Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. An hour or two after the AP called the election.
Category: American history
Notebook: The Wilmington Coup of 1898
“City Limits,” my review-essay about a white supremacist coup that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, is published in the 27 April 2020 issue of The New Yorker. The online title is “What a White-Supremacist Coup Looks Like.”
What follows is a bibliographic supplement, crediting some of the sources I drew on. It probably won’t make much sense unless you read the review itself first!
As always, my first debt is to the book under review, David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. It’s the capstone to more than a century of attempts to bring the coup into America’s consciousness.
As I mention in my article, two of the earliest such attempts were novels by African Americans. Hanover; or, the Persecution of the Lowly was written by David Bryant Fulton, under the pen-name Jack Thorne, and was published in 1900. There’s an electronic text in the online archive Documenting the American South, though I found the scan in the Internet Archive easier to make sense of. (By the way, I’m mad at the Internet Archive right now for using the pandemic as a pretext for giving away the copyright of living authors, even though I appreciate their hosting of scans of 120-year-old books.) Hanover is a fascinating but unstable text. It opens by reprinting an Associated Press news story, and Fulton doesn’t seem to have been able to decide whether he wanted his book to be fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes a person appears in one chapter as himself, under his real name, and in another as a fictional character, under a pseudonym.
Intriguing side note #1: Fulton up-ends the late-19th-century literary conventions for dialect: uneducated black characters speak in dialect, as they often do in novels of the period, but so do some uneducated white ones. “Who ish mine frients?” asks a German grocer, for example, who, as it happens, sides with the blacks in Wilmington, since they’re his customers. The racist “poor white” Teck Pervis, who seems to be a fictionalized version of the real-life white supremacist Mike Dowling, is given a gerbilly, nasal way of speaking that reminded me of the satire of “white voice” in the recent movies Blackkklansman and Sorry to Bother You. Intriguing side note #2: Fulton hints that there’s something unorthodox about the gender identity of one of his characters, Uncle Guy, a dancer and clarinet soloist in a shoo-fly band that used to play during the black post-Christmas holiday known as Jonkonnu: “he was the embodiment of neatness, feminine in build—it seemed that nature intended to form a woman instead of a man,” Fulton writes.
The second novel about Wilmington in 1898, Charles W. Chesnutt’s novel about Wilmington, The Marrow of Tradition, published in 1901, is better known today. There’s a Library of America volume for Chesnutt, and the Norton edition of Marrow has a great historical supplement in back. Chesnutt’s book has a more conventional novelistic shape and heft. It may conform a little too well to convention; the creaking is audible as the machinery of the love-plot grinds forward, and a child in peril is introduced to force the reconciliation of people who in real life would probably have been irreconcilable. Like Fulton, Chesnutt is at pains to give an accurate representation about the outrage that enveloped the Daily Record, the African American newspaper in Wilmington, after its editor, Alex Manly, breached taboo by writing about white women’s sexuality. In fact, sexual purity wasn’t the point, Chesnutt writes: “A peg was needed upon which to hang a coup d’état.” Instead of attempting a full representation of the racial violence that broke out in the city, Chesnutt draws an em dash and makes an aposiopesis: after noting that on the day of the massacre, armed whites challenged and searched every black they met on the street, he writes, “If he resisted any demand of those who halted him—but the records of the day are historical.” There are too many scholarly articles about Chesnutt to list here! Richard Yarborough compares Fulton’s and Chesnutt’s fictionalizations (and provides keys that identify the real-life figures behind the characters) in a chapter titled “Violence, Manhood, and Black Heroism,” in David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson, eds., Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (University of North Carolina, 1998).
As I note in my article, the third book-length fictionalization of the coup was a white supremacist one, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Leopard’s Spots, published in 1902. It’s best-seller garbage, not to put to fine a point on it—a pure indulgence of resentment and grandiosity. Here’s a solid if dated article about it: Maxwell Bloomfield, “The Leopard’s Spots: A Study in Popular Racism,” American Quarterly 16 (1964): 387–401.
I’m going to jump ahead now to the scholars and other writers who recovered the historical memory. In The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1951, Helen G. Edmonds comes across as a patient, commonsensical person with a sly sense of humor; a reader imagines her armed with a small pick, chipping away steadily at white supremacist gunk that has hardened over the facts. In We Have Taken a City: Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898, published by Fairleigh Dickinson Press in 1984, H. Leon Prather Sr. painted the conflict in brighter colors and with a looser hand, perhaps because he was writing after the civil rights movement. (Prather’s book seems to be out of print, but you can find used copies pretty easily.) There are a number of useful essays in the Democracy Betrayed anthology mentioned just above, especially Glenda E. Gilmore’s “Murder, Memory, and the Flight of the Incubus” and Michael Honey’s “Class, Race, and Power in the New South.” I’ve come to believe that for every important historical subject, there’s an indispensable dissertation that should have become an acclaimed book but for some reason never did. In this case, that dissertation is Jerome A. McDuffie’s “Politics in Wilmington and New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1865–1900: The Genesis of a Race Riot,” written for his 1979 degree at Kent State University. The novelist Philip Gerard reimagined the coup and massacre in his 1994 novel Cape Fear Rising (John F. Blair). In an essay titled “Revising the Revisionists,” published on the website the Rumpus, Gerard was interviewed about the role that his novel played in Wilmington’s recovery of its historical memory. The interviewer was one of his students, the novelist Johannes Lichtman (disclosure: a friend, after I raved about his novel Such Good Work in a newsletter last year). Gerard himself wrote about his research process and the ethical questions he wrestled with in “The Novelist of History: Using the Techniques of Fiction to Illuminate the Past,” North Carolina Literary Review, 2015. The original 2006 report of North Carolina’s official investigation into the coup is available for download; LeRae Sikes Umfleet streamlined and revised this report into the 2009 book A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, published by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. It’s copiously illustrated with maps and photos. Don’t be thrown by the format, which makes it look like a high school social studies workbook; it’s perhaps the most thorough treatment of the coup, even if Zucchino’s has a bit more narrative zing. Not long after North Carolina’s report was released in 2006, the Raleigh News & Observer published a reckoning with its own legacy of participation in the ordeal, “The Ghosts of 1898,” by Timothy B. Tyson.
A number of the primary sources unearthed by these scholars are now available online, thanks to several web projects. In 2007, the curator Nicholas Graham published “The 1898 Election in North Carolina,” an online exhibition for the University of North Carolina libraries, where you can find, for example, the Democratic Handbook 1898, which put in writing the party’s white supremacist platform that year, and racist political cartoons by Norman E. Jennett, also known as Sampson Huckleberry, that Josephus Daniels published in the Raleigh News & Observer, including the one of a black vampire that I mention in my article. For more on the cartoons, see Andrea Meryl Kirshenbaum’s article “The Vampire That Hovers Over North Carolina: Gender, White Supremacy, and the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898,” Southern Cultures (1998), and Rachel Marie-Crane Williams’s ” A War in Black and White: The Cartoons of Norman Ethre Jennett & the North Carolina Election of 1898,” Southern Cultures (2013).
Also in 2007, Karin L. Zipf put together the website “Politics of a Massacre: Discovering Wilmington 1898,” hosted by East Carolina University, where you can find in the bibliography section a scan of “The Story of the Wilmington Rebellion,” the perhaps somewhat inadvertently revealing pamphlet that the volunteer white supremacist historian Harry Hayden self-published in 1936, as well as a 1954 typescript by Hayden titled “The Wilmington Light Infantry Memorial,” about the state guard troops involved in the massacre and coup (the site’s internal link to Hayden’s history of the W.L.I. is broken, so use my link here). Zipf’s site also links to “A Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, N. C. Of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States,” the Baptist preacher J. Allen Kirk’s narrative of hiding his wife and niece in a cemetery after the massacre and dodging lynchers as he fled Wilmington by train (though the text is hosted by UNC’s Documenting the American South).
In 2012, the Cape Fear Museum of Science and History shared on Flickr a set of images related to the Wilmington coup, including a four-page letter that Caroline “Carrie” Sadgwar Manly, widow of the Daily Record newspaper editor Alexander Manly, wrote to her children in 1954, describing how her late husband escaped from Wilmington after white supremacists made one of his editorials the pretext for a massacre. The museum later shared on its own website a scrapbook of newspaper clippings given by the Manly family.
A couple of other primary sources: I quote a Democratic newspaperman who recalled in his memoirs that the whites in Wilmington had prepared for the coup six to twelve months prior to pulling it off. His name was Thomas Clawson, and the typescript of his memoir is available in the online finding aid to his papers at the University of North Carolina. I also quote a Populist who joked that everyone believed the rumors of a black uprising except those who invented it; his name was Benjamin F. Keith, and his memoirs, published in 1922, are online at the Internet Archive.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Third Person Project, founded by the writers and history buffs John Jeremiah Sullivan, Joel Finsel, and Trey Morehouse, recruited a group of eighth graders to track down as many surviving copies of Manly’s Daily Record as they could find. Thanks to their detective work, seven issues are now online at the website Digital NC, which is hosted by the Cape Fear Museum, UNC–Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The Third Person Project went on to hunt through other surviving 19th-century newspapers for articles and squibs that had been reprinted from Manly’s Daily, and then put together what they call a “Remnants Issue” of these shored-up fragments. Sullivan (disclosure: another friend, in this case of long standing) also wrote about the Wilmington coup in his recent New Yorker profile of the folk singer Rhiannon Giddens.
Last but not least, the story of the revival of awareness of the coup and massacre in Wilmington today is traced by Lichtman in the article linked above, and also in Melton Alonza McLaurin’s article “Commemorating Wilmington’s Racial Violence of 1898: From Individual to Collective Memory,” Southern Cultures (2000).
One of our neighbors, a retired union organizer who happens to be 101 years old, has a son who goes by the name Sparrow, and at a party in our building, a few months ago—in the before time, back when there were parties—Sparrow, who is a poet, gave me a copy of his new novel, Abraham.
Reading it was effortless, like eating my way through a bag of candy. (That’s the highest compliment one can pay a work of literature now, isn’t it—comparing it to something bad for you.) Abraham has absolutely no plot. The reader is told at the outset that the book is the diary of a chiropractor in upstate New York with an unmotivatedly eccentric way of recording the date and time. But as little as possible is made of this premise. To the best of my recollection, the chiropractor never mentions his chiropractice, and although he has a wife and a four-year-old son, they are rarely more than conceptual, serving mostly to represent the idea of a wife and the idea of a son. The only real, full presence is the diarist’s voice, which is to say Sparrow’s—a witty innocent, a deadpan enthusiast—and this is enough. It’s the voice of a dedicated talker, of someone who knows almost too well how to entertain himself with talk.
He happens to be obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. He reads whatever he comes across that mentions Lincoln: biographies, children’s books, websites, ads for TV shows, the Time magazine Civil War issue. (I wondered, once or twice, whether I might have inadvertently contributed to this indiscriminate mix, because, as a reviewer who can’t read everything he’s sent, I leave galleys of American history books in the lobby of our building every so often. Maybe Sparrow picked one up while visiting his parents?) And he takes everything he reads with the same seriousness, which is to say, with an indifference to winnowing that is inimical to the methods and ends of scholarly history and biography—impishly, deliberately indifferent, one suspects, and no less entertaining for that. I, for one, don’t think it’s likely that Lincoln had homosexual experiences or suffered from clinical depression, but homosexuality and depression are common elements these days in popular representations of Lincoln, and though Sparrow’s diarist registers some doubts when he first encounters them, he soon loses track of his doubts, and wanders into, for example, speculation about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln having been lovers. Which would be maddening if one were reading Abraham as history. But it’s not—not any more than it’s a novel. I think its genre is written talk. It reminds me of Boswell’s account of Johnson. Or maybe a Donald Barthelme spoof of Boswell’s account of Johnson. Or maybe it’s like Enter Isabel, the epistolary dialogue about Melville that Clare L. Spark had with the novelist Paul Metcalf, who was Melville’s great-grandson.
There’s lovely writing in Abraham. This simile, for example, took my breath away:
A tree fell over in the woods behind my house in March, but its buds are opening anyway, just like a drunk who collapses onto the floor of a barroom and continues his conversation, unaware that he’s horizontal.
As did this one:
I thought the chicory was all gone, but Grange [the narrator’s son] and I found two plants today, gleaming like the hard blue eyes of an 82-year-old sculptor.
And there are sharp ideas, like this insight: “One reason wars are periodic is that warmongers must wait a generation for memories of the last slaughter to fade.” Or the suggestion that “the poor are often more erudite than the rich” because “the affluent can afford the latest mediocre novels—in hardcover!—while the poor must content themselves with Milton, Shakespeare, Cervantes,” in used paperbacks.
It’s tempting just to keep quoting. But I’ll quote just one more, a diary entry of the chiropractor’s that is more or less an apologia, I think, for what Sparrow is up to:
Rereading this journal, I am embarrassed how unserious it is: summaries of comic books, facts from the New York Times Book Review, amateur sonnets.
But history is a collection of fragments. The jumble in an antique shop—paintings without titles, greenish vases, aging photographs, a book with a half-illegible name inscribed, slightly moldy quilts—that’s history, before it’s been domesticated by historians.
Letter from my sofa
Over breakfast, Peter looked up from the paper to tell me that the New York Times has a word for what I do all day: “doomsurfing.” The trouble is that it’s hard to look away from a threat. Over the last few years, I have had bouts of being able to stay off social media that have lasted sometimes for months at a time, but in danger my instinct is to look at the danger, and after being stuck in the apartment for a week and a half, I can’t resist even a polluted conduit to friends and acquaintances. To judge by anguished emails from friends, I’m not the only person with this affliction. I suspect that writers are by inclination unusually susceptible to it.
“I need you to be on the team,” Peter said to me, an hour or two ago, when I interrupted his workday to tell him that Trump was bound to fire Fauci in a few days, if an interview that Fauci gave to Science magazine is any indication. Peter was repeating a sentence that I, insufferably, had said to him a few days earlier, when it had been his turn to spiral into anxiety. Another thing I’ve been hearing, in emails and in conversations with fellow dog walkers, is that longterm couples are having fights. Monogamy isn’t a strong enough word for the new cohabitation. On Saturday, Peter and I had a tiff because I wanted to take a long bike ride, and he felt he ought to go on it with me even though he’s not a fan of outer-borough biking. Halfway down Coney Island Avenue, we arrived the hard way at the realization that if we’re with each other 24/7, there’s no need for us to treat weekends as a special province of togetherness; it’s okay to do our own things.
Last week, when the mayor finally got around to advising people to stay in, I had the idea of writing a post on this blog that was going to say, Hey, guys, as a writer, I’ve been living the social distancing life for years, persisting for days and days without talking to anyone but husband and dog, and I think I should warn you. I didn’t, though, because the warning was just going to be depressing, namely, that after a few days of not seeing anyone but your significant other, you start to wonder what the point of your existence is, and to take irregularly timed naps, and to swing out into distant extravagances of mood. When you share physical space with groups of other people, you use them to keep your balance, and they use you to keep theirs, without anyone even necessarily being conscious of the use. A significant other goes a long way toward helping keep one’s balance but not far enough. One seems to need contact with a number of people sufficiently large to allow one to touch a kind of impersonality in person form. Joining a Cross Fit gym last fall helped give me this kind of regular challenging contact with other people, in a group that was structured but not controlled, but the city closed all gyms last Monday. I was probably the only person in New York City who sympathized with Mayor De Blasio’s profligate decision to go for one last workout. Online classes have been enjoyable but not quite the same. The separate physical space of the class provided a social affordance for slightly antisocial impulses, like showing off and competitiveness, a permission not quite extended when one is watching and repeating the movements from inside one’s domestic space. Over the years, I learned to recognize the early warning signs of too much isolation: irritability, weepiness, paranoid thinking. This tweet is really about me and it pisses me off and omg I think I’m going to cry! Now that I’ve shared what I know about the hazards of social distance, you see why I didn’t want to tell you: I don’t have a remedy. My remedy was always: you’re getting both squirrelly and dour, Caleb, which means it’s time to make plans to meet other people face-to-face. This weekend everybody suddenly seemed to be using the telephone again; maybe the phone will be a resource, and I for one am willing to give teleconferencing a try. But it’s possible that we’re all just going to have to suffer for a while, in separate cells. That’s going to suck.
We are social animals. Even in our isolations, everyone seems to be taking the same steps further into isolation at roughly the same time. There was the day when the directive to stay home made it hard to find alternate side parking because everyone was home and was on the spot to zip into the available parking spots. And then there was the day when it was easy, because everyone with a country house had absconded to it. “Love ya!” a neighbor shouted to me, yesterday morning, as she took the stairs instead of sharing the elevator with me, because yesterday was the day that everyone decided not to share the elevator anymore. It was also the day that strangers became wary of petting our dog. Just as a couple of days before was the day when it became not optional but required to wipe down the grocery cart handle.
I should end this post by making it clear that I understand sheltering in place to be as necessary as it is difficult. A friend who’s a young doctor, running a COVID-19 unit at a hospital in the city, wrote to me in an email yesterday: “Please do be very careful—I know that anecdote is not data and that I’m seeing precisely the worst cases, but I’ve just seen far too many intubations of otherwise healthy people over the past couple weeks, including some younger than me.” Another friend relays that a doctor-friend of his called last night to say that work in a hospital now feels like service in wartime. Confinement to the sofa may be durance vile, but it is the least that those of us not on the front lines can do.
What was the (New) York shilling?
Last night I was doing some Swedish death cleaning of old emails, as one does, and found that way back in 2006, when I was still attempting to write a book of New York history, I asked a listserv if anyone knew what was meant by a “shilling” in New York in the early 19th century. Then, about a month later, I reported back an answer. I gave up on that book of New York history long ago (and wrote Necessary Errors instead, and even returned the advance for the history book, which, I know, no one does), but at least to me as someone who today no longer knows much of anything about New York history, the answer I came up with looks impressively thorough and seems worth archiving. So here it is, for any googlers who need to know… (I have updated the links, all of which had died, but otherwise have left my 2006 answer more or less undisturbed by time.)
I wonder if any of you might be able to help me out with a numismatical question, or to point me in the direction of the answer. What was a “shilling” in New York City in the 1840s/1850s? I had thought it was just a way of saying 12.5 cents, and didn’t refer to an actual coin, but I’ve found an account of someone having his shilling engraved and framed (in the spirit that merchants today sometimes display above their cash registers the first dollar they ever took in). Any suggestions will be appreciated.
Thanks to everyone on the list who has helped out with the mystery of the New York shilling. It turns out the currency and coinage in the U.S. before the Civil War is a great big mess, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer. But the emerging consensus seems to be that the New York shilling, or “York shilling,” was worth about 12.5 U.S. cents between the 1830s and 1850s, but that the actual coin referred to was a Spanish (or Latin American) real. There were eight reales in a Spanish dollar; thus the nickname for Spanish dollars, “pieces of eight.” (This would also explain the slang reference to a quarter as “two bits,” i.e., two reales, or two York shillings.) Frank Anderson found a picture of a Spanish real that circulated in New York, in the American Numismatic Society website.
The York shilling does not seem to have been equivalent to the English shilling or to the Canadian shilling. For example, in William Chambers’s Things as They Are in America (1854), the Astor Hotel is said to cost $2.50 a day, or “10s. English,” so it looks like an English shilling = 25¢. According to an 1834 guide for emigrants to Canada (Official Information for Emigrants, Arriving at New York and who are desirous of Settling in the Canadas, 5 Canadian shillings = 8 York shillings = US$1 = 4s 6d English money. (Of course, the exchange rate varied over time.)
Just as there were twelve English pence in an English shilling, there seem to have been twelve pence in a York shilling, making pence in New York almost equivalent to U.S. cents (12 N.Y. pence = 12.5¢). There’s an example of calculating in York shillings and pence in George G. Foster’s New York in Slices (1848). A waiter tallies up “Clamsoup sixpnce, rosebeef large, shilln, roastchikn eighteen, extra bread three, butter sixpnce, pickle sixpnce, pudn sixpnce, cheese three, claret two shilln,” and arrives at the sum of “seven shilln.” By a little primitive algebra, this means that 3 shillings + 48 pence = 7 shillings, and thus one York shilling is worth 12 pence. (Note that the pence in question would not be equivalent to English pence, which, like English shillings, would be roughly twice as valuable as the New York version.)
It seems hard to say for how long or how widely this meaning of a York shilling (i.e., 12.5¢, in the form of a Spanish coin) obtained. In the 1855 novel The Modern Othello, a young Irish boy in a morning of re-selling newspapers earns “50 cents, an one shillin’ an’ two fips,” which he later gives to his mother, saying, “There’s the 6 shillin’ an’ the two fips mother.” A “fip” seems to be a nickel; in any case, by his math, a shilling is worth only 10¢. Perhaps the value of a York shilling declined in the 1850s? Or maybe the novelist simply wasn’t much good at math. This is already more than I needed to know about New York coinage, so I’ll leave that mystery to other investigators. Thanks again to all who sent me advice and clues.