America's Other Civil War: How white nationalism led to 'civic coups d'état'

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.

Slavery’s 'long shadow' still being felt according to historians

Smoke billows from African-American properties targeted by white mobs in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla. Demands are now being made for full reparations to the survivors and descendants of victims of the Tulsa massacre. (Corbis via Getty Images)

** Originally published on May 27, 2019.

The long shadow of slavery in the United States is still being felt, according to historian Eric Foner.

"All you have to do is turn on our news and you'll see it." 

Professor Foner made this statement over a year before the police killing of George Floyd, protesters being met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and presidential threats issued under the banner of "law and order."

"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," Foner adds.

It was also fought in the decades after the Civil War — in what amounted to a series of civic coups d'état.

Historian and activist Dhati Kennedy calls this fight a "war," one that was "meant to deter a certain group of people and to harm people."

"The specific incident he's referring to is an anti-Black uprising in early July 1917 in East St. Louis, Ill. Members of Kennedy's family, including his father, survived the violence.

No one knows how many African-Americans died then, but some observers 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, N.C. (1898) and Tulsa, Okla. (1921). 

Often referred to as "race riots," the conflicts 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. 

1873: Colfax, Louisiana 

Illustration from the May 10, 1873 edition of Harper’s Weekly, depicting the Colfax Massacre: 'The Louisiana Murders—Gathering The Dead And Wounded.' (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 Foner, a 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 nationalists used violence to prevent African-Americans from voting, holding office and owning property. 

Foner says 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. 

1898: Wilmington, North Carolina

A white mob stands in front of the charred remains of a Black newspaper building, The Daily Record in Wilmington, N.C., in November 1898. (Photo submitted by 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, Black people served in the municipal government as part of an ascending African-American mercantile class.

But on November 10, 1898, all that changed. In what historians consider the only official coup d'état 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 says, 'I don't want that to happen, I don't want that to happen to you.'"

1921: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Thousands of African-Americans were interned during the white nationalist violence of May 31 and June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Okla. There are only two known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Lessie Benningfield Randle (age 105) and Viola Fletcher (106). (Photo submitted by 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 events in Tulsa followed the template of white nationalist violence seen in Colfax, Wilmington and St. Louis, but was unique in one respect: 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."

Testimonies such as hers were part of a 2001 investigation which concluded that Tulsa was almost certainly the first American city to be bombed from the air.

Slavery's long shadow

Memorial of unpaid financial claims African-Americans filed after the 1921 anti-Black rioting, on display at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla. (Photo submitted by Melissa Gismondi)

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

The Colfax Massacre monument commemorating three white men who died 'fighting for white supremacy.' (Photo submitted by Brett Barrouquere/Southern Poverty Law Center)

There is growing awareness of these civic coups d'état, particularly the violence in Tulsa, which was featured in an HBO series, Watchmen. Still, when IDEAS contributor Melissa Gismondi spoke to Mechelle Brown and Dhati Kennedy in early 2019, they said — perhaps prophetically — that they feared similar acts of race-based political violence could recur. They cited 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 and securing civil rights.

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. She remembers Klan members banging on her grandmother's back door one night when Brown was a child.  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." 

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. (Photo submitted by Melissa Gismondi)

She disclosed over a year ago how disheartening to see how prevalent racism remains in her community: "It's mind blowing to think that here we are in 2019 and in many ways not a lot has changed."

For Cynthia Brown, the lesson from Wilmington is sobering, especially in light of the police killing of Floyd George and others.

"Perhaps when we are comfortable with the daily rigours of life and we treat [injustices] 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, N.C.
  • Cynthia Brown is a local historian and community leader in Wilmington, N.C. 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, Ill. His father, Samuel, survived the 1917 violence in that city. 
  • Mechelle Brown is the program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla. 

*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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?