As in other Southern states, after white Democrats regained power, they worked to re-establish white supremacy politically and socially. Paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts beginning in 1875 worked openly to disrupt black political meetings, intimidate leaders and directly challenge voters in campaigns and elections, especially in the Piedmont area. They sometimes physically attacked black voters and community leaders.
Despite this, in the 1880s, black officeholders were at a peak in local offices, where much business was done, elected from black-majority districts. White Democrats regained power on the state level.
Post-Civil War racial politics encouraged efforts to divide and co-opt groups. In the drive to regain power, Democrats supported an effort by state representative Harold McMillan to create separate school districts in 1885 for “Croatan Indians” to gain their support. Of mixed race and claiming Native American heritage, the families had been classified as free people of color in the antebellum years and did not want to send their children to public school classes with former slaves. After having voted with the Republicans, they switched to the Democrats. (In 1913 the group changed their name to “Cherokee Indians of Robeson County”, “Siouan Indians of Lumber River” in 1934-1935, and were given limited recognition as Indians by the U.S. Congress as Lumbee in 1956. The Lumbee are one of several Native American tribes that have been officially recognized by the state in the 21st century.)
In 1894 after years of agricultural problems, an interracial coalition of Republicans and Populists won a majority of seats in the state legislature and elected the governor, Republican Daniel L. Russell. North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district elected George Henry White, an educated African-American attorney, as its third black representative to Congress since the Civil War.
White Democrats worked to break up the coalition, and reduce voting by blacks and poor whites. In 1896 North Carolina passed a statute that made voter registration more complicated and reduced the number of blacks on voter registration rolls.
In 1898, in an election characterized by violence, fraud and intimidation of black voters by Red Shirts, white Democrats regained control of the state legislature. Two days after the election, a small group of whites in Wilmington implemented their plan to take over the city government if the Democrats were not elected. The cadre led 1500 whites against the black newspaper and neighborhood in what is known as the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898; the mob and other whites killed up to 90 blacks. The cadre forced the resignation of Republican officeholders, including the white mayor, and mostly white aldermen, and ran them out of town. They replaced them with their own slate and that day elected Alfred M. Waddell as mayor, in the only coup d’etat in United States history.
Country store in Gordonton, North Carolina, 1939
The state legislature ratified a new constitution in 1899 with a suffrage amendment, whose requirements for poll taxes, literacy tests (administered by white officials) and similar mechanisms disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites.
Congressman White, an African American Republican said, “I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man and be treated as a man.” He had been re-elected in 1898, but after passage of the new constitution, announced his decision not to seek a third term, saying he would leave the state. He moved his law practice to Washington, DC and later to Philadelphia, where he founded a commercial bank. By 1904, black voter turnout had been utterly reduced in North Carolina. Contemporary accounts estimated that 75,000 black male citizens lost the vote. In 1900 blacks numbered 630,207 citizens, about 33% of the state’s total population.
With control of the legislature, white Democrats passed Jim Crow laws establishing racial segregation in public facilities and transportation. African Americans worked for more than 60 years to gain federal support and regain full power to exercise the suffrage and other constitutional rights of citizens. Without the ability to vote, they were excluded from juries and lost all chance at local offices: sheriffs, justices of the peace, jurors, county commissioners and school board members, which were the active site of government around the start of the 20th century. Suppression of the black vote and re-establishment of white supremacy quickly overwhelmed people’s memory and knowledge of the thriving black middle class in the state. The Republicans were no longer competitive in state politics.