Ideas

America's Other Civil War

The term "coup d'état" usually applies to the violent takeover of a nation. But the phenomenon has occurred within American cities as well. In the decades after the Civil War, four American cities over four decades saw white civilians -- and officials -- attack and destroy thousands of African-American properties, businesses and lives. Contributor Melissa Gismondi examines each incident to exhume the socio-cultural dynamics at work -- and how they persist today.
Black smoke billows from fires during the race riot of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Corbis via Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:58

"This was a war. This was meant to deter a certain group of people and to harm people." Dhati Kennedy is a local historian and activist, and he's referring to an anti-black uprising in early July, 1917 in East St. Louis, IL. Members of Kennedy's family, including his father, survived the violence.  

No one knows how many African-Americans died in that uprising, but some believe the number is close to 100. Many more became refugees, their homes and businesses destroyed.

The violence in East St. Louis wasn't the first time this kind of insurrection took place in the U.S. — it also wouldn't be the last. Between the abolition of slavery in 1865, and the civil rights movement in the 1950s, racist violence erupted in many other cities, including Colfax, LA (1873), Wilmington, NC (1898) and Tulsa, OK (1921). 

Often referred to as "race riots," the conflicts amounted to a series of civic coups d'etat. They were, according to historians and community leaders, attempts by angry and embittered white residents to annihilate black political and economic gains and, in some cases, to overthrow elected officials. 

IDEAS contributor Melissa Gismondi wanted to know more about these important — if largely forgotten — events and ask: what can they tell us about America, both then and now? 

Colfax, Louisiana 1873

Illustration from a May 10, 1873 edition of Harper’s Weekly, depicting the Colfax Massacre, entitled, "The Louisiana Murders—Gathering The Dead And Wounded.” (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The American Civil War ended in 1865, and while the emancipation of some four million enslaved people signalled the end of institutional slavery, it also marked the beginning of new injustices. 

"A slavery regime had been destroyed, and the battle was over what was going to replace it," says Eric Foner, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.  

That battle started soon after the Civil War ended in the period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877). Across the former Confederacy, white residents used violence to try to prevent African-Americans from voting, holding office and owning property. 

Foner said the worst of this violence occurred in Colfax, LA on April 13, 1873. In an anti-black uprising, spurred in part by the contested results of the 1872 election, a white mob massacred an undetermined number of African-Americans, though historians believe the number is more than 150 people. 

Wilmington, North Carolina - 1898

A mob stands in front of the charred remains of The Daily Record in Wilmington, NC, in November 1898. (Courtesy of New Hanover County Public Library, North Carolina Room)

Despite facing widespread resistance and racism, some African-Americans fought to acquire political and economic power. In Wilmington, African-Americans served in the municipal government as part of an ascending black middle class.

But on November 10, 1898, all that changed. In what historians consider the only official coup d'etat in American history, a white mob — in partnership with local officials — overthrew the municipal government, exiling some black and white community leaders. Properties and homes were seized, and white men attacked black residents in the streets.

Cynthia Brown's great-grandmother, Athalia Howe Whitfield, survived the violence. "What I remember very distinctly and clearly was she grabbed my wrist and she said, 'I don't want that to happen, I don't want that to happen to you," said Brown. 

Tulsa, Oklahoma - 1921

Thousands of African-Americans were interned during the violence of May 31 and June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, OK. ( Courtesy of Mechelle Brown/Greenwood Cultural Center)

In Tulsa, the targets were the residents of a thriving, entrepreneurial community known then as the "Black Wall Street." But between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white mobs went on a rampage, destroying homes and businesses and killing hundreds of African-Americans.

"The number that is most recognized is 300," says Mechelle Brown, program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa. "It's definitely more," she added, noting that local research points to the possibility of mass graves. 

The violence in Tulsa was unique, as it featured an aerial attack. "I saw what I thought were little black birds dropping out of the sky," survivor Genevieve Elizabeth Tillman Jackson remembered. "But those were no little birds. What was falling from the sky ... were bullets, and devices to set fires, and debris of all kinds." This testimony and others like it led a 2001 investigation to conclude Tulsa was almost certainly the first American city to be bombed from the air.

Slavery's long shadow

A list of the unpaid financial claims African-Americans filed after the 1921 anti-black uprising is memorialized outside of the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, OK. (Courtesy of Melissa Gismondi)

Although the violence in Colfax, Wilmington, East St. Louis and Tulsa occurred long ago, the legacy of these civic coups d'etat lingers. In some cases, the social, cultural and political features that defined these events are still active.

In Colfax, the two monuments commemorating the massacre honour the three white victims. Astonishingly, one applauds them for "fighting for white supremacy." 

The monuments reflect what Foner characterizes as the long shadow of slavery.

A monument to the Colfax Massacre, commemorating the three white men who died “fighting for white supremacy.” (Courtesy of Brett Barrouquere/Southern Poverty Law Center)

"All you have to do is turn on our news and you'll see it," he said. "The fundamental question that comes out of the Civil War and the end of slavery — can this be a society of equals, can we accept the descendants of slavery as equal members of our society? That's still being fought out in the United States today."

Although there is growing awareness of these civic coups d'etat, Mechelle Brown and Dhati Kennedy fear we live in a climate that could produce similar acts of race-based political violence. They cite common factors that precipitated each uprising: demographic change, economic unrest and burgeoning white supremacist organizations.

Foner adds that the anti-black violence also featured a critical mass of white people identifying themselves as a threatened group, as well as a sense of impunity among these whites to defend themselves against their perceived threat; namely, African-Americans inching up the socio-economic ladder.

It's mind-blowing to think that here we are in 2019, and in many ways not a lot has changed.- Mechelle Brown

Mechelle Brown notes that the Ku Klux Klan, which was influential at the time of the 1921 massacre, is still prominent in Tulsa today. She remembers Klan members banging on her grandmother's back door one night when Brown was a child. Brown said she saw a "sea" of white hoods and torches. "That's just one of several times growing up in Tulsa where I remember seeing the Klu Klux Klan in full attire," said Brown.  

Mechelle Brown is program coordinator for the Greenwood Cultural Center. She says “Black Wall Street” - as the Greenwood area was known - was a thriving black metropolis before the 1921 massacre. (Courtesy of Melissa Gismondi)

She says it's disheartening to see how prevalent racism still is in her community: "It's mind blowing to think that here we are in 2019, and in many ways not a lot has changed."

Dhati Kennedy sees connections between anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. right now, and white fear of black southerners migrating to St. Louis in the 1910s.

"The myth that people coming in from a different place — to come in and take our land and our daughters — is the same," he said.

For Cynthia Brown, the lesson from Wilmington is sobering: "Perhaps when we are comfortable with the daily rigours of life and we treat [them] as, 'that's just life', we desensitize to indicators that would suggest there's a really bad storm brewing out there on the water. The hurricane is coming, and we need to be ready for it." 
 

Guests in this episode:

  • Eric Foner is Dewitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
  • Jan Davidson is a historian at the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science in Wilmington, NC.
  • Cynthia Brown is a local historian and community leader in Wilmington, NC. Her great-grandmother, Athalia Howe Whitfield, survived the 1898 coup d'etat.  
  • Dhati Kennedy is a community activist and local historian in East St. Louis, IL. His father, Samuel, survived the 1917 violence in that city. 
  • Mechelle Brown is the program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, OK. 

*Special thanks to Jamal Millner at Virginia Humanities and the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum for use of recorded interviews with survivors and witnesses of the 1921 massacre. 

Readings from archival accounts by the following contributors:  Sean Foley; Jeff Goodes; Chris Howden; Greg Kelly; Jim Lebans; Naheed Mustafa; James Scales; Tina Verma. 
 



**This episode was produced by Melissa Gismondi and Greg Kelly.

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