The Life of Alexander L. Manly
Like many children of former slaves, Alexander L. Manly (1866-1944) was partially descended from a slave-owner. Born in North Carolina, Manly was reportedly the grandson of Charles Manly, who after emigrating from England had become the governor of North Carolina in 1849. Manly studied printing at Hampton University, and then settled in Wilmington, where he and his brothers established The Wilmington Daily Record, at the time perhaps the only daily newspaper run by African-Americans in the country.
In August 1898, Manly published an editorial as a response to a white-owned paper’s racially charged article. Manly printed his op-ed piece at a politically and racially divisive time preceding the 1898 North Carolina elections. After losing political control of the state to an interracial coalition of Black Republicans and White Populists in 1896, Democrats had determined to regain power in the upcoming November 10, 1898 state elections, thereby thwarting Black enfranchisement and solidifying their white-supremacist agenda. In order to stave off another political defeat, Wilmington Democrats planned to stir as many as 2,000 members of the white population to riot, employing violence to intimidate Black voters and essentially seize power from the city government, slated to be in power for another year. Focusing their rage on him because of his editorial, the mob descended upon Manly’s office in order to destroy it, and lynch him. Milo recalled hearing from his father:
“It was a planned deal. And the result of this riot was a few people got killed. All sorts of things happened at that time. The Negroes, to escape the mob shootings and so forth, left. My father and a friend, who was a part of the newspaper got in my father’s buggy, which of course, the Cadillac of the day, horse and buggy, and they headed out of town. But the mob that had been set up had put a circle around the town…because they were coming in to lynch ‘this nigger, Manly.’” – Milo Manly, 1984
The mob killed approximately twenty-five Black people during the insurrection, although some estimate that hundreds died. Fortunately, for Manly, a white friend warned him about the plot on his life. Because of his European heritage, he was able to pass for white, which helped aid his escape.
“Well, a German grocer, who knew my father…got in touch with my father, and says, ‘Look, you’ve got to get out of town.’ He says, ‘Now, they don’t know who you are or what you are.’ Said, ‘This gang, there’s all these people out there, but they’ve lined it up that nobody can leave the vicinity of this area, with this cordon, unless they have a certain password.’ He said, ‘Now, if it ever got known that I gave you the password, they’d kill me. But I know you. I trust you. I want you to get out of here.’ He gave my father the password. My father… come up the line. They stopped him. ‘Where are you going?’ He said—named a town up there. ‘What are you going up there for?’ ‘Going up there to buy some horses,’ he said, ‘There’s an auction up there.’ Or something like that. ‘Oh, all right.’ He gave the password. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘But if you see that nigger Manly up there, shoot him.’ And they gave him two rifles. That’s right. Off away he went.” – Milo Manly, 1984
The Wilmington Riot gained national attention, and it directly resulted in Black disenfranchisement by requiring measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests, and the establishment of Jim Crow laws. Like Manly, thousands of Blacks fled North Carolina to seek refuge and employment in the North.
Soon after fleeing, Manly made his way to Washington D. C. and then to Philadelphia where he worked as a painting contractor and participated in the establishment in 1906 of the Armstrong Association, a forerunner of the National Urban League, created to broaden employment opportunities for skilled African-American building trade workers from the South.
“And my father, who had given them the idea, they decided to call it the Armstrong Association, named for Colonel [Samuel Chapman] Armstrong, who set up—organized and put together Hampton. My father had come from Hampton, and since it was a school set up to train mechanics, they felt that that would be a good tribute to Armstrong, and that’s why it was called the Armstrong Association.” – Milo Manly, 1984
During the Great Migration, Manly worked as a labor agent to help ease the transition of black laborers from the South. Sent south by the Armstrong Association, Manly used his experience and education in dealing with local ministers, who would recruit the laborers. Here again, Milo recalled, his light complexion helped him travel.
“They needed labor. So it was decided my father would take a swing around through the South because he had contacts, of course, from his days of being editor and owner of a newspaper in the South. And so he made a tour. And then on top of that, my father looked like a white man. Nobody would expect anything … he was accepted anywhere he went.” – Milo Manly, 1984
In the 1920s, Manly remained active with the Armstrong Association and authored articles on its activities for Opportunity. He suffered the loss of his painting and decorating contracting business in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, and he died in 1944. He utilized the tools at his disposal—his education, his experience, and even his appearance—in order to better the lot of African Americans from his native South, and in his adopted home of Philadelphia.