1898 Wilmington Race Riot
Wilmington and New Hanover County Politics: 1891-1894:
Memoirs of an Octogenarian, John D. Bellamy, Observer Printing House, 1942, Chapter VIII, pp. 101-108.
In July 1890, a band of Democrats, composed of Frank H. Stedman, formerly of Cumberland County, Owen Fennell, John L. Dudley, J. W. Reiley, J. T. Kerr, George L. Morton, and the author, agreed to form a political club to enable us to redeem New Hanover County from Negro domination. They insisted that I should be nominated for the State Senate from the Twelfth District, composed of New Hanover and Pender Counties; Stedman for Sheriff; Owen Fennell for County Treasurer; John L. Dudley for Register of Deeds; George L. Morton and J. T. Kerr for the Lower House of the Legislature, and several others for County Commissioners, whose names I do not recall. I was elected by a clear majority. There was a contest in the courts over the returns from Cape Fear Township, New Hanover County, but the other candidates, when the returns were canvassed and the vote of that township, for gross irregularity, thrown out, were also declared elected, and were inducted into office. This naturally broke the strength of and ended, for a season, the Republican misrule in Wilmington.
Having been nominated for the Senate in the summer, after my return from Europe, I began actively the campaign in both counties. The Farmers’ Alliance was then absolutely in control of North Carolina. They framed, and had printed, circulars containing reforms which they expected to put through the Legislature of 1891, and required all candidates for the Legislature throughout the state to agree to accept as a condition of their support. The Alliance sent a committee of farmers to meet with these Alliance demands, with the request that I sign them before the Alliance members would support me. I declined, telling them that while I was in favor of most of their demands I would not sign any agreement which would control my judgment in advance as to what I would do, in the event of my election. I will say that, notwithstanding my refusal, the Alliance members all voted for me, for many of them were my personal friends and clients.
I voted when in the Senate for nearly every measure they advocated, but it was the result of my judgment that they were all for the common good.
The Senate was presided over by my friend, Lieutenant-Governor Holt, who conducted the affairs in an able and impartial manner. I was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Corporations, and in the Judiciary Committee and other committees. I began to take part actively in its proceedings, and was the author of many bills which became law, some of which are alluded to in my experience, as hereinafter detailed.
I referred in this narrative to my being elected as the first Democratic Senator from the Twelfth North Carolina District, after the Civil War. The Legislature of 1891 was a very remarkable body in the ninety per cent of its members were farmers and not lawyers. Colonel L. L. Polk, head of the farmers’ Alliance of North Carolina, had his headquarters in Raleigh. It was said that his meetings were held at night, in the third story of the capitol, during that session, and all legislation that was proposed in either body had to pass his approval. This Colonel Polk I met on one occasion, and he said that he had inquired about me of Dr. Dunlap, and R. E. Little, of Anson County, who were Davidson men with me, and also a Judge Bennett, and they informed him that while I was a good lawyer and a well educated man, that I was patriotic enough to vote for any and all measures which were for the good of the state. I was then a farmer, as I am now, as well as a lawyer, and I told him that I would advocate and champion all such measures which were for the public good. He had been a Davidson College student, with Judge Bennett, Judge Armistead Burwell, Judge McIver, and Honorable E. L. Gaither, and that made him feel rather friendly to me. Colonel Polk really had the most complete confidence of the farmers of North Carolina, being the President of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance, and afterwards the President of the National Farmers’ Alliance; while in this office, he died, in Washington, D. C.
The farmers in the state and in the National Alliance broke their allegiance to their old parties, and in North Carolina specially they broke away from the Democratic Party, and allowed less patriotic leaders to carry the bulk of them to the Republican Party, and in that way elected D. L. Russell, a Republican, as Governor, which I believe Colonel Polk would not have permitted had he lived. In Kansas, the National Farmers’ Alliance brought Colonel Polk, its national leader, to Kansas, and he aroused the farmers of both parties to such a frenzy that they defeated John J. Ingalls, the foremost Republican statesman, and other prominent Kansas politicians. Colonel Polk, had he lived, would undoubtedly have been nominated for President of the United States, and would have formed a new party, which no man as yet has been able to establish.
The Senate of 1891, of which I was a member, had only four lawyers, and being from the mercantile community of Wilmington, the farmers had an erroneous idea that lawyers generally were hostile to their interests, and they defeated a great many lawyer-candidates for the Legislature of North Carolina. After being in the body for a while, I won the confidence of the farmers and they kept me busy drawing their bills for them, as they were unskilled and quite ignorant in such matters. I was one of the authors of the State Railroad Commission Bill, as hereinafter detailed, and drafted the charter for the Negro Agricultural College at Greensboro, and as a compliment to me, the trustees appointed a prominent negro educator, Dr. James B. Dudley, of Wilmington, its first president. I introduced many other bills that were passed by that body. The volume of laws enacted by the Legislature of 1891 was larger than any other ever passed, and truly all the acts were very much in the interest of good government in North Carolina.
There was one event, however, in that body which is very memorable. Senator Zebulon B. Vance, then in the United States Senate, was very much opposed to what was called the Sub-Treasury plan, of which Harry Skinner, a member of the House from Pitt County, claimed he was author. Through the influence of Mr. Skinner and others in the House, and Marion Butler and some others in the Senate, there was prepared and offered a resolution in both bodies instructing Governor Vance to support the Sub-Treasury plan in the United states Senate in toto, or he would be defeated for re-election. It was thought that this was Skinner’s scheme to get Vance to refuse to agree to support it, and then Skinner would be elected. Harry Skinner was a Democrat and really a very brilliant man. Senator Audrey , of Charlotte, a very wise and patriotic farmer, Representative Patterson, of Lenoir, Wilson G. Lucas, of Hyde, and I, formed a little coterie to endeavor to defeat the Butler-Skinner plan. By it, Senator Vance was left no discretion whatever, and the plan itself was contrary to his views.
Our few friends named above served notice on Butler and Skinner that we would oppose and defeat the resolution—as we had enough senators pledged to do so. The Butler crowd then agreed to modify it to such an extent that we could allow it to pass. So Senator Audrey and I and others, whom I do not now recall, repaired to the Yarborough House in Raleigh, where Senator Vance was staying. We went thoroughly over the whole despicable situation, submitting the modified instructions to him, for approval. Then I saw, for the first time in my life, a great man—as Senator Vance was—put his hands to his head and cry loudly, as he said to us, “Just think of it, Boys! I was Colonel of a Confederate Regiment during the war; I was Governor of North Carolina during the strenuous times of the Civil war; I have been Governor of the State since, and have tried to serve my people according to what I thought was for their best interest in the United States Senate, and for them now, in my latter days, to suspect me of unfaithfulness to them and show their want of confidence in me is cutting and humiliating in the extreme.”
We tried to console the Senator, and after a while, got down to business. The resolution of instructions was further altered and finally accepted. We took it up to the Senate and allowed it to pass, and Senator Vance was re-elected for the last time.
Josephus Daniels, Editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, had just begun to show his influence as a writer, editor, and political adviser. I frequently consulted with him, as I learned to esteem him very highly. During my career, when the railroad lawyers were hostile to him, I never waivered in my support of him, as I regarded him as an able man and a great patriot, even then showing the elements of greatness, which he has since achieved. I take pleasure in making this simple statement now, at almost the close of my career. I think that Daniels is really a great editor, a statesman, and diplomat, and he and his family are quite an addition to the educational, political and social element of North Carolina.
In my younger days, I had a great fondness for advocating the building up of Wilmington industries. I took a great part in establishing the first basket, crate and butter-dish factory in Wilmington, which I am sorry to say did not prosper; this was because the manager, who went North on a business trip, became intoxicated and made a foolish contract which bankrupted the company.
Wilmington was then without street cars. E. K. P. Osborne secured a charter for a system in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I secured the charter for the Wilmington Street Railway. I even mortgaged the home in which I lived to raise sufficient money to equip it with cars, rails and Texas horses. Everybody who knew me said John Bellamy was the biggest fool ever born in Wilmington to do such a rash act as to mortgage his home to finance such an uncertain project! After it had been running about two years successfully, some Northern capitalists came down and offered to buy me out; I made terms with them by which I not only obtained every dollar that I had put into it, with interest at eight per cent, but in addition thereto, made $70,000.00 net profit—over and above all costs. Then the opinions in Wilmington were reversed—again verifying the truth of the old maxim that “Nothing succeeds like success.”
Osborne’s system in Charlotte was successful, and was later sold to Mr. Latta, of that city.
While a member of the Senate, as before stated, I took a deep interest in Governor Vance’s re-election to the United States Senate, but my chief recollection of that body is that of my association with Lieutenant-Governor Thomas M. Holt, President of the Senate. We took quite a fancy to each other, and I became his main dependence in the friction between the Butler element and him. I found Governor Holt to be a man who despised demagoguery, possessed splendid executive ability, and very congenial with me. He told me that when he became governor he wanted to make me a judge of the State Superior Court, or of the Supreme Court of North Carolina upon the first vacancy occurring. I replied that I appreciated the compliment and his friendship immensely, but at that time the salary was only five thousand dollars per annum, and the income from my profession was at least twenty thousand dollars a year, and I could not afford to accept the honor; theretofore, he need not consider me in respect to any appointment of that kind. His long friendship I have cherished from that day to this, and also that of his family and friends.
I have somewhat described the Legislature of 1891. The political acquaintances and affiliations I then made served me greatly in after life. Lieutenant-Governor Holt, as President of the Senate, appointed me chairman of a committee sent by the Senate and House to visit the State University, at Chapel Hill, to inspect the conditions and needs. At that time, the Senate had only one of its members a graduate of Chapel Hill, and that one was Marion Butler, from Sampson County. Our committee repaired to Chapel Hill and thoroughly inspected the University, and I must say the buildings and grounds were in a very dilapidated condition; I recall that what was known as the East Building had the stone steps knocked out of place, helter skelter; the floors were in a terrible condition, having large holes in them and planks laid over; nearly all the window glasses were broken out, and in most instances pillows and rugs were stuffed in to keep out the cold winds. I had never before visited the institution; I had been educated at Davidson College, North Carolina, and at the University of Virginia. Both of these institutions were kept in splendid condition, especially the University of Virginia—which was the pride of Virginia. A few years prior to this inspection I had visited Princeton, Harvard, and Yale Universities, all richly endowed and kept in perfect condition. On comparing these, in my mind, with Chapel Hill, my state pride was wounded, and I felt keenly humiliated! On my return to Raleigh, I made a speech in the Senate, describing the dreadful condition of our State University as contrasted with those other colleges mentioned. I prepared and introduced a bill to grant the University ten thousand dollars a year, for two years, for repairs. It being debated, Marion Butler, representing the farmers’ Alliance and being one of the few members of the Senate who was a graduate of the University, said the Alliance was pledged to economy and reform, and he was opposed to such extravagance as advocated by the Senator from New Hanover. An amendment was sent forward by Mr. Butler cutting the appropriation to five thousand dollars and limiting it to that amount. In replying, I told the senators, who were nearly all farmers, that the floors of the University building were more dilapidated than any of their barns, and that they ought to be ashamed to allow it to remain in such condition! However, Butler and the farmers under his influence allowed the bill to pass and it became law. Shortly thereafter I received the following letter, which I have just found:
University of North Carolina
Chapel hill, N.C., March 11, 1891
My dear Sir; the faculty of this University requests me to thank you most heartily for your efforts in our behalf. While we cannot accomplish all we wish with the appropriation, we can do much. This is the first money ever granted us for repairs, in all our history; after spending it judiciously, we hope that the next General Assembly will properly supplement it. Your wise activity in behalf of our institution, which to our regret is not your Alma Mater, gives us peculiar gratification.
Kemp P. Battle
In my college days, the State University was closed; hence it was that I attended the other institutions.
In 1892, efforts were made in the General Assembly, by the radical wing of the Alliance, to deprive the University of all state aid whatever; this movement was defeated by educational leaders through the cooperation of the more conservative members of the Farmers’ Alliance; this same radical element fused in the November election of 1894 with the Republicans and elected the entire state ticket—Superior Court judges, four Populists and three Republican members of Congress, and a majority of the General Assembly; the latter elected, at its session in January 1895, two United States Senators, one Republican and the other a so-called Populist.
Chapter VIII, pp. 114-120:
During the Legislature of 1891, there frequently appeared in Raleigh, Honorable Josiah Turner, a member then, or a former member, of the Legislature from Orange County, who also had been a member of the Confederate Congress elected in may 1864.
Joe Turner as he was called in Reconstruction days, was a great power in North Carolina; almost single handed and alone, in his newspaper in Raleigh, I think called The Sentinel, he criticized and denounced the destructive actions of the radical Republican Party then in control in this state. We looked upon him as a great factor in stopping their misrule and in the restoration of the Democratic Party to power. When the Legislature was in session in 1868, or one of the early Republican Legislatures, Joe Turner in his paper denounced, in scathing terms, the treacherous conduct of Joe Holden, Speaker of the House, son of Governor W. W. Holden, who was afterwards impeached. Reverend Theodore B. Kingsbury, on of our greatest editors, then living in Raleigh, told me of an incident that he witnessed on Fayetteville Street the morning that The Sentinel came out and bitterly denounced Joe Holden.
Joe Turner was walking up Fayetteville Street; when the two got in front of Tuckers Store, Holden went to Turner and cursed him and was about to strike him with his walking cane. Turner resented this and in his defense lifted his umbrella to hit Holden on the head. A hatch on the sidewalk was open and, in backing to get rid of the blow from Turner’s umbrella, Joe Holden fell down in the hole. As soon as Turner observed this, he closed the hatch, immediately got on top of it and flapped his hands at his sides, like the wings of a rooster, and crowed vociferously! Mr. Kingsbury said he saw the whole affair, and it was most amusing!
I never thought the people of North Carolina appreciated sufficiently Joe Turner and his services to the State of North Carolina in those hectic days. He really deserves a monument to his memory.
In the campaigns and conventions of 1892, many very stalwart Democrats fought for the nomination of Governor Thomas M. Holt to succeed himself in office; but the Farmers’ Alliance, for some unaccountable reason, led by Marion Butler, Atwater, Dr. Freeman, and some other members of the Senate of 1891 were very hostile to him. They said Holt was a manufacturer and business man, not much of a farmer, and forced us to nominate Elias Carr, a real farmer from Edgecombe County. He was a straight Democrat, well educated and splendidly fitted for that office. Butler, “et omne genus,” warned us that we must nominate Carr, a farmer, or the Populist vote would be cast for the Populist candidate. We acquiesced, reluctantly. After Carr was nominated by their persuasion and persistence, they bolted and caused to be nominated a Populist, by name of Exum, commonly known as “Goat Exum,” of Wayne County. Notwithstanding their treachery and perfidy, Carr was triumphantly elected.
Butler immediately, with his Populist followers, formed an alliance with the Republican Party, and by their machinations, in 1896, controlled the Legislature and secured the election of Jeter C. Pritchard, a Republican, and Marion Butler, a Populist, as United States Senators; forever after that, he was a stalwart Republican. Pritchard was really a great man, but Butler was a cunning, scheming, Populist politician—very different from his brother, Major George E. Butler, who was a splendid type of manhood, kind and conscientious, a fine practitioner and esteemed greatly by the members of the Bar. While he maintained his views as a Republican, he never resorted to demagoguery in his public addresses.
Daniel L. Russell was nominated and elected Republican Governor in 1896, defeating that magnificent citizen, lawyer, and campaign orator, Cyrus B. Watson, of Winston-Salem. Yet this same man was saved from impeachment as Governor, for high crimes and misdemeanors, by the kindness and softness of heart of that distinguished citizen, Colonel Alex B. Andrews, First Vice-President of the Southern Railway. At a heavy cost, Andrews had obtained a letter from Mrs. Sol C. Weill, then living in New York, the widow of Sol C. Weill, Russell’s former partner in Wilmington, written to Sol by Russell, while the latter was Governor. This letter proposed a corrupt bargain in reference to legislation affecting the Southern Railway. Colonel Andrews told me, personally, that Russell came to Washington, to his room in the Raleigh Hotel, late on Saturday night, while the impeachment trial was in progress, and implored him to save him from disgrace by not producing that letter, which he understood would be evidence on the impeachment trial; but the letter was no longer in Colonel Andrews’ possession, having been taken out of his hands by a higher officer of the Southern Railway and put in the vault of a bank in New York City. It was not produced in the trial, and Russell was consequently acquitted.
Colonel Andrews told Russell he did not deserve his aid and sympathy, as he had hounded the Southern Railway, trying to break its lease, ever since he became Governor. Russell replied that he did not care about himself, but his wife was his all, and he wished to save her from the degradation of his impeachment conviction. Colonel Andrews, out of sympathy for the wife, for whom he had a great respect, decided to have nothing further to do in regard to the production of the letter before the Impeachment Court.
In 1892, the second Presidential election of Grover Cleveland came on, and Preston King, of Greensboro, and I were elected Delegates-at-Large, with the two Senators, to the Democratic Convention at Chicago. I had been, and am still, a great admirer of Grover Cleveland. When the delegation left Wilmington and went to Washington, Senator Vance, who was then afflicted with rheumatism and in bed, sent for the North Carolina delegation to come to see them on their way to Chicago. He tried to reason with us that it would be unwise and not to the interest of North Carolina to re-elect Cleveland, because the Farmers’ Alliance was greatly against him. I listened with great interest to what Governor Vance said, for I had great admiration for his ability and wisdom. I told him, however, that I preferred Cleveland to any other candidate, as did Mr. Preston King, my associate from Greensboro, but if we found Cleveland could not be nominated, our next choice would be Arthur P. Gorman, from Maryland. Mrs. Vance was at that time very hostile to Cleveland, and was campaigning against him. She told me that Gorman was her choice, and if I would only support him she would appreciate it as long as she lived. I made no promise, but recollect the impression it made on me.
We proceeded to Chicago and arrived there on Sunday afternoon. We immediately elected Joseph C. Caldwell, of the Charlotte Observer, chairman of the delegation, and they elected me secretary. It was an immense Convention and attended by the great men of our party. I never enjoyed more the splendid strains of music than the ones those numerous bands played. As each prominent Democrat walked down the aisle of the Convention Hall, the bands played an appropriate air. For Arthur P. Gorman, they played “Maryland, My Maryland”; for Major John W. Daniels, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia”; for the tall sycamore, Daniel R. Vorhees, “Way Down on The Wabash”; and for Senator Matt Ransom, “The Old North State.” It was a wonderful gathering and the North Carolina delegates were very much charmed; but when the nominations began, we were dumb-founded upon being informed that Cleveland would not get a single delegate from New York—where his great triumphant as governor took place! Senator Ridgeway of New Jersey made a splendid oration in nominating him, but he was bitterly opposed in a speech by Burke Cochran of New York. It had little effect on the delegation, as Senator Ransom, a strong advocate of Cleveland, had come into our room, about daylight on the morning the Convention was to meet, and told us that Gorman and all other candidates had withdrawn during the night, and advised us to go into the Convention and vote for Cleveland, as he would be nominated on the first ballot.
The prominent men who made deep impressions on that Convention were Henry Watterson, of the Louisville Courier Journal, who made a magnificent speech on the Tariff, and Pat Collins, of Boston, who made a very strong one in favor of abolishing the two-thirds rule for nominations, which was not acted on.
When Cleveland was nominated overwhelmingly for President, the Convention was in an uproar! After several minutes of applause and music, the chairman called for quiet, and said the Vice-Presidential nomination would now be in order.
During the Convention, Adlai E. Stevenson, a former Governor of Illinois, had come to our delegation frequently and extended a great many courtesies to each of us. This was probably because his parents were natives of Statesville, North Carolina, and he felt a kinship with us. I suggested to the delegation that we nominate Stevenson for Vice-President. It was put to a vote and unanimously agreed upon by the delegates, and I was designated to go around to the several Southern delegations and get their aid. I was given the support of Virginia, most of Maryland, all of North Carolina and South Carolina and, through Clark Howell, all of Georgia. Then I was asked by the delegation to put him in nomination, but upon mature thought, I declined. We decided that it would be proper for Illinois to present the nomination, and for North Carolina to second it. Thus it was carried out. I was very favorably impressed with Governor Stevenson, who was a relative of Joe P. Caldwell, Editor of The Observer, of Charlotte, N.C. Mr. Caldwell was very much pleased with the fact that I had suggested Stevenson’s nomination.
Going among the various delegations, securing their support for Governor Stevenson, I met several very interesting gentlemen from Florida, among them a Mr. Jennings. In a short while, we found we were related—my grandmother, Mary Priscilla Jennings, having been a sister to George Jennings who had moved to Florida, and subsequently, had become his grandfather! He was a splendid looking gentleman, and I wanted to become acquainted with him, but I never saw him thereafter.
The Democratic Party had lost the Legislature of 1893, and the Populists and Republicans, by a combination, had elected two United States Senators. So, when the State Democratic Convention assembled in Raleigh, in 1896, the leaders were much demoralized. The Populists who had deserted the Democratic Party in the previous election were some of the very best men in the state, and they had not only elected a Legislature but several Congressmen in districts normally Democratic! We had to seriously consider who were the best men in the state to nominate for governor and other offices; we wanted men who could bring back the erring Democrats who called themselves Populists. We scanned the records of our best leaders, and in a caucus over which I presided, it was decided that Walter Clark, then Supreme Court Judge, was by all odds the best man. A committee of the caucus, in which I was included, went to the office of Judge Clark, and told him of our decision, and asked him if he would be our candidate for governor. Judge Clark promptly refused, saying he was a judge and should not be in politics. Shortly afterwards, he was endorsed by the Populists for Chief-Justice, our party having nominated him in the meantime, after his refusal to run for governor. Judge Clark was a consummate politician; he had seen that we could not elect the governor, and this was the cause of his refusal. So, we centered on Cy Watson, but really feeling we had an up-hill job to elect him. The result was that Watson was defeated and Daniel L. Russell, in 1896, was elected, and with him, most of the state officers. Dr. Cy Thompson, a leading Populist from Onslow County, was elected Secretary of State. He was an honest and able man, and reflected more credit on the Russell administration than any other person.
Among Russell’s first acts as governor was the full pardon of John Statcher, a leading negro politician of Wilmington, and henchman of the Russell-Manning clique. Statcher was a policeman, found guilty of robbing a store in Wilmington, at night, while on his beat; he had been caught in the act.
One other of Governor Russell’s apparent hobbies was his effort to cancel and break the lease of the North Carolina Railroad to the Southern Railway; as a matter of fact, the lease had inured greatly to the benefit of the state in extending the line across the mountains, making connection with western railways—thus building up towns and industries in western North Carolina. Under its terms, the state had received, and still continues to receive, a large dividend on its common stock which controlled the ownership of the railroad. Nearly all other railroads of the United States had for years passed their dividends, and their stock had depreciated in value. The stock of the North Carolina Railroad had remained above par. Whether the Governor’s motive was patriotic or not has always been a subject of speculation!
The Sixth North Carolina District—or Shoe-String District—when I was elected to Congress, contained nearly all the large towns or cities in the southern and southeastern portion of the state. They were Charlotte, Monroe, Wadesboro, Rockingham, Hamlet, Laurinburg, Maxton, Lumberton, Clarkton, and Wilmington. It had double the population of any other district, which was one of the reasons that, after the census of 1900, it was divided into two parts. The Seaboard Air Line Railway, in its length of over two hundred miles, runs through every city in this area.
The following excerpts from Lefler & Newsome's History of North Carolina explains the political environment in the State from Rutherford B. Hayes presidential administration through McKinley's.
Conservative Democracy and Political Revolution,
Chapter 38, pp 507-516
(Lefler, H. & Newsome, A., The History of a Southern State, North Carolina,
The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC)
The Democratic victory in the Vance-Settle campaign of 1876 and the recall of federal troops in 1877 marked the end of political and military reconstruction in North Carolina. As already stated, it was fear of a return of Republican-Negro dominance that perpetuated an abnormal unity of the white majority in the democratic party, and this majority subordinated every issue to the maintenance of “white supremacy” and aided the Democratic party to maintain uninterrupted political control of the state from 1877 to 1894. The emergence of the Democratic “Solid South” thus ended the healthy prewar two-party system which had produced an able political leadership and had divided the voters on realistic social, economic, and political issues.
Impairment of Local Self-Government—By virtue of the constitutional amendments of 1875 and a legislative act of 1876, the victorious Democratic party abolished the choice of county commissioners by popular vote and vested their election in the hands of justices of the peace who were chosen by the legislature, always safely Democratic. Under the guise of eliminating the chance of Negro control in the sixteen eastern Negro counties, these measures ended the possibility of Republican control not only in the eastern counties but also in the white western counties. Even in Democratic counties, the voters lost control of their county government which generally fell into the hands of “court-house rings” composed of local Democratic leaders. The serious impairment of the principle of local self-government was a mounting grievance against the Democratic party among the white voters of the western counties.
State Debt Settlement—The Democratic party solved the staggering problem of state finances by repudiating most of the state debt of $3,000,000, and about $13,000,000 of which consisted of the special tax railroad bonds issued in 1868-1869, during the Republican regime, most of which had been wasted and all of which were generally regarded as fraudulent, unconstitutional, and worthy of repudiation. The reminder of the debt, incurred before, during, and after the war chiefly for railroad construction, was unquestionably honest and valid. But it was argued that the state, impoverished by a war brought on by the North, whose citizens held many of the bonds, was not able to pay all of the honest debt. For several years there was discussion looking to some fair and obviously needed debt settlement. The cautious Democratic party did not wish to risk the political disfavor or defeat by excessive scaling or repudiation which might dishonor the state and injure local bondholders or by assuming an excessive burden which would necessitate heavy taxes. The bondholders rejected a state offer of settlement in 1875 as too liberal: and the state rejected the bondholders’ proposal of 1877 to settle for 50 per cent of the old debt and unpaid interest in new 6 per cent thirty-year bonds.
A growing demand for settlement crystallized public opinion rather clearly in favor of complete repudiation of the allegedly dishonest portion of the debt and the heavy scaling of the honest debt. Governor Vance advocated this policy, and it was expected by the legislature in the debt settlement law of 1879. The special tax railroad bonds were repudiated completely and a constitutional amendment in 1880 prohibited their future payment without the approval of a majority of the qualified voters. As for the honest debt, all accrued interest was repudiated, and the principal was classified into three groups, each of which was scaled from 60 per cent to 85 per cent. The state decided to pay $6,500,000 as complete settlement of the entire state debt of about $43,750,000 principal and accrued interest. The bondholders were helpless. Those who owned “honest” bonds, preferring a little to nothing, generally exchanged their bonds for new ones in greatly reduced amounts. A few were not exchanges, and in 1904, as the result of a successful suit by South Dakota before the United States Supreme Court, North Carolina was compelled to pay the entire principal and accrued interest on a few of the old bonds. Various states and foreign countries have endeavored to bring suits before the Supreme Court to compel payment of the repudiated special tax bonds; but no case has ever been tried. The people rejoiced to be free of the heavy burden of taxes and debt under the guise of legality. Many of the repudiationists of 1879 had opposed repudiation of the state war debt in 1865 which was held by North Carolinians. Some people questioned the honesty and fairness of the settlement of 1879, especially the heavy scaling of the debts whose honesty was unquestioned and whose payment to a fuller extent could have been assumed without resort to ruinous taxes. Certainly the debt settlement rendered more feasible the financing of a program of state development.
Conservatives Control Democratic Party—However, the Democratic party did not commit the state to a progressive program of public education, internal improvements, and state development such as that which war had interrupted in 1861. Rather it adopted the policy of stimulating railroad, industrial, mercantile, and banking developments by unrestricted private enterprise protected and aided by the state government. Reversing the traditional policy of state aid to railroads, it lease and sold the state’s private capital. Party leaders and public officials held railroad stock, rode on free passes, served as railroad lobbyists and attorneys, and aided the railroads in securing special legislative favors of tax exemption and immunity from public regulation. The railroad companies rapidly expanded their mileage, consolidated, prospered, and met quickly and well the vital transportation needs of most of North Carolina. But they charged rates higher than those in other sections, were haughty and careless in serving public, inflated their capitalization, indulged in such abuses as the granting of passes and rebates to influential friends and large customers, and waxed arrogant from the possession of security and political influence.
The conservatively controlled Democratic party became the ally and guardian of the railroad and industrial interests which were contributing so powerfully to the economic regeneration of the state and were rising to social, economic, and political dominance. It championed the laissez-faire philosophy of the noninterference of government in private business and the negative policy of maintaining the status quo of Democratic supremacy in politics and the freedom of business from governmental interference. With Hamiltonian devotion to an alliance between business and government, the Democratic party became the custodian and friend of the new business order whose free enterprise would produce a New State and a New South. It opposed a rising demand among depressed farmers, liberals, and reformers for a regulatory railroad commission, lower freight and passenger rates, and the abolition of abuses and favoritism. It opposed also the demands for a readjustment of the discriminatory system of taxation; for social legislation to correct the evil effects of long hours and low wages upon mill workers; and for the expansion of the system of public education. It opposed all such measures of economic and social reform allegedly because they would necessitate higher taxes, would discourage business and perhaps drive it from the state, and would cause discussion which might split the Democratic party and permit the return of Republican-Negro control.
Unwholesome Political Practices—The Democratic party maintained its political supremacy for various reasons as the redeemer of the state from the orgy of Reconstruction and Republican-Negro rule. It presented itself as the party of virtue, economy, patriotism, conservatism, and white supremacy. It recurring political campaigns it drew contrasts between North Carolina under Republican rule and under Democratic rule and cultivated the idea that loyalty to the party was essential to the continuance of white supremacy. If necessary, it admitted the states backwardness in certain respects but minimized it and attributed it to the Negro and to unavoidable poverty resulting from war and reconstruction. If urged to champion new policies, it cautioned that they might hamper economic development and split the party. Partisan legislation and manipulation of elections reinforced campaign arguments. The new county government law assured Democratic control of the county governments. Democratic legislatures elected Democratic justices of the peace, who chose democratic election officials, and these were able to disqualify some Republican voters by using technical requirements as to name, age, or residence, or enforcing legal regulations for the challenging of voters, or employing other devices. Open threats, or even a show of violence, deterred many Negroes from the polls. If it seemed necessary to party victory, party workers, and election officials used their skill in corrupt practices such as ballot-box stuffing and fraudulent counting of votes. The end of Democratic victory justified any means. Conditions were conducive to party control in local and state affairs by small groups of leaders. Only the loyal and faithful received appointments; a doubtful party man was a traitor and renegade who must suffer ruthless political destruction. It was an age of low political morality when election laws were framed for their violability, when upright men engaged in political corruption as a necessary means toward what they considered the holy end of saving the state from the Republicans. Under the one-party system, the ability of public officials and party leaders in the generation before 1900 was far less than in prewar days. They were generally conservative, mediocre, unprogressive, and barren of statesmanship. They seldom faced reality, diagnosed the varied needs of the state, championed constructive policies, or even attempted the role of leadership and statesmanship.
Republican Opposition—Democratic policies, method, and dominance in the generation after Reconstruction were by no means pleasing to all the people in North Carolina. The Republican party furnished steady, powerful and bitter opposition to the Democratic regime. In a total state vote of approximately 250,000, the Republicans from 1876 to 1888, trailed the Democrats in gubernatorial elections by form 6,000 to 20,000 votes, and in presidential elections by from 9,000 to 18,000 votes. The party consisted of those Negroes who cared and dared to vote and a substantial group of whites chiefly among the mass of common people. It was handicapped by a paucity of able and prominent leaders and by the lack of a vigorous party press. It denounced the Democrats for corruption in elections, the impairment of democratic county self-government, and disregard of the interests of the democratic masses. It was insuperably handicapped by its past record during Reconstruction, by its large contingent of Negro voters, its inability to get out the entire Negro vote because of Negro indifference and Democratic opposition, and by is lack of able leaders. Resigned to recurring defeat in state politics, it failed to champion an aggressive program of liberalism and reform and was content to monopolize the federal postmasterships, judgeships, and revenue jobs which were available because the Republican party was almost constantly in control of the federal government. A minority element sought to curb or eliminate the influence of the Negro in party affairs an attractive program of state reform, and make a real bid for the support of the white voters; but the ring or machine of federal officeholders kept control of the party. With such a record, such leadership and such program, the Republican party seemed undeserving of the support of those voters who were not altogether pleased with Democratic rule.
Liberal Democrats—The opposition of a minority of liberal Democrats to the conservative control of their party became evident when the Democratic legislature in 1881, under pressure from the churches, authorized a popular referendum on state prohibition of the manufacture of intoxicating liquor in North Carolina and its sale except in maximum quantities of one gallon for medicinal purposes by druggists on doctor’s prescriptions. Liberal Democrats and anti-prohibitionists organized the Liberal Anti-Prohibition party, which entered the legislative and congressional elections of 1882 with a platform endorsing individual liberty, restoration of local self-government, the extension of public education, and a pure ballot box. The Republican party denounced prohibition as a Democratic measure and endorsed the Liberal Anti-Prohibition candidates. This third party succeeded in electing only one legislature and one congressman, Tyre York of a mountain district. The referendum resulted in the crushing defeat of state prohibition by a vote of 166,325 to 48,370.
The Democratic party escaped serious damage by the unpopular issue of prohibition because many democrats announced their opposition to it and strenuously denied that it was a party issue. Zebulon B. Vance, in the United States Senate, pleased the liquor interests, the Democrats, and the great mass of people by denouncing the federal internal revenue system as an agency whereby the Republican party dispensed hundreds of jobs and maintained its strength in North Carolina. The Democrats administered a harp defeat to Tyre York’s candidacy for the governorship in 1884. By impassioned appeals for party loyalty and unity as the only safeguard against the return of republican-Negro domination, the Democrats prevented any serious party defection and defeated coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans. The effectiveness of the Negro issue in securing this decisive victory increased the confidence of the conservative democratic leadership in its own invincibility.
Intra-Party Divisions—the most significant opposition to the Democratic regime in North Carolina came from Democratic small farmers who became disgruntled with the party for its conservatism, its opposition to social and economic reform, its devotion to the special interests of the new business order, and its indifference to the interest of the common people. The business classes in the towns enjoyed political favoritism and economic prosperity, but the farmer suffered under the economic persecution of low crop prices which could not meet high freight rates, discriminatory taxes, high and restricted credits, an inadequate currency, and high prices on non-agricultural commodities. In this dilemma, the first efforts of farmers in North Carolina, as in the nation, were directed toward self-help through farm organizations.
The Agrarian Revolt: The Grangers—The Granger movement in the early 1870’s, originating outside of the state as a non-political organization to improve the social, educational and economic conditions of rural life, did not gain great strength in North Carolina, which was still engrossed in the problems of reconstruction. It reached the peak of its strength in the state in 1875-1876 with over 500 granges and 15,000 members. Though relatively weak in North Carolina, it directed the attention of farmers to their deplorable condition and pointed the way to a more attractive rural life. The national political Greenback party movement of the early 1880’s elicited little response in North Carolina where the fresh memories of reconstruction bolstered democratic solidarity and dominance.
The Farmers’ Alliance—But continuing hard times furnished the basis for a powerful non-political farmers’ Alliance in North Carolina. L.L. Polk, a native of Anson County, the first state commissioner of agriculture and for many years editor of The Progressive Farmer, had been successful in organizing farmers’ clubs which held meetings to provide social diversion for rural families and to teach better methods of farming. In 1887 he organized the North Carolina Farmers’ Association at mass meetings in Raleigh. Polk was interested in an agricultural college, and in a more attractive and profitable life for the farmers. The Farmers’ Alliance, a national organization, enlisted the support of North Carolina farmers’ clubs and of farmers who believed in the benefits of organization. It also enlisted Polk who became first secretary of the North Carolina alliance. Economic distress caused the Farmers’ Alliance to spread like wildfire. By 1890, it had 2,147 local organizations in North Carolina with 90,000 and a state organization. Polk’s ability and success as leader of the North Carolina Alliance resulted in his election as president of the National Farmers’ Alliance in 1889.
The Farmers’ Alliance was a non-political organization. Its regular meetings were enjoyable social and educational occasions. Through its meetings and its sponsorship of an agricultural college and a more powerful state department of agriculture, it sought to educate the farmers in better methods of production and marketing. In order to reduce prices for the farmer, it organized a few local cooperative stores and a state purchasing agency to eliminate the profits of the middleman. Dealing directly with the manufacturers, the state purchasing agency bought as high as $325,000 of produce each year at a considerable savings to the farmers. But poor business management, the small number of farmers who could break away from the crop-lien system and pay cash for their purchases, and the hostility of manufacturers and merchants brought failure to the business enterprises.
Demands of the Embattled Farmers—The social, educational, and business activities of the Alliance, important as they were, did not solve the chief problems of the farmers. They wanted railroad regulation, limitation of interest rates, better public schools, higher prices for crops, an expanded currency, an agricultural college, and an inexpensive state supported college for girls. Though non-political, The Alliance looked to the Democratic party, which was the only agency in North Carolina through which many of its demands could be met. Moreover, most of the Alliance members were Democrats. So powerful was the organization that many Democratic candidates for public office endorsed its program. However, the democratic legislature of 1887 defeated a bill for the establishment of a commission to regulate the railroads. But in 1888, under pressure from the Alliance, the party officially endorsed the railroad commission. To the amazement of the Alliance, the democratic legislature of 1889, under the influence of conservative Democrats and railroad friends and lobbyists, again defeated a railroad omission bill. The precipitated a veritable agrarian revolt in 1890 in which the Alliance elected many farmers to the legislature and captured control of the Democratic party, to the astonishment and disgust of the conservative party leaders. It was the revolutionary “farmers’ legislature” of 1891 that increased the tax rate for public schools; established a normal college for white girls, and an agricultural college and a normal college for Negroes; increased the state appropriations to the University and state colleges; and provided state regulation for railroads by forbidding rebates and rate discriminations and creating a railroad commission of three members elected by the legislature and empowered to reduce rates and eliminate the special tax exemptions and low assessments enjoyed by the railroads.
The Political Program of the Farmers’ Alliance—beneficial as were these state reforms, crop prices continued to drop; and the condition of the farmers grew worse in the early 1890’s. The main causes of their condition—low prices, scarcity of money, and high credit—were not state problems and could be remedied, if it all, only by the federal government. The national Alliance demanded national currency and financial reform—the free and unlimited coinage of silver as a ration of 16 to 1 with gold, and the sub-treasury plan under which the federal government would establish warehouses for the deposit of farm crops and would issue to the depositors legal tender notes at low interest equal to 80 per cent of the value of the crops deposited. When prices rose and farmers sold their deposited crops, the notes would be repaid and destroyed. These measures, it was urged by the farmers, would increase the supply of money, tide the farmers over the period of low prices, and tend to raise crop prices. Both national parties—Democrats and Republicans—opposed the Alliance program as radical, inflationary, impractical, and unconstitutional. Senator Vance and most of the North Carolina Democratic leaders were hostile.
Formation of the Populist or People’s Party—Because both old parties seemed hostile to the farmers’ demands, a strong faction of the Alliance (particularly in the western states) decide in 1892 to organize a third political party—the People’s party. Faced with the momentous decision of choosing between loyalty to the Democratic party and loyalty to the Alliance as it now sought to achieve its objectives by political means, Polk took the lead in support of the third party; and the more radical half of the North Carolina Alliance followed him out of the Democratic party into the new People’s or Populist party. But the more conservative half of the Alliance, led by Elias Carr and S.B. Alexander, fearful that party division might lead to Republican rule, remained loyal to the Democratic party. The formation of the Populist party in 1892 split, the Alliance and virtually ended its effective career as a farmers’ organization. Before going into politics, it brought social, educational, and business benefits to the farmers and forced the Democratic party to railroad regulation, the establishment of agricultural and normal colleges, and increased support for public education.
The Populist Platform of 1892 and Defeat—In 1892 the Populists entered the national and North Carolina campaigns. But for the death of Polk, whom Marion Butler succeeded as leader of the North Carolina Populists, he might have received the Populist presidential nomination in 1892. W.P. Exum was nominated for the governorship. The state Populist platform demanded economy, tax reform, election reform, a ten-hour work day for labor, and a limitation of 6 per cent on interest charges. The Democrats offered no program of state reform but made a bid for the farmer vote by nominating for governor Elias Carr, conservative ex-president of the Alliance. Under the skillful management of their party chairman, F.M. Simmons, the Democrats denounced the Populists as traitors, appealed to party loyalty and the fear of Republican-Negro domination. With Democratic, Populist, and Republican tickets in the field, the democrats won an easy victory, capturing the governorship and the legislature. The vote for governor was: democrats 135,519; Republicans, 94,684; Populists, 47,840. The Populist carried only three counties. But it was of the utmost significance that the combined republican and Populist vote was larger than that of the Democrats.
Democratic Denunciation of Populists—Conditions and events after 1892 perpetuated the Populist party and developed a Populist hatred of the Democrats so virulent that the party was willing to cooperate with the Republicans in 1894 to drive the Democrats from power. In the first place, falling prices and economic distress, culminating in the panic of 1893, increased the farmers’ grievances. In the second place, the victorious national Democratic party under conservative leadership, arrogantly confident even in face of two hostile parties that polled a majority of the votes in 1892, reused to conciliate the Populists; denounced them as traitors, “Old Pops,” and “Copperheads,” led by Marion butler, the “Sampson County Huckleberry”; punished them by political ostracism, and in the legislature of 1893 not only refused to grant any important agrarian reform but attacked the Alliance by making important changes in its charter.
Republican-Populist Fusion Defeats Democrats—Actuated by a common hatred of the Democrats and the desire for political power, the republicans and Populists in 1894 avoided their mistake of 1892 and entered into a fusion or cooperative arrangement whereby both would support a single ticket on which both were represented. By pre-convention arrangement, the Populist in making nominations would share the public offices with Republicans. Their platform called for a four months’ public school term, a state reformatory, pure election laws, a nonpartisan judiciary, and the restoration of county self-government. They denounced the Democratic party for its political corruption and subservience to the business interests. The Republican party endorsed the Populist nominations and platform. The Democrats wrote a platform devoted to national issues but devoid of a program of state reform. A campaign of partisan bitterness, vituperation, and prejudice followed. The result was a sweeping fusion victory for the Republicans and Populists. They won virtually all of the state and congressional offices and captured control of both houses of the legislature by large majorities. Since there was no gubernatorial election in 1894, Democratic Governor Carr still had two year remaining in his term of office.
The conservative Democracy, self-confident and arrogant from its long lease of power as guardian of corporate and urban interests in a state predominately rural, had been conservative and inflexible in the face of mounting demands for reform to meet the changing needs of a growing state, and now, in 1894, to its own amazement, it was repudiated and driven from power by a majority of the North Carolina voters.
Fusion Rule and the Return of A Chastened
Democracy to Power
Chapter 39. pp 517-529
(Lefler,H. & Newsome, A., The History of a Southern State, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC)
The Fusion Legislature of 1895, anxious to justify the political overturn of 1894 and to keep the democrats out of power, made a number of constructive reforms. In large measure, local self-government was restored to the counties. The voters were given the power to elect justices of the peace and to choose biennially three county commissioners, though as a safeguard against Negro rule in the east 200 voters in a county might by petition secure the appointments by the superior court judge of two additional county commissioners of a different political party from that of the three elected by the people. A new election law required the following: a new registration of voters; the appointment of local election officials by the elective clerks of court equally from the different parties; the preservation of ballots; and an itemized account of the expenditures of candidates for office. The Farmers’ Alliance charter was restored; a legal interest rate of 6 per cent was fixed; larger appropriations were made to the University and other state-supported colleges and normal schools; and the state property tax for public schools was increased, though the abolition of the offices of county superintendent and county boards of education and the vesting of local school control in the board of county commissioners could hardly be called a forward step. Some eastern town charters were changed to permit more local self-government. By agreement, Populist Marion Butler and Republican Jeter C. Pritchard were elected United States senators by the Fusion legislature. But there was disagreement between these two men and difficulty between Populists and Republican generally about distribution of the patronages. The Fusion program resulted in a moderate increase in Populist demands and was denounced by the Democrats, the record of the Fusion legislature was constructive.
Increased Negro Political Activity—Fusion rule led to increased political activity by Negroes. The les partisan election law permitted an increasing Negro vote. The restoration of county self-government led to the occasional election of Negroes to minor offices in eastern counties, and the general Assembly, in recognition of the substantial Negro vote, elected a few Negroes to relatively unimportant posts. It also adopted a resolution, following the death of Frederick Douglass, honoring the well known ex-slave, orator, and journalist-an action which was strongly denounced by Democratic newspapers. Racial antagonism and political advantage combined to make the democrats exploit the issue of the Negro in politics. The Fusionists were denounced as “debauchers of governmental efficiency” and as supporters of political and social equality for Negroes and even racial intermarriage. Race relations became more and more strained. The race issue was embarrassing to Populists and to many white Republicans. Democratic antipathy to the Negro was increased by the fact that he intended to be a Republican in politics.
Despite Democratic allegations of Negro domination of North Carolina politics during reconstruction and again in the 1890’s, the records reveal that at no time did the Negroes constitute more than one-fifteenth of the total membership of the legislature. Between 1895 and 1899 there were ten Negroes in the General Assembly. Four of the Negro legislators were college graduates; two others had attended college and had taught school; one was the business manager of the Wilmington Record. Most of the ten had held public office prior to their election to the general Assembly. Jonathan Daniels, writing in 1941, declared that: “All Negro legislators were not peanut munching apes… There were definitely superior men among the Negro leaders after the war. In politics, however, they were black and that was enough.”
Four Negroes from North Carolina served a total of fourteen years in the national House of Representatives: J> A. Hyman (1875-1877), I. E. O’Hara (1883-1887), Henry P. Cheatham (1889-1893), and George H. White (1897-1901). Of the four, only Hyman had attended college, and only O’Hara was a carpetbagger. North Carolina never had more than one Negro Representative in any session of Congress, and all but Cheatham, of Vance County, were elected from the Second Congressional district, which was almost 70 per cent Negro. At least one Negro Representative, Cheatham, won the respect of both races. Before his election to Congress, White had been a member of both houses of the General Assembly, a solicitor and prosecuting attorney, and a delegate to the 1896 Republican national Convention. White was the last Negro in Congress fro the South—and the last Negro in the legislative body for a quarter of a century.
The fact that Negroes held public office from the national to the local level was irritating to Democratic leaders, newspapers, and party members generally. The Raleigh News and Observer charged that the Fusionists were trying to “Negroize” the capital city, though only one Negro member was chosen to the board of alderman during the whole Fusion era. The situation in Wilmington and some other eastern North Carolina towns was more critical. Negroes seemed to be gaining in political power and threatening “white supremacy” more than at any time since “the tragic era” of Reconstruction. The state was set for a showdown struggle in the forthcoming election.
The Election of 1896—The campaign of 1896 was of unprecedented bitterness and confusion in state and national politics. In North Carolina both Democratic and republican leaders negotiated for an alliance with the Populists. On national issues the Democrats and the Populists in the state were in close accord in support of William Jennings Bryan for president on a reform program, including the “free and unlimited coinage of silver” at a ratio of 16 to 1; but the Republican and Populists were more nearly in agreement on state issues. Early efforts to fusion failed and Democrats, republicans, and Populists nominated separate state tickets, the nominees for governor being Cyrus B. Watson, Daniel L. Russell, and William A. Guthrie, respectively. But in September before the election, following a campaign of extreme bitterness, a complicated fusion arrangement was worked out. The Democrats and Populist fused in support of Bryan, who was the presidential nominee of four parties; Democrats, Populists, Prohibitionists, and Silver Republicans. Bryan carried North Carolina by a 20,000 majority over Republican William McKinley, who won the national election. The Republicans and Populists fused in support of a divided ticket of nominees for legislative and congressional offices and for some minor state positions; but each kept its own separate nominee for governor, lieutenant governor, and auditor. Republican Russell carried 44 of the states 96 counties and was elected governor by a vote of 153,787 over Watson with 145,266 and Guthrie with 31,143. Populist candidates carried only Sampson County and lost 16,000 of their 1892 vote to republican and democrats. Many Fusionist candidates were elected to minor state posts and to seats in the General Assembly and Congress. The total state vote was the largest on record to that time, and Russell’s victory was largely due to the fact that 59,000 more Republicans voted than had four years earlier. Much of this increase—but not all by any means—was due to the large Negro vote in some of the eastern counties.
Governor Russell’s Administration, 1897-1901—The Republicans and Populists, or Fusionists as they were commonly called, were in complete control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state government form 1897-1899. Under the capable leadership of Superintendent of Public Instruction Charles H. Mebane, the Fusionist embarked upon a progressive program of public education. In 1897 the office of county superintendent of schools was restored; every school district was required to vote on the issue of local school taxes and to vote every two years until the taxes should be approved. A legislative appropriation of $50,000 was made to aid schools in those districts which vote for local school taxes. This was the most advanced step in public education since the close of Reconstruction.
To fully restore local self-government, county government was vested in three commissioners elected by the qualified voters of each county. The powers of the railroad commission were enlarged and efforts were made to increase the effectiveness of this regulatory body. In addition to increasing the powers of this commission, the General Assembly wrangled over bills to prohibit the use of free railroad passes by public officials, but it failed to solve this problem. It also failed to annul the 99-year lease of the North Carolina Railroad made by Governor Elias Carr to the newly organized Southern railway Company in 1895. Governor Russell, backed by Walter Clark, the “fighting judge” of the state Supreme Court, and a few other “liberals,” fought valiantly to secure the annulment of the lease of the state’s most valuable piece of property, but was defeated by the influence of the Southern railway aided by a federal judge.
From the outset there was lack of harmony in the ranks of the Fusionists. In a sense, Fusion was a “marriage of convenience,” and it was not long until Republican and Populists began to quarrel over the distribution of the spoils of office, particularly the re-election of conservative Republican Jeter C. Pritchard to the United State Senate. Patronage and other issues split the fusionists and caused division within Populist ranks. The cleavage increased as Fusion achievements were obscured and Fusion rule discredited by the increased political activity of Negroes. The new election and county government laws resulted in more Negroes voting and holding office in the eastern counties and towns. Several hundred Negroes were chosen as justices of the peace, school committeemen, aldermen, and policemen. Governor Russell made some Negro appointments to institutional boards and state agencies—only eight out of 818 in his first two years. The federal government, in control of the Republicans, was responsible for the appointment of a number of Negro postmasters. The number and character of the offices held by Negroes hardly compared with the status of the Negroes as citizens, voters, and taxpayers, or indicated “Negro domination” of the state, but the Democrats seized upon the increased Negro political activity as an issue by which to regain political control. Appeals to racial hatred and prejudice strained race relations and brought about an increase in violence and crime. In lurid colors, the Democrats depicted Negro domination as threatening North Carolina civilization with anarchy, violence, and collapse. They talked and wrote about Wilmington, New Bern, Greenville, and other towns in the East being “negroized”—that Negroes “ran the schools, controlled the courts, and dominated county and city politics.”
The Spanish American War, 1898—Political controversies were temporarily forgotten in the “flare of enthusiasm” which followed the American declaration of war against Spain in April 1898. This armed conflict, which has been called a “comedy of errors,” lasted less than six months and ended in the defeat of Spain. By the Treaty of Paris (1898), the United States acquired Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and the Philippine Islands and Guam in the Pacific. Cuba was also liberated from Spanish rule and, as a result of the Platt Amendment of 1901 [repealed in 1934], it became an American protectorate.
North Carolina’s quota of troops under President McKinley’s call was two regiments of infantry and a battery of artillery. Three companies of Negro infantry were substituted for the artillery battery and expanded into the Third Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers. The other two regiments consisted of white troops. The First Regiment reached Havana on December 11, after the fighting was over. The other two regiments did not leave the state.
Though state troops saw no military action, two North Carolinians in regular service lost their lives. Ensign Worth Bagley of Raleigh was killed on May 11, “the first American naval officer killed in the war,” and Lieutenant William E. Shipp of the Army fell in the battle of San Juan near Santiago on July 1.
Party Conventions and Platforms, 1898—the campaign of 1898 had actually been under way long before the outbreak of war. On November 30, 1987, the executive committee of the Democratic party issued an address to the people. Among other things it declared: “We have fallen upon evil days in North Carolina…Too large a number of voters are ignorant for the asses to control…The Democratic party promises the people on its return to power to correct all these abuses.” The following month the party leaders worked out all the rules for the primaries, and provision “for exclusion of all Negroes from participation” foreshadowed the character of the coming campaign. The Democratic State Convention adopted a platform which condemned Fusion rule for its “corruption, extravagances, and incompetence,” denounced the Fusion legislature for “saddling Negro rule upon the eastern towns and for the choice of Negro school officials,” and condemned the republican national administration for placing “ignorant, irresponsible, and corrupt men in office.” The Populist State Convention endorsed the election law of 1895 and the county government law, again pledged support to public education, demanded an investigation of the lease of the North Carolina railroad, the reduction of railway rates, and the prohibition of free passes, advocated the initiative and referendum, and urged reform in taxation. The Republican State Convention adopted a platform which was largely devoted to national issues, but which contained a strong endorsement of Fusion rule. It declared that state finances had been “wisely, economically, and honestly administered,” that the laws had been “ably, fairly and impartially administered,” and that were “marked and gratifying signs of progress and development in all the material conditions of the State.”
The “White Supremacy” Campaign—Under the shrewd leadership of its newly elected State Chairman, Furnifold M. Simmons, the Democrats resorted to unprecedented organization, correspondence, publicity, and stump speaking. Increasingly the campaign centered about the Negro. During August “white government unions” or leagues were organized, especially in the eastern counties. On August 18, there appeared in the Wilmington Daily Record, a Negro paper, edited by Alex Manly, “a commentary written in refutation to the Democratic declaration that as long as Fusion reigned Negro men would increase their “advances’ to white women.” Manly’s editorial said:
“We suggest that the whites guard their women more closely…thus giving no opportunity for the human fiend, be he white or black. You leave your goods out of doors and then complain because they are taken away. Poor white men are careless in the matter of protecting their women, especially on the farms. They are careless of their conduct toward them and our experience among poor white people in the country teaches us that the women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with the colored men than the white men is with colored women. Meetings of this kind go on for some time until the woman’s infatuation or the man’s boldness brings attention to them and the man is lynched for rape. Every Negro lynched is called “a Big Burly Black Brute” when in fact many of these who have been thus dealt with had white men for their fathers and were not only “not black and burly” but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them as is well known.”
Democratic campaign speakers considered the Manly editorial as the “most vile and inflammatory article ever printed in the state,” and they proceeded to make the most of it in the closing months of the campaign. Race relations deteriorated and, according to a News and Observer editorial, private homes were being “fortified against possible attack.” Several years later, Governor Aycock declared that “more guns and pistols were sold in the State between 1896 and 1898 than had been sold in the previous twenty years.” In a dramatic but somewhat exaggerated statement, he said that “ lawlessness walked the state like a pestilence—death stalked abroad at noonday—‘sleep lay down armed’—the sound of the pistol was more frequent than the song of the mocking-bird—the screams of women, fleeing from pursuing brutes, closed the gates of our hearts with shock.”
The “Red Shirts” and the 1898 Campaign—There appeared in the closing days of October an organization known as the Red Shirts. “Men wore flaming red shirts, rode horses, carried rifles, paraded through Negro communities, and appeared at political rallies, especially Republican rallies.” The Red Shirts were most active in New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Robeson, and other counties in the southeastern portion of the state. Some of the Red Shirts had come into the sate from neighboring counties in South Carolina. A newspaper report from Wilmington on November 3, read: “The first red shirt parade on horseback ever witnessed in Wilmington electrified the people today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the negroes. The whole town turned out to see it. It was an enthusiastic body of men. Otherwise, it was quiet and orderly.”
Governor Russell’s Advice—Governor Russell was alarmed about the whole situation. On October 26 he issued a proclamation warning the people against acts of violence. He declared that the State Constitution guaranteed the people the “inherent right to regulate their own internal government, and that no turbulent mob using the weapons of intimidation and violence should usurp the authority of the courts.” He said that some counties had been “actually invaded by armed and lawless men from another state; that political meetings had been broken up and dispersed by these armed men; that citizens had been fired on from ambush and taken from their homes at night and whipped; and that peaceful citizens were afraid to register preparatory to voting.” He advised all law-abiding citizens not to allow themselves to become excited by appeals made to their passions and prejudices; all officers of the law to apprehend and bring to speedy trial all offenders against the political and civil rights of any person; and all persons who have entered this state from other states, in pursuance of any unlawful purpose, to disperse instantly and leave the state.”
“White Supremacy” as a Factor in the Election—Shortly before the election, Simmons, Chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee issued an “Appeal to the Voters of North Carolina,” asking them to “restore the state to the white people.” He said:
“The most memorable campaign ever waged in North Carolina is approaching its end. It has been a campaign of startling and momentous developments. The issues which have overshadowed all others have been the question of honest and economical State government and WHITE SUPREMACY… A proud race, which has never known a master, which had never bent to the yoke of any other race, by the irresistible power of fusion laws and fusion legislation had been placed under the control and dominion of that race which ranks lowest, save one, in the human family…
“WHITE WOMEN, of pure Anglo-Saxon blood, had been arrested upon groundless charges, by negro constables, and arraigned, tried, and sentenced by negro magistrates…
“NEGRO CONGRESSMEN, NEGRO SOLICITORS, NEGRO REVENUE OFFICERS, NEGRO COLLECTORS OF CUSTOMS, NEGROES in charge of white institutions, NEGROES in charge of white schools, NEGROES holding inquest over white dead. NEGROES controlling the finances of great cities, NEGROES in control of the sanitation and police of cities, NEGRO constables arresting white women and white men, white convicts chained to NEGRO CONVICTS and forced to social equality with them…
“The battle has been fought, the victory is within our reach. North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’S STATE, and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever again dare to establish negro rule here.”
As election day approached, Republicans and Populists were definitely and the defensive. They deplored the excessive of the Democrat tic campaign and warned that a Democratic victory would lead to a constitutional amendment setting up an educational test for voting. The Democratic leaders denied the charge and declared that they would never agree to take from any man his right to vote. The Populists split hopelessly over the fusion issue—one faction wishing to join the Democrats and the other the Republicans. The Democratic party violently hostile to the Populists and confident of victory, spurned the offer of fusion.
The election of November 8 was much more quiet and orderly than might have been expected. Many Negroes refrained from voting, perhaps because of Red Shirt activities or other pressures exerted to keep them from the polls. The Democrats elected 134 members of the General Assembly, the Republicans thirty, and the Populists only six. Of the representatives to Congress, the Democrats elected five, the republicans three, and the Populists one.
The Role of Business Interest in the 1898 Election—It has been customary to interpret the 1898 campaign almost wholly in terms of the struggle for “white supremacy.” But there were other actors in this memorable election. One of the state’s republican leaders declared soon after the election that “the negro was only the torch light which the voters have observed, while the tar beneath that produces the light has been obscured.” The Charlotte Observer declared editorially “the business men of the State are largely responsible for the victory. Not before in years have the bank men, the mill men, and the business men in general—the backbone of the property interest of the State—taken such sincere interest. They worked from start to finish, and furthermore they spent large bits of money in behalf of the cause…Indeed North Carolina is fast changing from an agricultural to a manufacturing State.”
Democratic leaders sought and most likely received heavy financial support form business interests. At the request of Simmons, former governor Thomas J. Jarvis approached “the large corporations” and promised that “in the event of Democratic victory their taxes would not be increased.” Josephus Daniels, writing years later, said that Simmons “promised denominational leaders that appropriations to State institutions of higher learning would not be increased by the legislature during the 1899 session.” In later years, Simmons admitted that “in order to win the campaign I felt it necessary to make two promises which later became somewhat embarrassing.” It is significant that a year before the election Mario Butler wrote in his newspaper, the Caucasian: “There is but one chance and but one hope for the railroads to capture the net legislature, and that is for the ‘nigger’ to be made the issue.” Yet he found the Raleigh News and Observer and the Charlotte Observer, representing the liberal and conservative factions in the Democratic party, respectively, “together in the same bed shouting nigger.” A few years later, North Carolina’s beloved poet, John Charles McNeil, wrote:
I cannot see, if you were dead,
How orators could earn their bread,
For they could never hold the crowd,
Save they abused you long and loud
As being a dark and threatening cloud,
The Wilmington Race Riot—A tragic aftermath of the 1898 election was the race riot at Wilmington on November 10. Inflamed by Republican-Negro rule of the city and the “inflammatory editorials” of the local Negro newspaper, a band of “600 armed white citizens” destroyed the printing material of editor Manly and “in some unaccountable way, the building took fire and burned to the ground.” The city was placed under armed guard, ten Negroes were reported killed, ten or more Negroes were “lodged in jail on the charge of being implicated in the instigation of a riot,” and “bumptious negro political leaders” were “made to leave the town on almost every train.” Mayor Wright fled to New York, Negro officials resigned, and a new city government was set-up with ex-Congressman A. M. Waddell as mayor. The News and Observer of November 13 announced that “negro rule is at an end in North Carolina forever. The events of the past week at Wilmington and elsewhere place that fact beyond all questions.”
The Democratic Legislature of 1899—In control of the General Assembly, the Democrats determined to complete their political conquest and to eliminate the Negro as a factor in North Carolina politics. The legislature repealed the school law of 1869, but appropriated $100,000 for public schools. It reasserted legislative control over county government, established a department of insurance, made the commissioner of agriculture an elective office, and replaced the railroad commission with a corporation commission of three members, appointed by the governor and empowered o supervise railroads, banks, telegraph, and telephone companies, street railways, and express companies. A new election law provided for a new registration of voters and the lection by the General Assembly of a state board of elections to choose county election boards, which in turn should choose the local election officials. The most significant action of this legislature was the passage of the suffrage amendment.
The Suffrage Amendment and the “Grandfather Clause”—Despite the campaign pledge that no man would be deprive of the right to vote, the democrats, tired of repressing the Negro vote by intimidation, election manipulation, and fraud, determined to secure the permanent legal elimination of the Negro from North Carolina politics. But how could they eliminate the Negro voter legally without disfranchising illiterate white voters or coming into conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution? Following, in part, plans devised by Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, the general Assembly proposed a constitutional amendment containing a requirement that any applicant for registration must have paid his poll tax and be able to read and write any section of the Constitution. A so-called “grandfather clause” provided that no person who was entitled to vote on or before January 1, 1867, or his lineal descendant, should be denied registration by reason of his failure to possess the educational qualifications, provided that he shall have registered prior to December 1, 1908. The literacy test would disfranchise illiterate Negroes and whites; but illiterate whites who registered before December 1, 1908 would be permitted to vote. Thus, this provision was actually an enfranchising clause. The proposed amendment must be voted on by the people at a state election in August 1900.
Candidates and Platforms, 1900—The Democratic state convention of 1900 nominated by acclamation, as the party candidate for governor Charles B. Aycock, ex-school teacher and lawyer who had won state-wide renown as a political orator able to convince the mind and stir the emotions, A platform was adopted calling for a minimum school term of four months in each district, more liberal car for the insane, a state-wide direct primary election law, and the ratification of the suffrage amendment.
A small Populist convention, seriously split by factionalism and by the suffrage amendment nominated a complete state ticket headed by Cyrus Thompson; but later, as part of a fusion arrangement with the Republicans, Thompson withdrew from the race. The Populist party was dead, and apparently many Populists voted the Democratic ticket.
The Republican convention nominated a state ticket with Spencer B. Adams as its head. The platform denied the charge of Negro domination of the state, endorsed Fusion rule, and denounced the suffrage amendment as undemocratic and in conflicts with the federal Constitution.
The 1900 Election—The Negroes were generally silent and quiescent during the campaign that aimed to take from them by state constitutional amendment the voting privilege guaranteed them by the Fifteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution; but a small group of prominent, educated Negroes issued a respectful address appealing for justice and the retention of the right of suffrage a beneficial to both Negroes and whites.
Democratic strategy, again directed by Simmons, featured the suffrage amendment and white supremacy. Appeals were made to the intellect and to the passions of voters. Aycock was merely the ablest of a large corps of campaign orators who advocated the disenfranchisement of illiterate Negroes as constitutional, beneficial to Negroes and whites, conducive to political peace and purity as well as material prosperity and general advancement, and promotive of a wholesome division of the whites on current questions. Aycock asserted the superiority of the whites, demanded the disenfranchisement of illiterate Negroes, justified the “grandfather clause” on the ground that illiterate whites had political intelligence by inheritance, and pledged justice to the Negro. When it appeared that the amendment might be endangered by the fear of disenfranchisement of illiterate whites, Aycock injected a note of statesmanship and turned the white supremacy campaign into a crusade for public education. He pledged his administration to the development of public schools for whites and Negroes, so that after the registration of 1908, no white man need be disenfranchised because of illiteracy,
The Republicans maintained that the proposed amendment was undemocratic, violative of the United States Constitution and of the 1868 act of Congress readmitting North Carolina to the Union, and certain to disenfranchise thousands of illiterate whites in the state. Many Populists and some Republicans, desirous of eliminating the Negro and making the party “lily white,” endorsed the amendment.
Despite the popular view that 1898 was the only “Red Shirt” campaign, that organization was probably more active and effective in 1900 than it had been two years earlier. In July and August of that year, the newspapers reported that Aycock was met in Orange County by “two bands and a thousand horsemen in red shirts,” that he had escort of 1,200 Red Shirts from Duplin, Pender, and Sampson counties when he spoke at Clinton, that 500 Red Shirts attended a rally at Burlington, and that red Shirt activity was in evidence at Henderson, Smithfield, Greensboro and other places. One Republican speaker found “Red Shirts waiting for him all along the line” from Wilmington to Weldon, and finally cancelled his tour.
Democrats win a Decisive Victory—Aycock, white supremacy, Negro disenfranchisement, and public education brought a sweeping Democratic victory. The suffrage amendment carried by a vote of 182,217 to 128,285. Thirty-one “white counties” in the central and western part of the state voted against it. The counties with a heavy Negro population gave the amendment a huge majority. This could either mean that the Negro did not vote or that his ballot was counted for the amendment regardless of how it was cast. It is noteworthy that forty-five registrars were arrested on various charges of misconduct in connection with the election. One Republican leader, Z.V. Walser, claimed that 50,000 votes were stolen.
Aycock defeated Adams for the governorship by a vote of 186,650 to 126,296; the democrats won an overwhelming majority of seats in the General Assembly, and seven of nine in the national House of Representatives, the two successful Republican candidates being from Wilkes and Haywood counties. William Jennings Bryan, Democratic candidate for president, carried the state over Republican William McKinley by a vote of 157,733 to 132,997. Bryan’s vote was 29,000 smaller than that received by Aycock, and it was 17,000 less than Bryan had received in 1896.
The Political Revolution of 1900—the adoption of the suffrage amendment deprived the Republican party of about 50,000 voters, confirmed Democratic dominance of state politics, and strengthened the one-party system. The Negro ceased to vote in large numbers; but the “race question” continued to be used effectively by the Democrats against the republicans and at times against “insurgent Democrats.” The adoption of the amendment did not put an end to corrupt ballot practices when they were needed against Republicans or even against insurgent elements within the Democratic party. Neither did it result in frank and open discussion of and division on current issues was henceforth between factions within the Democratic party, though such discussions and division was deplored by Democratic leaders in power.
The political revolution was highly significant for its effect upon the Democratic party. Defeated by its stubborn resistance to reform, its adherence to conservatism and its championship of the special interests of the business classes and chastened by its experience of defeat, the Democratic party returned to power with a more virile, youthful, progressive leadership; a program of public education and state development; a concern for the welfare of the common man; and a greater responsiveness to the hanging needs of a growing state. Moreover, Aycock and the Democrats took control at a time when economic conditions were much better than they had been in the “dark days” of the eighties and nineties. Conditions were propitious for notable progress and achievement. Many “reforms” in government were long overdue.