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Wilmington Riots
(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

Riots    Other Views    Credits

The Wilmington riots in 1898 ended the legitimate and substantial political power that African Americans had in that city. Historical records are not complete, and the number reported killed varies, but there is little doubt that the riot (some called it a massacre) instituted white supremacist rule. Having grown up in North Carolina, and having taught there, Chesnutt was deeply disturbed by the reports he heard of what had happened. Below is the letter he wrote to his publicist, Walter Hines Page. Within two years, Chesnutt had completed a novel, The Marrow of Tradition that told a fictional account of the riots.

Nov. 11, 1898
Dear Mr. Page:-

I am deeply concerned and very much depressed at the condition of affairs in North Carolina during the recent campaign. I have been for along time praising the State for its superior fairness and liberty in the treatment of race questions, but I find myself obliged to revise some of my judgments. There is absolutely no excuse for the state of things there, for the State of had a very large white majority. It is an outbreak of pure, malignant and altogether indefensible race prejudice, which makes me feel personally humiliated, and ashamed for the country and the State. The United States Government is apparently Powerless, and the recent occurrences in Illinois in Connection with the miners strike to emphasize its weakness.

But I would not inflict my view on you in this matter, except for a circumstance you may find interesting. The colored people’s newspaper The Daily Record, the office of which was burned yesterday by a mob of the “best citizens” of Wilmington, numbering in their ranks many “ministers of the gospel,” and the editor of which has been compelled to flee for his life, republished “the Wife of His Youth” in installments running over about a week, sometime ago, and somebody sent me several copies of the paper. It gave credit to the Atlantic, but I rather doubted whether it had optioned your permission to copy the story. If I had the heart to joke on a subject that seems to me very seriously and hopelessly tragically, I might say that the misfortunes of the newspaper were a sort of divine retribution, or poetic justice for a violation of copyright.

I am making rapid progress on the novel, and will have it ready to submit to you by the end of the year or sooner, I believe.