The 1898 Wilmington Massacre Is an Essential Lesson in How State Violence Has Targeted Black AmericansRoundup
tags: racism, North Carolina, Police, White Supremacy
David Zucchino is the author of "Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy." He is also a contributing writer for The New York Times. He has covered wars and civil conflicts in more than two dozen countries.
In the summer of 1865, just after the Civil War, Union commanders in the battered port city of Wilmington, N.C., appointed a former Confederate general as police chief and former Confederate soldiers as policemen.
The all-white force immediately set upon newly freed Black people. Men, women and children were beaten, clubbed and whipped indiscriminately. A Union officer with the Freedmen’s Bureau maintained a ledger of daily police assaults: A Black man whipped 72 times. A Black woman dragged for two miles with a rope around her neck. A Black man, “his back all raw,” beaten by police with a buggy trace.
“The policemen are the hardest and most brutal looking and acting set of civil or municipal officers I ever saw. All look bad and vicious,” the Union officer reported.
For generations, police and other white authority figures have perpetuated white supremacy and privilege by assaulting Black Americans. Slave patrols were an early form of policing. White police enforced racist post-Civil War Black Code laws and 20th century Jim Crow segregation. They tolerated, and sometimes participated in, lynchings of Black men.
Today, the image of a white police officer in Minneapolis pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for mercy has opened a window on America’s unbroken history of brutality against African-Americans by white men in uniform.
One of the most terrifying examples erupted more than a century ago, when white supremacist soldiers and police helped hunt down and kill at least 60 Black men in Wilmington in 1898. The murders were part of a carefully orchestrated coup that toppled a multi-racial government in the South’s most progressive Black-majority city.
Like many police assaults against Black people in American history, the goal was more than just punishment and humiliation. It was to prevent black citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. Today, as American celebrates Independence Day it is an opportune moment to reflect on America’s troubled racial history and how to move forward.
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