Cedric Harrison is a tall man with a long view. He leads heritage tours in Wilmington, N.C., the site of the nation’s only successful white supremacist coup.
Speaking this June, in the first week of the congressional hearings into the events of January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, Harrison reflected, “I think it would be easier for people to understand what could have happened on January 6th if they knew what actually happened on November 10th, 1898, right here.”
WilmingtoNColor, the tour company that Harrison cofounded, takes groups around town in a short school bus painted black and white. Drive up behind him and you’ll read on the vehicle’s rear: “Imagine a place where minorities actually lived a full and meaningful life.… A progressive and equal utopia…. What if we told you that utopia was Wilmington, NC?”
While “utopia” may be a bit romantic, it’s no exaggeration to say that before 1898, Wilmington was multiracial and small-d democratic. In the Reconstruction years after the Civil War, African Americans migrated to the thriving port town. Black residents held power—not a lot, but some—in government, commerce, communications, and social life, and enough Black men voted to have an impact on city policy.
It was all too much for a minority of disgruntled whites who, in 1898, bought up every gun around, sourced machine guns from the military, and riled up a mob through relentless fearmongering in the media of the day, which spread lies about government corruption, rape, and an imminent Black takeover. On November 10, that mob marched on Black Wilmington, led by a self-organized terror squad wearing red shirts. Burning the office of the town’s successful Black newspaper to the ground and forcing its outspoken editor to flee, the mob then killed key Black leaders and their white allies and banished more, evicting thousands from their jobs and homes across the city.
Deputized on the spot by the town’s sheriff and chief of police, the coup plotters then forcibly removed the elected city government and installed their own lead demagogue as mayor. Alfred Moore Waddell was a loser lawyer with a vicious tongue who’d incited whites with a pledge to “fill the Cape Fear River with black carcasses.” White businessmen and planters then reinstituted strict segregation and Jim Crow discrimination. North Carolina didn’t see another African American elected to Congress until almost a century later, in 1992. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning chronicler of the coup, David Zucchino, puts it, a Black-majority city turned into a white citadel virtually overnight, and inspired white supremacy’s spread throughout the region.
It was on a different scale from January 6, said Harrison. In 1898, bleeding bodies filled the rivers and the streets. People drove through residential neighborhoods with machine guns firing bullets. Families ran away and hid in the cemetery and the swamps.
“But a lot of folks will go about their days denying that things like this ever happened and saying they couldn’t happen today. The truth is, it did happen, and January 6th is clear proof that the same mindset exists.”
You don’t have to go back 120 years to talk about white violence and questionable elections in North Carolina. Just 50 miles west of Wilmington in rural Columbus County in the southeast corner of the state, Sheriff Jody Greene was elected by just 37 votes in 2018, in a result that his opponent contested all the way to the state board of elections. Greene went on to acquire $3.8 million in decommissioned military hardware under the federal government’s 1033 program, including two helicopters, two “mine-resistant vehicles” and a whole lot of riot shields.
Local residents don’t know why Greene chose to gear up in this way. They do know that when they gathered in tiny Whiteville, the county seat, to hold a gospel protest after the police killing of George Floyd, they found themselves observed by what several participants describe as “snipers” stationed atop the brick county courthouse, the only building tall and modern enough to look down on sleepy Courthouse Square. Whiteville’s population barely tops 5,300 people. The entire county holds just over 10 times that.
Lewis Hatcher, Greene’s incumbent opponent in that 2018 election, is seriously concerned about the state of local democracy. Greene is white; Hatcher is Black. Columbus County’s population is almost evenly divided between Black and white residents, though there are more than twice as many registered white voters as Black ones. Still, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than two to one. Hatcher was first elected in 2014 with more than 79 percent of the vote. When he looked into the results in 2018, he found that at least 180 provisional ballots were never accounted for, and Greene’s place of residence was a flimsy-looking trailer on an overgrown lot.
“There was no evidence of anybody living anywhere on those premises,” Hatcher told us.
While the county board of elections agreed with Hatcher, the state board ended up ruling in Greene’s favor. (Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was not so lucky. The former N.C. representative is under investigation for lying on his 2020 voter registration form, using the address of a mobile home that he has never owned or lived in.)
Hatcher went down to defeat. But the investigation by the state elections board also found that Jody Greene contracted the services of the political consulting firm Red Dome Group, whose founder promised that he would provide the Greene campaign “with positive absentee ballot results.” In February 2019, a contractor paid by Red Dome named Leslie McCrae Dowless was arrested on charges of obstruction of justice and possession of absentee ballots in Bladen County, which neighbors Columbus. Dowless was indicted and convicted of the crime, but died before sentencing. State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon told WUNC that board investigators at the time had “no evidence that the Jody Greene Campaign directly or indirectly knowingly contracted with McCrae Dowless.” There has been no further investigation.
In office, Greene has done nothing to assuage residents’ concerns about his commitment to the democratic process. In addition to acquiring more military gear than any other county in this part of the state, Greene has had nothing critical to say about local Oath Keepers—even after a busload of 28 local members went to Washington on January 6 and photographed themselves at the Capitol. In January 2021, federal prosecutors indicted one named North Carolinian with conspiracy and other offenses. The indictment alleges that a caravan of armed Oath Keepers from Florida “stopped and spent the night of January 4-5 at the residence of the leader of the North Carolina chapter.” The indictment further alleges that N.C. Oath Keepers rented a hotel room in Virginia where weapons were stored, ready for use if martial law was declared in D.C.
So far, 21 North Carolina residents have been charged in relation to the events of January 6. Special forces veteran and Whiteville resident, Doug Smith who led the North Carolina Chapter in 2020–21, denies all association with violence and claims to have broken with the national organization after the insurrection.
“Our vision was to be a part of our local [law enforcement] departments in each county, where they can depend on us,” Smith told Thomas Sherrill of the News Reporter.
Going forward, Smith told the Reporter, there’s a plan to reorganize the former North Carolina Oath Keepers.
“Our mission would be the same, to be in support of our local law enforcement, but we’d definitely rebrand our name,” Smith said.
As anti-racist author and researcher Mab Segrest has pointed out in her intensive scrutiny of the local roots of the January 6 insurrection, under North Carolina law it is a Class 1 misdemeanor to “organize a military company, or drill or parade underarms as a military body…or exercise or attempt to exercise power or authority of a military officer in this State, without holding a commission from the Governor.”
Today Sheriff Greene denies any association with the Oath Keepers (“I’ve nothing bad nor good to say about them,” he told the local press when asked about their plans to expand in his county). But Greene’s Facebook page once identified him as an Oath Keeper “member since 2020.” Sheriff Greene rejected our requests for an interview. When we showed up at the kickoff of his reelection campaign, a supposedly public event hosted by the Columbus County Law Enforcement Officers Association in a large, windowless wood barn at the end of a long dirt track, between corn fields, we were told that the chair of the local GOP had forbidden us from attending. The next day, the Columbus County Conservative published a fearmongering story about shady New York media.
Some Columbus County residents remain undeterred. Twenty or so individuals representing a multiracial cross section of concerned citizens meet monthly for “courageous conversations” in the spacious front room of Carol Caldwell’s family’s home, built just after the end of Reconstruction.
Back when Caldwell was growing up here, her parents ran a local grocery. The neighborhood had an array of Black-family-owned stores like hers. Now, she says, “there are none left. The place has suffered a couple of generations of disinvestment and brain-drain.”
“When our kids graduate from high school, there’s nothing to bring them back,” says Caldwell.
The last two Black school principals in Columbus County were demoted this June. One, Georgia Spaudling, was a former Principal of the Year. Both were replaced by white administrators.
Caldwell and her colleagues can rattle off lots of local needs that would take precedence over tanks and helicopters. Sheriff Greene, who accused Hatcher of corruption and misuse of funds, says the equipment he acquired came free of charge under the federal government’s 1033 program (which, having been slightly restricted under President Obama, was restored under President Trump). But that program still requires local taxpayers to pay for shipping, maintenance, and repair. Participating agencies are also required to submit a “100 percent certified annual inventory” and compliance review attesting to use and upkeep.
The North Carolina state coordinator for the 1033 gear failed to answer our calls. Columbus County’s financial records for the year after Greene came into power make no specific mention of the Defense Logistic Agency, or DoD-related expenditures.
If the congressional hearings have taught us anything it is that democracy rests on fragile roots. Marcus Norfleet, is one of those roots. Another tall Black man with a deep sense of history, Norfleet ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner in Columbus County this year.
“I ran because there wasn’t anybody else who was willing to stand up at the time.” Norfleet told us.
Norfleet knows that racial coups have happened in America—including the one in Wilmington in 1898—and he can see that people with a very similar outlook are still around.
The country saw some of them on January 6 in Washington, D.C. We may not see them on national TV when they seize power in rural places like Columbus County, says Norfleet. But if you don’t put up any resistance, “You’re giving kind of green light for these things to continue.”
“It’s a hostile takeover kind of thing that we’re seeing,” said Norfleet.
The author wishes to thank Mab Segrest for research assistance on this article.