In early June 2020, a screenshot of the following tweet was shared to Facebook; the original tweet asked students in North Carolina to retweet if they hadn’t learned about the “Wilmington Massacre” in history classes:
The tweet and a second comment by the same user read:
N.C. STUDENTS (or honestly any state) rt if you did NOT learn about “The Wilmington Massacre” in school. A group of white men burned down the only black owned newspaper in Wilmy & murdered hundreds. When they threw the bodies in the cape fear river it ran red with blood for days.
This is vital history. I had never even heard of this until a year after I graduated high school. Education is VITAL the TRUTH is vital.
Shares of the tweet on both Twitter and Facebook appeared to indicate that users — from North Carolina or elsewhere — had not learned about a Wilmington Massacre in school. A separate commenter on the thread indicated they too had tweeted about it:
That thread included roughly 32 tweets from @MrHolmesToYou about a series of events in Wilmington in 1898. A commenter on that thread also mentioned the river, but not in an identical context:
The Wilmington Massacre of 1898
NCpedia (“coordinated and managed by the North Carolina Government & Heritage Library at the State Library of North Carolina, a part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources”) featured a detailed entry on the events described in the tweets.
According to that entry, the Wilmington Massacre occurred after an anti-lynching editorial was published by the black-owned and edited Wilmington Daily Record on August 19 1898. NCPedia referenced the content of the editorial as central to the subsequent dispute:
The Wilmington Race Riot of [November 10] 1898 constituted the most serious incident of racial violence in the history of North Carolina. It has been variously called a revolution, a race war, and more accurately a coup d’état. The outbreak stemmed from an editorial published on 18 Aug. 1898 by the Wilmington Daily Record, an African American newspaper edited by Alexander Manly. In response to an appeal for the lynching of black rapists made by crusader Rebecca Felton in Georgia on 11 Aug. 1897, Manly wrote that white women “are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women.”
Moreover, Manly argued, many accusations of rape were simply cases where a black man was having an affair with a white woman. Because it involved the sensitive issue of interracial sexual relations, the editorial struck a raw nerve with many whites and led to bitter denunciations of Manly in the Democratic press.
NCPedia described how a group of white supremacists were engaged in attempts to “regain control” of North Carolina’s government, and that the underlying dispute was “racially inflammatory”:
The entire thrust of the white supremacy campaign, in which the Democrats were attempting to regain control of state government, had been racially inflammatory. It was no surprise that after the Democrats, bolstered by bands of armed Red Shirts, overturned Republican-Populist Fusionist control of the state in the 8 November  election, the Wilmington Democratic Party leadership decided to discipline Manly and take over the city administration.
Two days after the election, Manly and the newspaper were ordered to leave town. Manly had already left Wilmington, though, and a “white mob” attacked and burned the offices of the Daily Record:
An order was issued under the name of Alfred M. Waddell, a former congressman and the Democratic candidate for mayor, that editor Manly leave the city with his press and inform Waddell of the action by 7:30 a.m. on 10 November . Unfortunately, Manly had already left Wilmington and the response by local black leaders to Waddell’s ultimatum did not reach him in time to forestall the subsequent violence.
A white mob of 400-500 people marched on the Daily Record office, smashed the press, and burned down the building. The rioters delayed a black fire company long enough to ensure destruction of the property. Thereafter white bands roamed the city, hunting down Fusionists and indiscriminately shooting into neighborhoods believed to be black political strongholds. Many African Americans fled to the forest outside of town. Waddell, backed by armed men, demanded and received the resignation of the entire city board of aldermen, including Republican mayor Silas P. Wright. Waddell immediately took over as mayor and appointed Democratic aldermen.
The Dubious Distinction of the First American ‘Race Riot’
In December 2014, a Yahoo! article about then-current unrest referenced the Wilmington Massacre as the first “race riot” formally identified as such in American history:
The word “riot” has a long and complicated history in the United States. According to scholar Ben Railton, the origins of the term as applied to racialized unrest date back to November 1898, when white residents of Wilmington, North Carolina brutalized members of the city’s black community. Weeks later, says Railton, “Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate officer and one of the supremacist leaders, wrote ‘The Story of the Wilmington, N.C., Race Riots’ for the popular publication Collier’s. Waddell’s story, accompanied by H. Ditzler’s cover illustration of marauding armed African Americans, led to the designation of the coup and massacre as a ‘race riot,’ a description that has continued to this day.”
Did the Cape Fear River Run Red with Blood for Days?
A particularly evocative portion of the tweet suggested that following the white supremacists’ destruction of the paper, the Cape Fear River “ran red with blood for days.” A 2016 New Yorker article touched on the possible origin of that element of the story, as well as the very approximate death toll of the events of November 10 1898 in Wilmington:
On November 10, 1898, a coup d’état took place on United States soil. It was perpetrated by a gang of white-supremacist Democrats in Wilmington, North Carolina, who were intent on reclaiming power from the recently elected, biracial Republican government, even if, as one of the leaders vowed, “we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” They had a Colt machine gun capable of firing four hundred and twenty .23-calibre bullets a minute. They had the local élite and the press on their side. By the end of the day, they had killed somewhere between fourteen and sixty black men and banished twenty more, meanwhile forcing the mayor, the police chief, and the members of the board of aldermen to resign.
At the end of the article, the author described a memorial erected in Wilmington and the discrepancy between the few records and oral histories of the Wilmington Massacre:
… six paddle-shaped bronze pillars were arranged in a semicircle. They were a monument, conceived of by a committee of local citizens, for the centennial of the coup. “At least ten blacks died, scores more, according to African-American oral tradition,” a panel explained. “Wilmington’s 1898 racial violence was not accidental. It began a successful statewide Democratic campaign to regain control of the state government, disenfranchise African-Americans, and create a legal system of segregation which persisted into the second half of the twentieth century.” Nearby, someone had nailed a piece of plywood high on a telephone pole. Against a hot, blue sky one could just make out the stencilled message: “1898 war crime.”
Wadell was widely quoted as frequently threatening [PDF] to choke the river with dead black residents in the lead-up to the massacre:
Waddell packed an auditorium in Wilmington early in the fall of 1898, where he shared the stage with 50 of the city’s most prominent citizens. White supremacy, he declared, was the sole issue and traitors to the white race should be held accountable. “I do not hesitate to say this publicly,” Waddell proclaimed, “that if a race conflict occurs in North Carolina, the very first men that ought to be held to account are the white leaders of the Negroes who will be chiefly responsible for it. … I mean the governor of this state who is the engineer of all the deviltry.” But his fiery closing, which became the tag line of his standard stump speech that fall, made clear that blacks would bear the brunt of the violence. “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes,” Waddell thundered, “even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
Waddell set the tone and electrified the crowd with his promise to throw enough black bodies into the Cape Fear River to block its passage to the sea.
Decades later, the sentiment persisted in memory and among stated accounts of the Wilmington Massacre; the author of the above-quoted piece noted that “an African-American woman told my father, the Rev. Vernon C. Tyson, ‘They say that river was full of black bodies.'”
In the same article about the Wilmington Massacre, its author’s lament remained eerily applicable:
More than a century later, it is clear that the white supremacy campaign of 1898 injected a vicious racial ideology into American political culture that we have yet to transcend fully. Our separate and unequal lives attest to the fact, though much has changed for the better and a a few things have changed for the worse.
But if 1898 has saddled us with its legacy, it also suggests how we might overcome it. Its central lesson is this: Human beings make history. So the mistakes that North Carolinians made in 1898 can be overcome, if we choose.
More Buried History
In the tweet, its author presented the Wilmington Massacre as something not taught in history classes, asking for retweets from people who didn’t learn about the event in school.
We’ve seen similar, accurate claims about concurrent white supremacist violence in the United States, such as “race riots” in Tulsa; on that page, we noted that a commission was formed in the year 2000 to ensure the event was not lost to history:
The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ page “1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission” provides a depressingly similar account of efforts more than a century after the fact to ensure the story was not in fact effectively buried by failure to keep records or attempts to bury the violent events in Wilmington.
That description held that a “white mob seized the reins of government” in Wilmington, “destroyed the black-owned newspaper,” and terrorized the black community:
The events of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington were a turning point in North Carolina history. By force, a white mob seized the reins of government in the port city and, in so doing, destroyed the local black-owned newspaper office and terrorized the African American community.
In the months thereafter, political upheaval resulted across the state and legal restrictions were placed on the right of blacks to vote. The era of “Jim Crow,” one of legal segregation not to end until the 1960s, had begun.
Understanding the Impact
In 2000, the General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to develop a historical record of the event and to assess the economic impact of the riot on African Americans locally and across the region and state. Building on earlier scholarly, the commission held public hearings and conducted detailed analyses of the written record, both primary and secondary sources, to create a thorough, 500-page report that sought to achieve the aims outlined above.
A final report was released in May 2006. As such, it stood to reason a lot of people on Twitter likely did not learn about the Wilmington Massacre in history classes, as the history of the massacre was suppressed.
In that tweet, the original poster asked others to retweet if they “did NOT learn about ‘The Wilmington Massacre’ in school,” adding that “a group of white men burned down the only black owned newspaper” in Wilmington, “murdered hundreds,” and that “the cape fear river it ran red with blood for days.” It was true the Wilmington Massacre was underrepresented in history until around 2006, the true death toll was not known, and while we were unable to substantiate claims the Cape Fear River ran red for days, it is a matter of record that white supremacist agitators repeatedly threatened to “choke” it with black bodies.