The Election of 1898 in North Carolina: An Introduction
The election of 1898 marked a
turning point in the history of North Carolina. In the years leading up
to the election there were three active political parties vying for the
support of the state's electorate, and African Americans had a
significant role in state politics, both as officeholders and voters.
After 1898, all of that would change. The political landscape through
most of the twentieth century was affected by issues and policies
raised in the campaign of 1898.
After the Civil War, the
Republican Party rose to power in North Carolina. Many former
Confederates were prohibited from voting, while newly enfranchised
African Americans and whites who had sympathized with the Union flocked
to the Republican Party, still viewed as the party of Abraham Lincoln
As former Confederates and Whigs
began to come back into the political process, they formed the
Conservative Party, which opposed federal intervention in state affairs
and spoke out against the so-called "radical" reconstruction policies
of the U.S. Congress. The Conservatives, who would later change their
name to the Democratic Party, took control of the North Carolina
General Assembly in 1870 and began to reverse some of the changes
enacted by Reconstruction-era Republicans. In 1876, popular Civil War
governor Zebulon Vance was returned to the state's highest office. In
the eyes of many white North Carolinians, the state had been
When North Carolina, like much of
the rest of the nation, was mired in a severe economic depression in
the 1880s, the small farmers in the state were hit the hardest. The
poor infrastructure in the state made it difficult for them to get
their goods to market, and, when they did, they thought that they were
not given a fair price by buyers. To compound their problems, many
farmers felt that neither of the two major political parties had their
best interests at heart.
The national Farmers Alliance, an
organization of farmers advocating for cooperatives and economic
reform, spawned smaller organizations throughout the country, with an
active branch in North Carolina. The "alliancemen" were active
supporters of the new People's Party, also known as the Populist Party,
led nationally by North Carolinian Leonidas LaFayette Polk.
The Populists ran several
candidates in the 1892 election in North Carolina and the results were
surprising. While few of their candidates were elected, they did
receive a significant number of votes. In fact, the Populist vote
combined with the Republican vote was greater than that for the
Democrats. While the Democratic party still controlled the government,
they no longer represented the majority of voters.
In 1894, the Republicans and
Populists negotiated an agreement in which, instead of running
competing candidates for statewide offices, they would divide the
ticket between the two parties. This cooperative arrangement was known
as "fusion." It worked. The fusion candidates defeated the Democrats
throughout the state, winning a majority in the legislature. Populist
leader Marion Butler and Republican Jeter Pritchard were elected to the
U.S. Senate. Once in control, the fusion government enacted a series of
reforms, including a more liberal election law -- which would make it
easier for North Carolinians to vote -- and a restoration of "home
rule," allowing elections of local officials in several eastern North
Carolina counties where they had previously been appointed by the
state. In 1896 the parties fused again, retaining control of the
legislature and electing Republican Daniel L. Russell governor. While
other states experimented with fusion arrangements, nowhere was it as
successful as in North Carolina.
After two successful campaigns,
cracks in the fusion relationship began to show. Although the
Republicans and Populists shared common interests in electoral reform
and local self-government, these issues had already been addressed, and
some Populists were uncomfortable joining with a party that did not
support increased coinage of silver and was so closely associated with
African Americans. The state Populist leadership, in fact, felt that
they had more in common with the Democrats and actually proposed a
fusion agreement with them in 1898. However, when the Democrats
refused, both the Populist and Republican leaders realized that the
only way they could continue to hold power was through fusion and they
agreed to run together again.
As the election of 1898 got
closer, the Democrats scrambled to come up with a new strategy to
regain power. Furnifold Simmons, who had successfully run the 1892
campaign for the party, was appointed party chairman and charged with
managing the campaign. Simmons was a successful organizer with a keen
knowledge of state politics. He organized a speakers bureau, sending
talented orators who were sure to stay on message to all parts of the
state, and he helped to establish local political organizations in each
county. But perhaps Simmons's most important contribution to the
campaign would be the decision to focus nearly all of the party's
campaign efforts on a single issue: white supremacy.
The "white supremacy campaign" was
exactly that. The Democrats repeatedly stated that only white men were
fit to hold political office. They often accused the fusionists,
especially the Republicans, of supporting "negro domination" in the
state. Indeed, there were a large number of African American
officeholders, some of whom had been elected and many more who were
appointed to office. The Democrats referred to themselves as the "white
man's party" and appealed to white North Carolinians to restore them to
One of the most significant events
of the campaign was the appearance of an editorial in the Wilmington Daily
Record on August 18, 1898. The Daily Record
was an African American newspaper published by Alex Manly. The
editorial was a response to a speech by a Georgia woman who had called
for the widespread lynching of African American men in order to protect
white women. The Daily Record suggested that
consensual relationships between African American men and white women
were common and that often the man was accused of rape only after the
relationship was discovered. Once the Democratic papers got hold of the
editorial there was an uproar. Under headings such as "Vile and
Villainous" and "A Horrid Slander," the editorial was reprinted
throughout the state. Some Democratic papers continued to run it in
almost every single issue up to election day.
The effect of the Daily
Record editorial and the success of the repeated cries for
white supremacy by the Democrats left their opponents reeling. The
Republicans tried to focus on electoral reform and fair government,
while the Populists ended up on the defensive, eventually trying to
assume the white supremacy issue for themselves. Populist newspapers
such as the Progressive Farmer and Caucasian
ran cartoons and editorials criticizing the
Democrats for appointing African American officials and arguing that
the Populists were in fact the true "white man's party." But it was all
of no use. Simmons ran a masterful campaign, with racial issues
dominating the discourse all the way through.
Toward the end of the campaign,
perhaps worried that speeches and editorials would not be enough to
ensure victory, the Democrats increasingly resorted to the threat of
violence. At several rallies in southeastern North Carolina, large
groups of men dressed in red shirts and openly brandishing weapons rode
through predominantly African American neighborhoods in an effort to
scare potential Republican voters away from the polls. The "Red Shirts"
were a campaign strategy borrowed from South Carolina Senator Ben
Tillman, who appeared at several rallies on behalf of the North
On election day, November 8, 1898,
the Democrats were returned to power. They won a majority of the seats
in the legislature and quickly began work on legislation that would
effectively disfranchise African American voters for decades to come.
The effects of the election were lasting. After Daniel Russell left
office in 1900, North Carolina would not elect another Republican
governor until 1972. George White, an African American who was elected
to Congress from a predominantly African American district in 1898 was
the last African American elected to that body until 1928. North
Carolina would not send another African American to Washington until
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