Jews & the Burden of Southern History

By | Sep 27, 2023
History, Jews & Civil Rights, Latest

On September 17, the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature overrode Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto and enacted the latest in a series of measures that Cooper and the state’s African-American leaders said was aimed at suppressing, limiting and otherwise diluting the votes of the state’s African American voters. In his veto message, Cooper had charged that the bill was “an all-out assault on the right to vote” for numerous groups, especially “people of color.”

“Is this legislation part of a pattern?” asked the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival and professor at the Yale University Divinity School. “Yes. Black people understand. It’s not always a straight line, but there’s a consistent line of extremism trying to undermine the fusion effort to unite Black, white and now, brown voters.”

Indeed, this latest legislation echoes a violent episode with the same goal, on Election Day, 1898, known as the “Wilmington Massacre.” In this tragic event, white supremacists overthrew Wilmington’s elected biracial government, resulting in the reversal of Reconstruction-era progress in the region. The Wilmington Massacre is the only successful coup in United States history. The estimated casualties of Black Americans killed during the insurrection range between 60 and 250, with more than 2,000 displaced.

David Zucchino’s 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, tells the story of the bloody Election Day overthrow of the port city’s government and the events leading up to it. Included in Zucchino’s extensive portrayal is the role two North Carolinian Jews played in the uprising, both enthusiastically on the wrong side of the coup—and of history.

In the 1890s, Wilmington was the tip of the sword for a statewide resurgence of white supremacist, so-called “redeemer” Democrats, who aimed to crush the remaining vestiges of Reconstruction and disenfranchise African Americans, the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution notwithstanding.

Jewish presence in Wilmington is thought to date from the 1790s. During the Civil War, some Jews in North Carolina and throughout the South fought for the Confederacy. In Wilmington, a number of Jewish businessmen also financed blockade runners. “By the 1890s,” Zucchino wrote, “Jews owned most of Wilmington’s dry good stores and had built comfortable middle-class lives.”

Chief among them was Solomon “Silas” H. Fishblate, a former three-term Wilmington mayor and clothing store owner. Fishblate became the first Jew elected to local office in North Carolina, in 1873, as a city alderman. This followed a Reconstruction change in the state constitution, which had prohibited Jews from holding office.

During the coup, Fishblate, ironically a New Yorker and Union Army veteran, led one of the armed, racist mobs that drove out the elected and city government coalition of Republicans, Populists and their African American supporters, leaving scores of Blacks dead. Fishblate declared, “The choice in this election is between white rule and Negro rule. I am with the white man every time.”

Among his allies were J. N. Jacobi, operator of N. Jacobi Hardware Co., who had moved to Wilmington from Charleston, South Carolina. Jacobi was a Confederate Army veteran who, with a handful of other Jewish merchant family members, was a charter member of the United Confederate Veterans, founded in 1889. He was also president of Wilmington’s first Jewish congregation.

The Jacobi family, Zucchino writes, was “part of a small but influential Jewish community that had carved out a niche among Wilmington’s merchant class.” As Wilmington simmered in the summer of 1898, Jacobi, still a prominent synagogue leader, sold guns and ammunition—but only to white supremacist Democrats. He would not sell arms to Blacks or Republicans. Further, he proposed to other business owners an ultimatum for their Black employees: keeping their jobs or registering to vote. He called on fellow Jewish merchants to threaten to fire their black employees if the multi-racial Fusion Party ticket won.

Like Wilmington, the city of New Bern, 60 miles up the coast, was a riverfront port city in the state’s “Black Belt.” Both had vibrant Black middle classes—doctors, lawyers, preachers, small business owners—as well as a skilled working class. According to the 1890 census, there were 8,731 whites in Wilmington and 11,324 Blacks. Whites numbered 2,572 in New Bern compared to 5,271 Blacks. As a result of large numbers of enfranchised adult Black males and canny coalition building with Republicans and insurgent Populists, there were numerous local Black office holders and appointed municipal board members in both cities.

Wilmington’s 1898 coup accelerated the institutionalized system of racial segregation across Southern and border states (slave states that bordered free states during the Civil War) for more than 160 years.

According to historian Leonard Rogoff, New Bern’s Jews were well integrated into white society despite not being “as old, large, or well established as Wilmington Jewry,” Rogoff writes. “Newspaper columns record Jews attending elite social events even as white-black tensions grew.”

In his 2011 essay, “A Tale of Two Cities: Race, Riots, and Religion in New Bern and Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898,” for the Southern Jewish History Journal, Rogoff says that some Jews acted heroically that Election Day in defense of Black suffrage. Republican Joseph Hahn of New Bern was one of them. Hahn was elected register of deeds in 1892 and sheriff of Craven County in 1894, both with overwhelming Black support. Hahn was also co-owner of a livery, bakery and dry-goods store and had several tenant farms leased to African Americans.

Hahn was a particular target of white supremacist Democrats across North Carolina, mainly for an incident in which, as sheriff, he and his all-Black crew of deputies chained together Black and white prisoners—including white Democrats—and transported them from the New Bern jail to Central Prison in Raleigh.

The racist Raleigh News & Observer newspaper printed a news story with the headline, “CHAINED TO A NEGRO,” as well as a racist cartoon of Hahn. The newspaper quoted Hahn saying, “when I got ready to leave I picked out the blackest negro in the bunch to chain [the white man] to.” Hahn and his family were regularly decried as “miserable scoundrels,” race traitors and worse.

As Election Day 1898 approached, Rogoff writes, Hahn and several family members, some present or former office holders, addressed a number of rallies at the Craven County Courthouse. At one, Hahn “stood before hundreds of African American Republicans urging them to fight” to defend their right to vote. The New Bern Daily Journal described an election eve rally of hundreds of Black voters at which Hahn, accompanied by three of his family members, “advised the negroes to be quiet on election day, but if white men ‘insulted’ them ‘to beat them like the devil the next day.’” A subsequent letter to the editor, under the headline “Did Hahn Mean It?”  and signed “SUPREMACY,” stated, “What I want to know is, whether a man in Craven county can give such advice to negroes without being in danger.”

Unlike the coup in nearby Wilmington, there was no explosion of violence in New Bern, and Republicans held onto control of Craven County. Hahn remained in office until 1899, when he was forced to resign by a new white supremacist county commission. No harm came to him, and in 1904 he was elected president of his local B’nai B’rith lodge.

“In the 1898 North Carolina elections Democrat Fishblate and Republican Hahn spanned the political spectrum,” Rogoff writes. “Their politics and racial attitudes were as varied as those of their white Christian neighbors.”

In both Wilmington and New Bern, Rogoff writes, “The Jewish involvement, which has been little noted, sheds light on the contentious issues of the Jews’ racial identity, social accommodation, and relations with African Americans.”

For Fishblate, the former mayor, it could have been an obsessive desire to assimilate socially and retain his political viability. For Hahn it might have political expediency, shoring up his electoral base.

“Then as now, Jews differed among themselves when it came to politics,” said Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis American Jewish history professor and author of American Judaism: A History and When General Grant Expelled the Jews. “Fishblate, like so many Southerners, was a Democrat. Hahn, by contrast, daringly supported the Fusion Movement, which brought together White Populists and African American Republicans in an effort to overturn racist Democratic rule.  Both men had German Jewish roots, and both read the same Bible.  But the lessons they learned from their heritage could not have been more different.”

Even the Jewish press of the day was divided, sometimes along regional lines, over the Wilmington uprising. The Richmond-based Jewish South defended Wilmington’s Democratic insurrectionists, implicitly including Fishblate and Jacobi, as little more than reform progressives. “The struggle for white supremacy in North Carolina was not a race war,” the paper argued in an editorial. “It was simply an organized effort to exchange a bad government for a good one.”

But in Philadelphia, the Jewish Exponent took the position that the Wilmington violence hearkened to the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia’s Pale of Settlement of two decades past. Frank Cohen of Atlanta’s Jewish Sentiment responded that such comparisons were a product of a “deformed opinion” regarding the “negro question” by Northern Jews. Education, the Jewish South claimed, had only made African Americans “immoral and dishonest.” As for the violent coup, it wrote, “Let us be thankful that the people of Wilmington have a good, clean government at last.”

Wilmington’s legacy was malignant, Rogoff writes. By the election of 1900, two years after the Wilmington coup, North Carolina’s Black voters were effectively disenfranchised.

By contrast, fast forward to contemporary North Carolina. Synagogues have teamed up with the ACLU to combat Republican suppression efforts, partnering with African American churches for “Souls to the Polls” efforts to mobilize Black voters on the Sunday immediately preceding Election Day.

In 2001, an estimated 1,200 Jews lived in the southeastern portion of North Carolina, at which Wilmington was the center, and New Bern was on the periphery. Today, most Wilmington Jews appear to be Democratic. A smaller cadre of Republicans, who lean Orthodox, have left the Conservative synagogue and affiliated with Chabad. The new chair of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, Jill Hopman, is Jewish.

And what do today’s Jewish residents of Wilmington think of Fishblate and Hahn’s respective–and disparate–legacies? “As a Jew growing up in Wilmington in the 1950s and 1960s, I don’t recall the events of 1898 ever being mentioned in school,” says Randolph J. May, a prominent Washington, DC, attorney. May notes that his grandfather and great uncle arrived in Wilmington in 1905 and were two of the ten founders of  B’nai Israel Congregation, still in existence today. “I don’t recall anyone in the Jewish community ever mentioning the events of 1898 or Fishblate or Hahn,” he says.

On August 1, led by the officers of the Democratic Party, including Hopman, some 250 predominantly white demonstrators showed up in Wilmington to oppose the attempt by right wing-activists to have the New Hanover County school board ban the book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.

Their message, echoing through history: “We Won’t Go Back!”

Durham-based journalist and author Mark I. Pinsky first wrote about the Jews of Wilmington in the 1898 uprising in 2007.

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