did not run for office in 1898, but did a high level of work towards shaping the rhetoric of the party, especially around race.

On May 12, 1898 in Laurinburg, NC Mr. Aycock made what may have been his most famous speech. The speech preceeded the Democratic convention and he used it as a keynote on white supremacy in the state. The speech was magnificiently effective and Mr. Aycock was in turn rewarded with an extremely easy election in 1900 as governor of NC.

Thank you for reading the first excerpt of a three-part series on Charles B. Aycock’s mixed legacy.

Here is the second part, about Charles B Aycock’s radical education policy.

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