The Only Instance of a Municipal Government Being Overthrown in United States History

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A Brief History

November 10, 1898 marks the beginning of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the only instance of a municipal government being overthrown in United States history!

Digging Deeper

More famous events such as the Whiskey Insurrection (also known as the Whiskey Rebellion) of 1791 tend to receive greater coverage in history textbooks than what occurred in Wilmington in 1898.  Nevertheless, as noted above, the Wilmington Insurrection has a unique place in American history, because these rebels actually successfully overthrew their legitimately elected government, whereas just about anything else dubbed an “insurrection” in American history (not counting the American Revolution, of course!) was eventually crushed by the federal government.

Although 1898 was roughly three decades removed from the end of the American Civil War, racial tensions remained high in the United States, especially in the South.  In that year, a white mayor and biracial city council were elected in Wilmington, North Carolina.  Certain North Carolina Democrats saw this multiracial government as a sign of potential “Negro Domination”.  Although today, we may identify the Democratic Party as the party with which African-Americans predominately identify (after all, that is the party of the country’s first black president), it was far from the case in the nineteenth century.  As such, white supremacists from the Democratic Party plotted to replace the newly elected government by just about any means they deemed necessary.

To do so, they decided to illegally seize power from the elected government by force, with over 1,500 white men uniting to burn down a Black owned  newspaper building and run officials and community leaders out of the city.  The attacks soon grew out of control with Black neighborhoods being destroyed and an unknown number of African-Americans, numbering at least six, but perhaps as many as a hundred, dying amidst the violence.  Other authorities in North Carolina proved incapable or unwilling to defeat the Wilmington white supremacists.  Moreover, despite appeals to then President McKinley for federal assistance, he flat out ignored these requests.  As a result, the white supremacists successfully compelled over 2,000 Black Wilmingtonians to permanently depart the city, changing it from majority-Black to majority-White.  The White supremacists also forced the White Republican mayor and the rest of the council to resign.  For their new mayor, the insurrectionists chose the leader of the White supremacists who had launched the insurrection.  That man, Alfred Moore Waddell, formerly a lieutenant colonel for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, remained in office as mayor of Wilmington until 1905.

Question for students (and subscribers): Can you imagine a scenario in which a municipal government in the U.S. might be overthrown today?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more on North Carolina’s racial troubles during this era, we recommend the following book:

Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth.  Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Gender and American Culture).  The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of armed rioters in front of the burned-down “Record” press building during the Wilmington, N.C. race riot, 1898, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.  This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.


About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.