Wilmington Insurrection or Coup Lesson Plan for US History

For years, I ended my unit on Reconstruction by teaching about the controversial election of 1876 leading to the Compromise of 1877. The Democrats' "corrupt bargain" allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to be declared the winner in exchange for Union troops to be pulled out of the South. 

This led directly to the Jim Crow Era of the South. The Jim Crow Era was when racial segregation was legalized, African Americans were disenfranchised, and white supremacists controlled governments across the South.

I realized recently that a case study of how dramatic these changes were for people in the South would be a powerful lesson to conclude the unit with. Following the Jan. 6th insurrection at the Capitol (I have a lesson for this here), I came across an article about the only "successful" coup or insurrection in US History.

I couldn't believe I had never heard of it before, but I dove into learning all I could about what happened at Wilmington, NC in 1898 and created this lesson plan on it for my students.

As the US neared the turn of the 20th century, in many ways Wilmington was a place of hope for Black Americans after Reconstruction. It was a majority Black city with modern electric lights, streetcars, dozens of successful Black-owned businesses. However, a series of tragic events led to devastating violence after the election of 1898 and forever changed the city and state.

In the years before this, Republicans and Populists joined forces for a "fusion coalition" that led to victories across the state and the Democratic Party losing power. In 1898, furious white supremacists conspired to fix the election and then formed a mob that  overthrew Wilmington's legitimately elected biracial fusionist government at gunpoint.

Black-owned homes and businesses were destroyed, including the city's only Black-owned newspaper, and between 60-300 Black people were killed. 

This is something that needs to be a part of a US History curriculum. 

I created this lesson plan on the Wilmington Insurrection. 

The lesson starts off with students defining the terms riot, uprising, coup d’état, insurrection. You can have them search for the terms online, use a classroom dictionary, or come up with definitions on their own. However, I always want them to be in their own words. 

After giving them a few minutes, hold a short class discussion on the differences between each term and come to class consensus on definitions. 

Next, provide students with the 2-page worksheet and introduce what happened. After reviewing the sources, they will need to decide if this event is best defined as a riot, uprising, coup d’état, or insurrection.

There are 8 sets of primary sources, each with a few short paragraphs explaining them in context. There are a few ways you can use the worksheets and sources:

  • As stations set up around your room that students move through individually, in pairs, or small groups.
  • Provided to students at tables to analyze together.
  • Worked on individually at student desks with the documents are passed around.
  • Online with laptops using the included Google Slides and Google Docs

After kids have analyzed all the sources, they should move on to the conclusion and explain why they selected that description for what happened based on the facts.  

You can then have a class discussion about which term students selected and why.

There's also a few great video links included in the lesson that can be used as well and provide great context to what happened in Wilmington. 

This is a powerful lesson and one that will help students to clearly see how tragic the end of Reconstruction was for people of color in the South. 

You can download the complete lesson plan plus all the worksheets, answer key, and Google versions right here. The lesson is also available as part of my Reconstruction Unit Plan Bundle here

You can also access the lesson, plus the entire Reconstruction unit, and EVERY other unit in US History with a Students of History subscription. Subscribing grants you immediate access to the entire US History curriculum with lesson plans and resources for the entire school year. 




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