Speaking of a monument erected in Richmond to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Mr. Mitchell said that it would “ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.” He foresaw more than a century ago that this and other monuments to white supremacy might not stand in perpetuity. Speaking of the African American labor used to erect monuments, he said of the Black man, “He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.”
Mr. Mitchell and his Virginia contemporaries were no doubt watching when the white press in North Carolina began to campaign for the interracial government of Wilmington to be overthrown. On the eve of the coup, the majority-Black city was a stronghold of African American economic and political success and home to a thriving community of Black craftsmen and businesses owners, as well as African American public servants who included aldermen, magistrates and mail carriers.
The News & Observer rallied the white press beyond the carnage by relentlessly equating Black voting rights with corruption, anti-whiteness and, inevitably, the rape of white women. The paper ran infamous editorial cartoons like the ones depicting a giant Black foot crushing a white citizen and another showing a Black vampire bat labeled “Negro Rule” hovering over the state.
This toxic campaign yielded fruit on the morning of Nov. 10, 1898, when a mob marched into the city and burned the offices of The Wilmington Daily Record, widely thought to have been the only Black-owned daily newspaper in the United States at the time. The vigilantes swept through the streets shooting some African Americans and exiling others, along with their “white nigger” allies, from the city.
The New York Times referred obliquely to the overthrow of the Wilmington government as necessary for restoring “law and order.” The Richmond Planet — under the headline “Horrible Butcheries at Wilmington” — made clear that the coup was aimed at removing Black officeholders and restoring white control of the city.
The Planet described unarmed Black people being shot dead in the streets or driven into the woods, making clear that the carnage had resulted from “a concerted conspiracy which has been underway for several weeks,” with the goal of securing “the reins of the city government by treasonable practices.” In his characteristically acid tone, Mr. Mitchell admonished President William McKinley for failing to restore the legally elected government of the city and observed that the “good white people” of the Wilmington vicinity had either acted as “aiders and abettors of murder” or fallen “painfully silent” in the face of a treasonous attack on democracy.
A similar scenario — complete with distorted news accounts — played out two decades later after the massacre of Black sharecroppers in Elaine, Ark. The sharecroppers had angered their white landlords by banding together to demand a fair price for the crop. After a shootout instigated by whites, as the historian David Levering Lewis has written, “enraged white planters and farmers chased down Black men and women in the high cotton of Phillips County in a frenzy lasting seven days, until the count of the dead approached 200.”